top of page

Painting Jane Goodall

Updated: Apr 25

The winner’s commission for Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year 2023, Series 10

I’m not usually one for new years resolutions but 2023 was the year I decided to try and get my art out of the studio and into the big wide world! January was a busy month work-wise but I managed to get a couple of submissions off and in a momentary lapse of reason sent off an application to Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year... not thinking for one minute I’d get in… However, this was to become the very beginning of an exciting white-knuckle ride of paint, celebrities and ticking clocks, all under the scrutiny of the cameras, the public and 3 very discerning judges who I held in high esteem. No pressure then!

During the competition, I had the privilege of painting some incredibly talented celebrity faces, including opera singer Nicky Spence, Spice girl Emma Bunton and finally the familiar face of Portrait Artist of the Year presenter, Joan Bakewell. I had noted that she turned 90 in April - surely someone needed to paint her portrait - little was I to know!   

Winning the competition, and with it a commission to paint conservationist and environmental campaigner, Dr Dame Jane Goodall for the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London was an opportunity which I could have only ever dreamed about and this is my story…

The build up

From the moment that I was told I was going to paint Dr Jane Goodall, I knew I was in for an absolute treat. She had the perfect face to paint and boy, did she have an interesting story. I knew this was going to be a painting adventure of a lifetime and that excitement helped to carry me through the pressure of making a painting of an incredible person for one of the most prestigious art galleries in the world.

I knew that preparation was going to be key in the process especially as I knew my working method had to work around carefully organised sittings involving film and production crews, time-lapse cameras and Jane’s limited availabilty.

(First image: Charcoal drawing made using an image by Guerin Blask, The New York Times, as reference. Second image: Charcoal drawing made using an image by Jillian Edelstein, Camera Press, as reference.)

Charcoal drawing made using an image by Martin Schoeller, as reference.
Charcoal drawing made using an image by Martin Schoeller, as reference.

In the few weeks before meeting Jane, I familiarised myself  with everything about her from looking at photographic portraits, listening to Jane’s pod casts, watching films and even attending a talk she gave. I needed to get to know her as a person as well as her appearance on the screen. I started by making a few large charcoal drawings whist listening to her Hope Casts.

These charcoal drawings helped me to familiarise myself with the structure of Jane’s face and the shape of her features. I have a strong background of observational drawing and so I am fairly good at getting a likeness, however, this exercise to familiarise myself with Jane, would give me a better chance of creating a successful portrait of her.

In the process of filming, I made a trip to the National Portrait Gallery to meet with Sarah Howgate, Senior Curator of Contemporary Commissions. Seeing the gallery where my painting was going to hang was a very surreal experience especially when I realised I would have a painting hanging alongside those of some real painting heroes of mine. Sarah was really helpful in giving me a pretty open brief and her suggestion of painting just a head and shoulders portrait was music to my ears.

The Sittings 

Jane Goodall is well known for her work outside in the natural world and so the first sitting in the garden of her family home was a great setting, especially when I realised that this was the garden where she grew up as a child. The Beech tree in the garden was one and the same tree that she spent many an inquisitive hour in, way up in the highest boughs. It was part of her early formation of studying from the natural world and this was actively encouraged by her Mum.

I had familiarised myself with the ‘on screen’ Jane so now, by meeting her face-to-face, I had a better chance of finding out who the ‘real’ Jane was. 

Jane was everything I’d hoped for and more. I had already heard that she was a reticent sitter for a portrait and this made sense to me as someone who prefers to be the observer and not the observed. As a scientist I imagine she is more interested in looking outwards into the world than back at herself. Empathy and openness can be the key to making a great portrait. Luckily Jane and I seemed to make a connection and she soon became a very engaging and generous sitter. 

Jane is a story teller and although drawing from an animated sitter during a conversation is not necessarily that conducive to an accurate drawing, it brings other things to the artistic process. Portraiture that has a two way relationship stands a much better chance of success. I saw the inquisitiveness, the spark in the eye, the sense of humour and the humanity of Jane, engaging directly with me. I knew I needed to keep that vision and feeling and get it into the painting somehow.

Our second sitting was in the Natural Science Society in Bournemouth and this was a chance to meet and draw Jane in a different environment. I knew that I had so much good information from the first sitting that this was a chance to get to know her more and question the ideas I’d already formed about which direction I would like the portrait to take. Jane’s ability to talk about her life was completely engaging and was a wonderful backdrop for me to listen and observe whilst pushing paint around on a canvas.

