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PORTRAIT OF XIAO YUAN SHOU
(My wife’s father)

 

Xiao Yuan Shou by Piers Williams, 2019. Oil on cherry, 35cm x 26.2cm

Last year my wife asked me to paint a portrait of her father who is now 93. Free from my other commitments I was able to start in February and it was finished and framed ready for us to take to China by the end of March. Before I started I thought about what I felt were the best portraits ever painted and for me they are early medieval Flemish, like Van Eyck, Hans Memling, (and some Italian ones as well of course). These are usually small, with the heads often no more than 7 inches high. They are just like looking at a real person.

Here is one of my favourites, it is of a woman known as Sibylla Sambetha, by Hans Memling painted in 1480. I always stand in front of it when I go to Bruges and often forget I am not looking at a real woman, who probably died 500 years ago- it can bring tears to my eyes.

Sibylla Sambetha by Hans Memling, 1480.
Oil on oak, 38cm x 26.5cm

Although my painting may not be as ambitious or as good as the one above, I used the same layered technique that was used by the Flemish (so called) Primitives. First a tonal painting in brown (see below), followed up with layers of colour; so 4 or 5 layers in some places. It is a time-consuming process, but in my view necessary to achieve a good result. You can’t rush this kind of painting.

First two layers : tonal underpainting
in brown (brunaille) of Xiao Yuan Shou

When we arrived in Beijing my wife’s brother picked us up from the airport. He didn’t know about the painting of his father. When we showed it to him he became very quiet. I noticed tears were rolling down his cheeks. He said, you have captured all the stages in my father’s life in this painting.

I realise that the emotion came because his father, who he so close to, is now so old and frail. I am so proud though, that I was at least able to get something of a likeness.

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