André Brönnimann - Frequently Asked Questions

André Brönnimann, winner of the 2016 Adam Portraiture award spoke last week at the closing of the exhibition. He answered some of the frequently asked questions about his photo-realistic portraits. Below is a transcript of his talk.

Sisters,  André Brönnimann. Winner of The Adam Portraiture Award 2016.

Sisters,  André Brönnimann. Winner of The Adam Portraiture Award 2016.

There are some frequently asked questions regarding this painting. I will start off with answering those:

First question: Who are these women and what is their relationship?

Here is their own answer:

Te Rawanake, Inahaa Te Urutahi Waikerepuru & Ria Wihapi-Waikerepuru come from Taranaki and carry strong tribal connections into Te Atiawa, Taraniki Tukau, Tangahoe, Nga Ruahine and Nga Rauru iwi.

All 3 Sisters have worked at varying levels supporting whanau, hapu and marae social, cultural and economic development within their tribal areas for at least 30 years whilst also pursuing their own individual creative endeavors that include performing ceremonial rituals, traditional & contemporary weaving, electronic & light art works. Each of the sisters are great-grandmothers and hold matriarchal positions in their respective families. They hold a long term vision for peace and enlightened consciousness that will act as a springboard towards generating genuine collaboration amongst all humanity for respectful co-existence with nature and each other as the legacy for our future generations to inherit.

At the turn of the century they all got their mokos done on the same day at a marae in Hawera, surrounded by 100 family members. The following months they were looked upon rather curiously by people.

How did this portrait come about?

I was driving down the main street in Wanganui and spotted Te Rawanake sitting outside a café having lunch with her husband. I approached her and asked if I could paint her face, using better words of course. It’s the same way I approached my previous subjects/models. I give them my card and they will see my previous works. Te Rawanake mentioned her sisters and a group portrait was decided upon. I thought it was too ambitious but my wife Catherine convinced me to do it.

Tell me about the process behind a painting like this, do you use drawings, photographs?

We do a photo shoot. A friend of mine is a photographer. We take about 60 to 80 shots. I then select the image that captured what I am after. So far I have done 7 portraits of this nature and what always surprised me is that there usually is only just one image out of the whole lot that is perfect, but that’s all I need. Having a stunning photo to work with is crucial to the whole process. This image in the painting is a single shot, not a combination of images.

The outlines and details are transferred to the canvas with pencil.

Then I do a complete and detailed underpainting. Some photo realists do it in shades of grey. I start right away with the actual colors. For reference material I use several large prints of the image. I use a glass palette which is placed on top of a print when color mixing. From then on it’s a matter of building up the layers of paint until the desired effect is achieved. Some areas of skin may require up to 8 glazes or washes, others much less. With a painting this size you don’t have to worry about drying times, there’s always another section to go on with.

When complete, the painting gets varnished. Not only does it protect the work, the colors become deeper and more intense.

 Who or what are some of your artist references? Lindauer or Goldie?

I have spent a lot of time looking at Lindauer and Goldie paintings. Personally I think Goldie is more accomplished. He makes good use of Chiaroscuro. Bright highlights next to dark shadows. Contrast is what brings a painting alive.

Another painter I draw inspiration from is Gottfried Helnwein, an Austrian-Irish visual artist. He is concerned mainly with the darker side of life and nobody paints disturbing images as beautifully as he does. He also paints incredible photorealistic portraits.

When not painting portraits, I am a surrealist and a huge fan of Salvador Dali.

I actually started painting portraits about 6 years ago when the previous director of the NZ portrait gallery, Mrs McKinnon, invited me to enter the competition.

What is your interest in photorealism? And what do you enjoy about working in this way?

I do have a high interest in photorealism. It is a term used too loosely. This painting here is done in a realistic style and I have used photorealistic techniques but I wouldn’t call it photorealistic. What the world’s best photorealist achieve is simply mindblowing. On average they may produce 4 paintings a year, some even just one painting. And that is full time. One day I may go down that path but currently I am a part time painter and it’s not feasible. I spent so much time on this one my wife nearly divorced me. The only thing that could make up for it was winning this thing, so it was a great relief.  

Needless to say, a high degree of quality is required to produce a photorealistic work. The same with goes with portraiture. Portraiture is pretty unforgiving. This is how it should be with all art. It shouldn’t require an explanation to be understood nor should it simply be an idea and nothing else. From the sixties onwards the focus changed towards artists expressing themselves. Something a psychiatrist couch is also good for. If you are ever trying to understand an art work and wondering why you are not getting it, you can relax. There is nothing wrong with you, but everything with modern art.

My rule of thumb is: If it’s something a small child or a monkey could do, disregard it.

I enjoy how the painting progresses with each new layer of paint and how it keeps changing. It’s not always in an elegant fashion. I would like to make every brush stroke count but quite often have to go over it again.

One of the challenges for me in painting a large group portrait like this was to maintain the consistency. Some sections were done months apart and the color tones need to be matched up accurately. Also after spending a few hours on a detailed area you realize it’s too dark or light in relation to the rest.

Another question: What is your favorite part of a portrait to paint? Are there parts that are tedious or more difficult than others?

Putting on the final layer is when it all comes together and I get a lot of pleasure out of that. On the faces it’s usually dry brushing. Feels like putting make up on.

I was worried about painting all the hair. I did find a helpful tutorial on youtube which was good. It’s all out there. There are a lot of different colours. You got to keep looking and put them in there.

TeRawanake’s cloak was hard to do. Am still on painkillers from doing that. Photorealist paintings are large and transferring the image onto canvas is assisted with a grid system and/or a projector. I used a projector. You are probably thinking that is cheating and I thought “great”, all I need to do is color in. I was disappointed this was not the case. It gave me the rudimentary outlines which was of some assistance but not much use on hair, skin and garments.