By the end of the two sessions I felt that I had met the ‘real’ Jane. This was someone who managed to get a very strong message out to the world just using her kindness, compassion and inspiring stories. In doing what she does, she has become an icon of hope to an increasingly fractured world. She is also someone without an ego and connects to all around her on a deep human level. Strong ideas for the portrait had been made… now I just had to paint it!  

The final commission 

(From left to right; Small oil sketch study in preparation of the final piece to help work out the background, Small oil sketch study in preparation of the final piece to help work out the background, Working drawing for the final painting)

Once I had all the sketches, photos and ideas that had been formulated, I started by roughly sketching out compositions in a sketchbook. From there I worked on charcoal drawings to the size which I imagined the final painting to be. Small sketches when enlarged sometimes don’t work and give the impact needed and so this is a great way to test out ideas.

Jane is someone who is very open and honest and always looks you straight in the eye. The portrait had to do that as well as telling her whole story in her face. Jane is humble about her appearance and her iconic status and because of that, she wasn’t someone who demanded a large portrait.The size had to say ‘icon’ but touch people on a very human level at the same 

The charcoal drawings that I made seemed to create more questions about the final piece. This is where gut feelings now had to come into play and I chose to go with a direct face-to-face pose. I was now ready to put paint into canvas.

The first drawing in paint onto the canvas is the part of the painting process that I like the most.  The observation, the ‘working out’, the finding interesting shapes and relationships, the rubbing out, the re-working and the mark making. It is also the time when I need to stay open… this first part of the painting process would be a strong scaffold for the rest of the painting. 

The final portrait is a culmination of all the information I had gathered about Jane that I knew were needed in order to tell her story. It had to tell her history but also place her very much in the here and now. A person who demonstrated her strength and determination through kindness, compassion and hope for planet earth and everything that lives in it.

The portrait shows Jane in her natural environment, outside amongst nature, connecting and observing the world - as well as you, the viewer. The background is a nod to her childhood days high up in the boughs of the Beech tree where her interest in nature was formed and where she now sees as ‘home’.

Just before Christmas, I got to take my granddaughter Robin up to the National Portrait Gallery to see the portrait. Proud moment :)

My next blog will talk about the competition itself, but if you are thinking about applying this year, here are my top tips:

1. Read blogs: I read the blogs of Peter James Field, Amy Dury. The blogs of Gail Reid who I was lucky enough to meet in the semis give an excellent write up too.

2. Read Katherine Tyrell’s ‘Making a Mark’ blog.

I found this REALLY helpful for my preparation as it gave a detailed account of dates, timings and what to expect on the day. Also full of tips about what she thinks the judges look for. I think I would only question her on a couple of points. She seems to advocate on creating larger pieces of artwork and encourages contestants to up their size of support. I think Katherine is right that you need to push yourself but this can be pushing your process and not necessarily the size of your support. I would also question the importance of including hands in a portrait. A good portrait CAN be just about the head. Saying this, it’s important to think about the hands - and indeed the rest of the body - even if you’re not including them in your artwork.

And if you get through...

3. Practice, practice and practice some more. I would strongly advise that you attend as many in-person life/portrait classes as you can or ask someone to sit for you.

4. Practice getting an acceptable portrait completed in 3 hours and from a distance of about 12ft.

5. You get one hour for lunch but you are allowed to paint during your lunch break (after you’ve eaten in the green room). I found that this 45mins was SO valuable as there is no audience or production team to interrupt you.

6. Be confident with your process. I found that it was hard to focus sometimes but some of my main principles came through and kept me on the straight and narrow.

7. If you are painting from life, use a tablet or phone to take an image of the actual pose. I am an artist who needs to constantly observe my sitter. There are times during the process that a camera or a person from the production team is standing in your direct line of view. Having a photo of the actual pose means that you can carry on and not waste precious time. Also remember that the sitters are celebrities and not professional sitters - you may be having to paint a constantly moving target.

8. Have fun. The production team are THE most supportive and friendly people - they want you at your most relaxed despite the stressful circumstances. The whole team made everyone feel like royalty.

The deadline for entering has just been extended from 2nd February until noon on 5th February and here is the link:

523 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All

1 Comment

Nancy Brown
Nancy Brown
Jun 09

You are an incredible artist! Thank you!!!

bottom of page