I was intrigued when I first heard about the Women on Walls portrait commission. It instantly appealed to me as I am generally interested in science and therefore I could relate to the subjects. I thought they had great faces and looked like really interesting people. I also really liked the idea that young women visiting the RIA would see portraits of women and feel inspired and motivated to pursue a career in any area they want and would feel that their contribution to society would be recognised. There should be no question about these women having their portraits displayed – I think this should have happened for them long ago.
After finding out more about the commission I knew that I wanted to paint the four First Female Members of the Royal Irish Academy. I prefer painting individual portraits as they are about that one person and trying to capture the essence of them. The research process was not just about looking at their profession but also what sort of person they were. I really wanted to find out about their lives and their personalities - about who they really were.
When preparing my submission, I decided that I would like to use oil on canvas for the four portraits. This commission is special, as it has to be done entirely from photos. Rather than exactly copying one image, I usually use several photos for reference, creating a less static portrait that captures characteristics from all the visual material. To reflect on the black and white photos, I would keep the skin colours slightly muted and set the subjects against a darker background. I would use visual elements of their chosen fields and turn them into a subtle tonal pattern in the background. While the composition and colour range would be similar in all four portraits this pattern would distinguish them from each other and pay tribute to their achievements. I prepared a sketch showing Sheila Tinney in front of a face-centred cubic lattice which would have been relevant to her work in mathematical physics.
Original sketch of Sheila Tinney supplied with submission
I was delighted to be awarded the commission and was very exciting about starting my research on the four women. What I found out about them was really interesting. They really were very special women with so much determination and dedication. They must have been even better than many of the men at that time to succeed the way they did. After the first meeting with Accenture and the RIA, the families and friends of the subjects were sent initial sketches and asked for their thoughts. Getting their feedback was invaluable. For example, Sheila Tinney’s daughter was able to tell me about the sort of clothes her mother wore. Based on this I changed the initial draft and the new colours turned out to suit her much better. Some relatives were also kind enough to share their personal family photos with me, which showed weddings, holidays and the women with their children. It was incredibly interesting to see these images as they were showing a completely different side of the women, which helped me to form a more complete picture of who they really were. Françoise Henry was quite difficult to draw initially as there was only one photo of her at the time but throughout the process more photos turned up. Haven gotten feedback from the families, I really felt obliged to get each portrait right and do them justice.
The commission has been harder than I initially thought it would be. Usually you meet the subject, but for this project I had to do a lot of detailed research which was a new experience for me. I had to become familiar with using the necessary resources like reading journals from their respective fields in the National Library. I found research on Eleanor Knott particularly hard as I don’t speak any Irish, but I got a lot of help from two wonderful women from Trinity College Dublin.
Updated sketch of Sheila Tinney as process continued
Initially I had planned to keep the colours muted, as it can be difficult to paint colours from black and white photos. However, as I was painting I stopped noticing that they were black and white and the colour happened which was an unexpected but natural progression.
At this stage, I am starting the last portrait and then I will send a photo to each of the friends and families for them to review. Hopefully I will only need to make minor adjustments based on their feedback. I have found this project to be challenging, yet extremely rewarding as I get to know these women and understand more about their personalities. They didn’t get the acknowledgement they deserved at the time so it’s only right that they are being recognised for their achievements now. I am nervous but excited about showing the finished portraits to the families and friends of these four amazing women and I hope that they approve. I have been very fortunate to work on really interesting portraits but Women on Walls will always be one that remains close to my heart.