Thursday, June 18, 2009

Sue Rubira makes her mark on BP Portrait

Sue Rubira with her portrait of her mother Maggie
oil on canvas, 1020 x 760mm (40" x 29")
copyright the artist / photo copyright Katherine Tyrrell

When I walked into the exhibition of the BP Portrait Award 2009, one of the very first paintings I saw - from across the room and about 30 feet away - was a painting of Maggie by her daughter Sue Rubira. I was so pleased! We'd had an email discussion about the BP Portrait Award after I'd seen her watercolour painting of Maggie in the show at the Bankside Gallery, after which I wrote
I also very much liked Sue Rubira's giant and striking face of "Maggie". You can see the finished version on her blog here and also see stages on the blog posts prior to that. Given that one of her previous paintings came second in the 2006 Singer and Friedlander (watercolour) competition, I'm rather expecting to see another of Sue's excellent portraits winning a prize at the BP Portrait Award exhibition at the NPG
Making A Mark (2nd March 2007) - 21st Century Watercolours at Bankside Gallery
Sue and I subsequently exchanged emails about how it was sad that the BP Portrait didn't accept watercolour paintings. I expressed a hope that I'd one day one see one of her portraits - in oil - in the BP portrait exhibition.

Two years later, that hope was fulfilled and the portrait is brilliant!

It was a huge pleasure for me to meet with Sue for the very first time yesterday morning. It's always so nice to be put a face to the artist behind a painting and an email address!

She told me a little bit about how she works. The portrait is of her mother Maggie and was painted from life (ie no photos!) in two months - working most days. Fortunately her studio is very near to where her mother lives which made life much simpler for both model and artist!
I don't want it to look like a photo! ......My Mum had to put up with my face in her face all the time - two inches from hers - while I studied each part of her face.
Sue Rubira
Sue's camera is her sketchbook and she starts her portraits by taking hundreds of photos - without using flash - to sort out pose and lighting. Using a digital camera she can produce the design, the set-up, placement on the canvas and the position of the model in relation to natural lighting. In this instance her Mum was top-lit from a skylight. Sue explained that the photos are then put away and she starts to create the portrait using Michael Harding handmade oil paint and painting from life every day. As she explained, it was the way she was taught. When she was a student (at Bristol and the Royal College of Art) she was never allowed to use a camera to develop her art so she had to develop her skills in painting from life. Which, for me, is a very cogent explanation of why Sue's work is so good!

I'm also very impressed with Sue's Mum for being so patient during the sittings! Greater love hath no Mum than when she sits for her child!

What was fascinating is that although this portrait is highly realistic in a classical way, it seemed to attract a lot of very positive comments about Maggie in terms of being a somewhat generic Mum. For example, Josef from the Pollocks blog said it reminded him an awful lot of his Mum!

You can see how Sue developed this painting on her blog
What I like most about this painting is the way it celebrates the art of painting. It's highly realistic but at no point looks like a photograph when you see it in the gallery - it looks like and is a painting.

...and painting people rather than photographing them and copying photographs is, after all, what the BP Portrait Award is all about.


  1. Katherine: Thank you for posting this and thank you to Sue for giving us such a stunning work. I am in awe of Sue's rendering of her mother's eyes - reflected back to the artist is the love of her mother - wow!

    A photograph might never have caught that inner emotion of the subject from the daily sittings and the artist knowing every nook and cranny of the face. Although the painting would still have been stunning without that captured emotion it might have missed that extra sparkle that only a mother's love can do. I'm so very glad Sue caught it in her work.

  2. Wow - I'm speechless. Thank you for this wonderful post!

  3. How nice to discover your blog, Katherine. I am yet to go and see the BP Portrait exhibition and you have given me some interesting insights. I am so happy that such exhibitions still do exist in the age of rampant abstractionism, and display continuous high standards. I am humbly waving the flag for the traditional painting skills wherever I can.
    I also have exhibited with the S.O.F.A. in the past. If it's not too late for this year I might do it again.
    Thanks for your efforts.

  4. Isn't Sue Rubira's work astonishingly observed? I did a post about her 'Maggie' portrait as well - but I didn't realise the model was her own mother - should have really as the portrait shows what's behind the eyes as well.

    I like your site - will be lurking - a lot!

  5. The painting of Maggie is so striking even with all the bits and pieces of aging. Very brave of mom to allow such a realistic look at her in all her older glory. I can't imagine sitting for such a long time even at a younger age. I love the look in her eyes. Seems as though she was looking back at her daughter as focused as the daughter was focused on her.

    Hey Katherine. My blog made it thru 3 years now.


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