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Painting from an old photograph

Updated: Apr 25, 2020

This month I have been working on a portrait of someone I know very well but the photograph I was given didn't, at first glance, have much resemblance to the man I know today.



This portrait isn't finished yet. It's of my Grandad, John Finch. He is 95 and he has been asking me for a number of years to paint a portrait of him in the merchant Navy. I have spent a number of years studying the photograph (below) trying to look for some resemblance to the man I know today but until recently the photograph simply baffled me.

I attempted it a number of years ago but I stopped halfway out of frustration, I couldn't recognise my Grandad in the photograph or the painting I had made.

There is always some pressure when making a portrait, you want the painting to look like the subject but when you paint someone you know you are more aware of their character and have the addition of wanting to reflect the characteristics you are familiar with.

One of the reasons I initially struggled with painting him is that the photograph is highly exposed making it hard to work out where his feature stop and start. The colours are also very muted except for the places where colour has been painted on afterwards (his medal is a good example).


But most of all is the fact that I have only known my grandad as an older man and for as long as I can remember he has always carried the same iconic look, which over the years have made him very easy to identify. Im not sure if the William Shakespeare haircut is a look that people ask for at the barbers or whether it just happens all by itself but my Grandad has been pulling it off for years. So when i look at the photograph below I have had to try and see past the ingrained image i have of him and look a little closer.

It wasn't until I had made quite considerable headway with the painting that I began to find some of the characteristics that identify him as my grandad. As I have been painting, different family members have bobbed up their heads. I realised he shares a very similar mouth and chin to his sister, my great aunt who passed away a few years ago. My grandads eyes are green and I noticed that if the shade I chose leaned more towards blue I would see my dad starting back at me and if I used more brown I could see a resemblance to my uncle.


It has been a really unique opportunity to paint my grandad, it has also lead to some really interesting conversations. He is going to send me some pictures of the medals he received after this photo was taken so that I can add them on to his uniform.


He told me that the painting looks more like him than the photograph, I could pass this comment off as just sentimentality towards a grandchild however i am inclined to believe him because only now can I see him in the photograph.


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