Five steps of the Archibald Prize

Dr John Wamsley by Kendrea Rhodes
Dr John Wamsley — Archibald Prize Entry 2006 ©2005 Kendrea Rhodes

The Art Gallery of NSW runs the Archibald Prize annually to select the best portraits of persons distinguished in either art, letters, science or politics. Rules of the competition: artist must be resident in Australia in the 12 months; artist must personally know the subject; the subject must know and agree to the entry of their portrait into the Prize; and subject must participate in at least one ‘live’ sitting.

Above is the finished entry for 2006 of Dr. John Wamsley, painted from life by Kendrea Rhodes. It didn’t make the final cut, but due to its inception, it did make a lasting friendship: Dr. Wamsley is an Australian biodiversity advocate striving to save Australian native flora and fauna, using some unusual methods at times. His current project in the Adelaide Hills is the sustenance of Wirrapunga, an endangered grassy woodland habitat in the Aldgate Valley.

Following are the steps, methods and decisions involved in this portrait:

Step 1:

  • Meet John at his home, do quick sketches, take photos – but most importantly talk. We both like red wine – good start.
  • Grid lines drawn on cartridge paper for the sketches, to get proportions right.
  • Same grid lines transferred to canvas
  • Basic facial tones blocked in
  • Paint beard white and block out later (that’s the plan at this stage)

Step 2:

  • Fill in skin and background blocks
  • Link foreground and background colours – blue/green of background, use in shadow of nose, red of cheeks used in background.
  • Refine colour detail in each block, using more flesh tones on the light source side

Step 3:

  • Block in the beard – this was a hard decision to make and frowned upon by most. After all, we love a white fluffy beard and its santa-like connotations made it almost blasphemous for me to disguise. Almost.
  • With hindsight, and from an artistic point of view, I wish I’d blocked in the lips at the same time, but from an emotional point of view, I didn’t want to stop John from speaking as there aren’t enough champions in Australia for our native flora and fauna. So I left the lips.
  • Elongate blocks in beard to imply length

Step 4:

  • Insert background greens and greys into beard linking the two areas.
  • Insert red skin tones into beard to link the two.
  • John’s face and the background both contain the colours of the Australian bush, linking the two—a conscious statement depicting the depth of his commitment to Australian flora and fauna.

Step 5:

Final product: beard trimmed and more detail painted into the blocks. Two questions arose frequently at the first exhibition:

‘why didn’t you stop then?’ & ‘why did you stop then?’

The answer being the same for both:

‘it’s hard to know when to stop, but when you’re on a deadline, you work to it. Sometimes right up to it.’