When I recently sat for my portrait by Humphrey Ocean RA, the experience was both familiar and alien. After all, I have spent years looking at portraits, talking to artists, visiting their studios and writing about them. I have known Humphrey since he became an RA in 2004. And he sits on the RA Magazine board, his conversation is infectious and we have spent hours discussing art, life and the universe.
But I never knew what it was like to be the subject of a work of art, to sit still, keep quiet and be painted, until now. It came about during the recent redesign of the RA Magazine: our new art director, Luke Hayman, suggested we use an Royal Academician’s portrait of me for the Editorial picture, instead of inserting a standard photograph. So in the middle of a busy week finalising the magazine, I made my way down to Humphrey’s out-of-the-way studio in an industrial estate in West Dulwich, not quite knowing what to expect, secretly hoping it wouldn’t take too long because work deadlines were piling up.
Luckily, walking into Humphrey’s studio is like entering another dimension. Sun streams in through the wall of windows, a fantastic mix of pop music plays gently on his iPod, and everywhere I look is light and colour, paintings spread on the walls and floors in anticipation of his forthcoming NPG show, and the tools of his trade – gouaches, brushes, paper and easel, along with the tin plates he uses as palettes and water for mixing paints – set up and ready to go.
Humphrey Ocean RA's two portraits of Sarah Greenberg, in his studio.
I think my tension and slight nervousness must have shown in my face because Humphrey sat me down, popped a cold drink in my hand and the hypnotic sound of his voice, combined with the aura of the studio calmed my nerves. After all, being painted is a rather unusual experience and I was full of questions. What should I wear? Humphrey calls his portrait sessions a ‘come-as-you-are-party’, so I wore a dress in my favourite colour. Was I supposed to do anything? Should I pose? Humphrey said, ‘do whatever you would naturally do’. Could I correct page proofs of the magazine, as I was on a tight deadline? ‘Of course’. And sitting there with no distractions (Humphrey doesn’t talk when he paints), mesmerized by the music, I focused entirely on my work, accomplishing far more than I usually do in an hour and a half. That is what Humphrey revealed in this portrait – not necessarily my likeness, but a certain energy, a moment from life – after all, this is what I do all day. When he finished, it seemed natural but perhaps also a little surprising that I am not looking at the viewer in the picture. Humphrey talks about ‘releasing’ something in a portrait, rather than ‘capturing’ it, and that seems to have occurred in this portrait.
Humphrey suggested we break for lunch and then do another portrait that showed my face. So after he prepared a lovely makeshift ploughman’s lunch in the studio, I sat down again in front of his easel, face up this time. There are few opportunities left in life to simply sit quietly and stare out the window for over an hour – it was such a break from my normally frenetic life, almost like meditation, that I went into a kind of a trance, tapping away to the music, mind going blank. The resulting portrait, we both agreed, looks more like me but it has an expression that neither of us recognized, perhaps because I rarely appear so relaxed, as though I am doing nothing. It is flattering but it doesn’t release the same energy or focus as the first. ‘It may look like you but it’s not as good a picture,’ was Humphrey’s verdict.