How to Help Children Sit for Portraits

Laura Gilbert chatted to painter Claire Sandars and pencil portrait artist Pamela Lloyd Jones about their advice for parents commissioning a picture of their child.

First and foremost, Pamela decreed, ‘Don’t stay in the same room as the artist and your child!’ Establishing the relationship between child and artist is of utmost importance and when alone together the young subject can ‘relax and engage their eyes’ with the sketcher.

For older children, Pamela brings along some previous work to get them interested in the drawing process but she says it’s not necessary to tell younger children that an artist is coming to sketch them. simply tell them ‘someone is coming to visit’ and avoid the emotional build-up.

Claire agrees that the experience should not be a stressful one for the young subject. ‘I really don’t like making my visit an ordeal for the child,’ she says, and goes on to discuss how our ability to sit for portraits has changed. ‘Thirty years ago, we would look bored but be fairly still,’ but now kids are simply ‘more wriggly’. For this reason, she works ‘mainly from photographs for anyone under about 10’.

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She also develops understanding of her subjects through working closely with their parents and family members, who know the child ‘so much better than I do’.

Pamela warns parents not to coach the child for the sitting and above all not to tell them to smile. ‘There is a role for happy snapshots,’ she explains, ‘and a role for portraiture.’

‘I like my subjects to look serious and almost enigmatic,’ Claire explains. ‘Parents always get drawn to the idea of having their children looking really happy and chirpy in portraits but all my most successful ones are a bit calmer. even the Laughing Cavalier was only smirking slightly. smiling and laughing portraits just look like snapshots of a moment and often look quite odd.’

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Pamela offers further practical advice for sittings: do not cut your child’s hair immediately beforehand. It makes for a different painting, with a stiffer, 1930s’ style. When children are small, they are softer and a hard hairdo undercuts this. Moreover, do not be tempted to spit and polish your little one: the more a child is preened, the more the portrait is about ‘the image of the child’, as opposed to the real son or daughter there before the artist.