Q&A with portrait artist Vicki Sullivan

Published on 07 August 2016

Portrait artist Vicki Sullivan

Please tell us a little about how you became a figurative realist painter?

I was always most drawn to the realist paintings I saw, I really wanted to learn how did they do that? It seemed like magic to be able to paint something so well. When I was young I studied at Frankston Technical College, now Monash, which was a wonderful basis for learning about lots of different art mediums. I went on to university but realism was discouraged because it was unfashionable, so it took me a long time to find teachers who could teach the skills which I longed for. Finally I found the private painting teachers Brian Armstrong and Fiona Bilbrough who had both won the Alice Bale Travelling Scholarship. Then a couple of years ago I went to study at the Angel Academy of Art in Florence, Italy. It was the most amazing experience learning the methods of the Old Master which are still taught in Italy. Drawing from the life model every day really helped my observation skills. The course also covered anatomy and many other useful subjects.

What do you like to know about your sitters before you paint them?

I often like to invite my subject for lunch and I try to have at least two sittings with them. I can get to know them in a relaxed way, eating lunch is always a great atmosphere to unwind and also gives me the time to study the structure of the head, skin tones and the character in the hands. Having lunch is also a way to get to know the personality of the sitter and get ideas for a pose or gesture for the painting. I like to discuss my ideas for the painting as well and make sure the subject is comfortable with it too.

How do you express a sitter’s personality or something unique about them in your portraits?

I like my portraits to look as if the person could walk straight out of the painting and into the room, so acute observation is important to make the painting look like the person. Also I like to create a narrative in the painting by using objects or clothing which may relate to something in the person’s life which tells a story or adds detail about them.


Vicki Sullivan's work is featured in Portraits: Sullivan & Bilbrough, 24 September - 20 November 2016 at Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery