official portrait commission

Provost Hannu Pietilä

The official portrait of retired Oulu University provost Hannu Pietilä was unveiled and presented to the university collection on April 18, 2013.

I had a lovely time working with Hannu Pietilä in the studio. He came to my studio to sit for three sessions. During the first session I was so nervous I didn't speak very much, and he began to fall asleep in his chair. During the other sessions I made sure to have some (not too soothing) music playing, make a lot of coffee and chat more. The project timeframe was from January to April, luckily just as the sun was returning from its northern hiatus.

Here is a photograph sequence of the portrait process:

The first session with Hannu Pietilä was focused on composition, background, model placement and underdrawing. I worked directly on the canvas with charcoal. I also took as many reference photographs as I could (it was a somewhat dark, cloudy day, so the lighting wasn't ideal). I corrected the underdrawing for proportional errors, then I beat the heck out of the charcoal with a rag so that there wouldn't be too much charcoal dust tainting the paint.

I put the first layers of paint on the face working from the reference photographs. I wanted to have the basic shapes, shadows and highlights, and colours ready on the canvas before I had Hannu Pietilä sitting in front of me again. I work slowly, and I don't like to work wet-into-wet extensively, as I find that it muddies or bleaches the colours too much

The third photograph is the background shapes and colours being added to the composition. I found inspiration for the shapes from the reference photographs as well as just staring at what's in the studio (a Ficus tree).

The fourth photograph is from after I worked on the head to define the shape and features. As this was from reference photographs, you can notice the greying or blanching of the colour palette. Even with the best light and colour balancing in a camera, it can never be a reliable substitute for a live model in natural light.

The fifth photograph was taken after the second session with Hannu Pietilä. It was then that I realised how grey the portrait had become. I was caught off guard at how much colour I had lost, and I quickly worked it back into the portrait.

The sixth and seventh photographs show the layers of paint that were added in the background and the blocking in of the forms and colours in the suit and tie.

By the time of photograph number eight, I had reached an awkward compositional situation. I had proposed and agreed upon with the university a classical head-and-shoulders portrait composition, but I had painted myself into an almost 3/4 portrait composition (which was surprising to me what with the relatively small size of the canvas). I could have stuck to the original plan, painting Hannu Pietilä into a painfully strained sitting position with arms askew, or, which seemed more aesthetically pleasing, to paint in the left hand and arm, creating a counter-focal point.

By the ninth photograph I was busy working out how much detail I needed to put in the suit and tie. I must admit that only by my third official portrait I am weary of suits of any colour. (Please someone hire me to paint a retiring career-person who doesn't wear a suit professionally, just as a refreshing interval.)

The third session with Hannu Pietilä was for me to tidy up any colour and shape questions I still had, as well as to ask if he approved of the overall progression of the composition (not everyone has to be a fan of my abstracted organic shapes).

The shapes and colour palette in the background was the biggest dilemma during the whole process. I wanted to keep it lively and colourful, but without it overshadowing the portrait. The object was to get the audience to focus on the model despite the window dressing.

And then there comes the moment when you just have to put down your tools and back slowly away from the (presumed) finished painting.

My First Commissioned Official Portrait

Rauli Svento portrait and reveal Friday September 16th, 2011, was a very exciting day for me. That afternoon was the reveal of Professor Rauli Svento's portrait, which was my very first commissioned official portrait. Or how I slipped up and described it to the Dean of the Business School as 'my first official commissioned portrait', which sounds like it was my very first commission, officially, ever. To makes things clear: it is an official, public portrait of Professor Rauli Svento, commissioned to celebrate his 60th birthday and his distinguished career at Oulu University (and he's not done yet!). It will hang in the Oulu Business School (Oulu University Linnanmaa campus, here is a link to the university posting about the event).

Professor Rauli Svento has worn many hats during his career at Oulu University: researcher, professor, Dean of Economics and Business Administration and Vice-President of Oulu University. He played a central role in building the Business School program from the ground up and as a co-creator of the Matti Ahtisaari Institute.

Professor Rauli Svento was a brilliant sitter to paint, and that superlative works in two ways: he has a very amiable and easygoing character that brought a calm focus to the painting process, and his intelligence and perceptive nature made for very interesting topics of conversation. It's not every day that I get the chance to pick the brain of a top-notch economist, what with all the global market explosions going on these days.

The portrait was composed in shades of blue, blue being Professor Rauli Svento's suggestion and preference. I  see it as a direct challenge to all those brown and muddy-grey toned portraits that can be found lurking the halls of universities and hospitals, remnants of a pseudo-cubism episode of portraiture here in Finland that just won't die.

The portrait was completed over a course of six sittings in the spring of this year. I tried to keep the light consistent by scheduling each sitting for the same time in the mid-morning. The painting was started in semi-defuse sunlight conditions, so I was thrown off one morning, near the completion of the portrait, when the sun came out from behind the clouds and light popped through two windows at once. It was a surprise (I had forgotten how spring sunlight came in the room, due to the long, miserably dark winter) and I was excited to put down new colors and highlights, but I had to stop and control the impulse to capture that specific moment of light because it would have upset the balance of the composition. Plus, people would probably have wondered at the strange light situation and ignored the subject.

Six sittings seemed like a lot of time (average 2-3 hours each) when I initially scheduled it, but it was just sufficient for painting the face. I used photographs taken at a few sessions (under different weather conditions) as references for modelling the suit, tie and backdrop in between sittings. As I couldn't step back from the portrait during the sittings (I still need a studio, surprise!), I also referred to the photographs to correct any blunders in the drawing/likeness.