‘Oh my god, I am beautiful’: the people who pay to have their portrait painted | Australian lifestyle

They’re the artwork the public rarely sees: the custom personal portraits hanging in homes, maybe above a mantelpiece, in a study or a bedroom; images of ourselves, family and other loved ones, sometimes even our pets.

With selfies available to anyone with a smartphone and professional photography affordable and accessible, the desire for a painted portrait speaks to the pull of tradition and its unique process – the artist’s interpretation of the subject that often reveals more than just a likeness.

“There’s something that happens in that closeness, that one-on-one contact,” says Joanna Gilmour, a curator at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra. “You can’t define it or quantify it.”

The popularity of portraiture prizes, including the Archibald and the Darling, as well as the success of the ABC TV series Anh’s Brush with Fame, confirms that the artform is here to stay. “We’re hardwired to respond to people whether we like it or not, and portraits have such an effective way of [tapping into] that,” Gilmour says. “It is an incredibly accessible genre.”

While we love to look at portraits, commissioning one is another thing entirely. Portrait commission fees can range from $5,000 to $20,000 and beyond, depending on the scope of the work, materials used, process and time commitment, as well as the artist’s profile.

Few portraitists in Australia experience enough demand to make it a full-time occupation. Even Ralph Heimans, whose Portraiture. Power. Influence exhibition now at the National Portrait Gallery includes paintings of Queen Mary of Denmark, King Charles III and Dame Judi Dench, had to leave Australia to make a go of it.

Although it might be niche, Gilmour has no doubt the personal portrait will endure. “People commission a portrait because they want an image of the people they love and admire. They’ve been making portraits for those reasons for as long as portraits have been made.”

Here three Australians share the painted portraits that hang in their homes – and the stories behind them.

‘I became fascinated about how it might look’

Wendy Brown’s reaction to her husband’s desire to commission a portrait of her wasn’t initially positive. She was horrified. “It’s my worst nightmare,” the surgeon says.

The idea came to her husband, the Melbourne art collector and property developer Andrew Cook, out of a desire to express his love for his wife and admiration for her achievements. Brown eventually came around to the idea. “I guess I became a bit fascinated about how it might look,” she says.

Cook knew Yvette Coppersmith’s portrait work, and says he was struck by how so much comes through her works. “You feel like you’re getting a glimpse of someone’s interior life.” He contacted Coppersmith’s gallery and, after the Archibald prize-winning artist met the couple, she accepted the commission.

Yvette Coppersmith worked on the portrait of Wendy Brown over the course of a year. Photograph: Nadir Kinani/The Guardian

Over the following months, Coppersmith compiled a dossier of reference points from historical paintings for inspiration and spent hours with Brown experimenting with different poses, clothing, colours and facial expressions.

The process took about a year while Coppersmith worked around other commissions and exhibitions. “That time allows you to problem solve. It may not take 12 months to paint, but it takes 12 months for things to settle,” says Coppersmith.

The portrait shows a side of Brown that is very different from her medical persona. An “intimacy”, Coppersmith says, that is much more challenging to achieve in an institutional commission. “This is the self they get to have at home; it’s a visual anchor to remind you of how you like to feel.”

For Brown, it’s more than just a beautiful painting. “Yvette has taken me with her on a journey as she’s created this piece of art,” she says. “It’s been a really precious gift.”

‘The best present I’ve ever received’

‘It’s priceless’: (L-R) Siblings Arlo, Nala and Koda in front of the painting by Noni Cragg. Photograph: Mikhayla Carey

When Mikhayla Carey decided to commission a portrait of their three children for her husband, Jarwin, she knew there could only be one artist for the job. Having already painted several portraits of the extended Carey clan, the work by Bundjalung and Biripai woman and artist Noni Cragg was a family favourite.

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The portrait was planned as a Christmas surprise, so neither Jarwin nor their children knew anything about it. Carey sent Cragg multiple photos and notes about Koda, Arlo and Nala to help the artist capture the children’s personalities and connection to Gumbaynggirr Country on the New South Wales north coast where the family lives.

First Nations portraits have always played an important role in Cragg’s practice. “I want to celebrate people who historically have not been celebrated in fine art institutions – people of colour, women and gender-diverse people,” she says.

In every portrait she typically includes plants, animals and birds that are significant to her subjects and their country. For the Carey commission, that meant painting a ngarlaa, the turtle Nala was named after, and a jaawan (lyrebird) for Jarwin. She also included an Aboriginal flag and local birds and plants.

Painted in Sydney, where Cragg is based, Carey only saw the final work when the family opened the package together. “When Jarwin saw it he said, ‘This is the best present I’ve ever received.’”

The portrait hangs in the family’s dining room, and the children love showing it to visitors. Carey says Jarwin vows it’s the first object he would rescue if they ever had a house fire.

“If anything happened to it, I would be so heartbroken because I know that it will never be able to be replaced,” she says. “It’s priceless.”

‘It was very healing’

Alvis Tolcher, a former dancer, requested artist Yvonne East paint a nude portrait of her that showed her mastectomy scars

After surviving breast cancer, Avis Tolcher continued to live with the devastating psychological impact of events in her past. So when the then 60-year-old former dancer asked artist Yvonne East to paint her, she was looking for more than just a flattering likeness.

Tolcher had seen an exhibition of East’s work at the Murray Bridge Regional Gallery in South Australia and was inspired to commission a portrait of her own. “The paintings were beautiful, even if the subject matter wasn’t. I thought, maybe I could cure myself if I could see myself like that?”

Tolcher requested a nude portrait that showed her mastectomy scars, so after agreeing to the commission, East took some time to consider how she would approach the work. “For about two months, I didn’t do anything. It was a simmering, simmering, simmering. Then I woke up one morning and could see it in my mind’s eye. I rang her up and said, ‘Let’s do the sitting.’” Three days later, the portrait was finished.

Tolcher invited East and some close friends to an “unveiling” at home. When the curtain was removed, “Avis stood completely still and put her hand up to cover her mouth,” recalls East. “Everyone was quiet, and she said in a fragile but clear voice, ‘Oh my god … I am beautiful.’”

“It was very healing,” says Tolcher. “And everybody there understood just what it meant to me.”

For years, the portrait hung in her living room where visitors could see it, but after meeting her second husband, David, it now hangs above the four-poster bed he made for her. Tolcher says the painting will always be “absolutely precious” to her.

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