After leaving school to study in Florence at the invitation of acclaimed Italian artist Pietro Annigoni, Robbie Wraith RP has gone on to make portraits for a long list of distinguished sitters, including Her Majesty The Queen, Nelson Mandela and Roger Waters. We sat down with the man himself to get the inside scoop on his sittings with the Queen, pick his brain on the challenges that come with painting such public figures, and discover the one piece of advice that he'll never forget.
How has your practice developed over your career, since starting out at such a young age?
I have been drawing or painting daily since I was 16, except for the flu a few times, so inevitably perception matures and deepens, and experience of media greatly increases. The curious thing is it is always fascinating, always fresh.
When I was young I was in a ferocious hurry but now I know it’s better to take time, to breathe a bit and slow the eye down.
You have painted many iconic figures such as HM Queen Elizabeth II, how does this experience differ from painting a stranger?
Of course there are distinctly different challenges in making a portrait of someone extremely famous like Her Majesty the Queen, whose image is embedded countless times in our minds, not least the mix of their public and private personalities.
It has been a great privilege to spend time across a series of sittings with many extraordinary people, both world famous and ‘unknown’. I have had wonderful, profound, astonishing conversations with my sitters from many different areas of life.
What has been your favourite commission to date?
It’s very difficult to single out a favourite, but the Queen’s portrait was truly fascinating - the historical context and the privilege of spending hours talking with her during the sittings.
What makes a good sitter for a portrait?
The capacity for stillness is always helpful, and possibly having an idea of the context of figurative painting. It is a collaboration - I work directly from life, I need the atmosphere of the sitter and the echoes of the conversation woven into the paint. I have had a number of sitters who have been uncertain about the notion of sitting for a portrait but then discover that taking some time in a busy life to reflect and chat a bit can be very therapeutic.
What is your preferred medium to work in and why?
I find that the different media I use refresh and inform each other, and their characteristics suit different subjects or moods - the looseness of watercolour, for example, can temper the tightness of oil painting - and everything is underpinned by drawing, it’s difficult to separate them. My favourite is the one I am using at that time.
If you could summarise your practice in 3 words, what would they be?
The conscious moment.
What is the most influential piece of advice you have ever received?
“Draw ceaselessly. Observe everything. Study the masters but keep them next to you rather than between you and your subject...” Annigoni to me at 16.
Header image: Robbie Wraith, RP, in the studio.
Artwork images from top to bottom: Robbie Wraith, Venice, Grand Canal, watercolour, 16 x 25cm, £1,750, Island Fine Arts.
Robbie Wraith, study for Her Majesty The Queen's portrait.
Robbie Wraith, Soliloquy, tempera, SOLD.