Portrait of a lady

Eslpeth McLean is painted by artist Jude Ansbacher. Photo by Stephen Jaquiery.
Eslpeth McLean is painted by artist Jude Ansbacher. Photo by Stephen Jaquiery.
Eslpeth McLean is painted by artist Jude Ansbacher. Photo from Otago Images.
Eslpeth McLean is painted by artist Jude Ansbacher. Photo from Otago Images.

Capturing the personality of a subject is the biggest challenge for artist Jude Ansbacher.

She began doing portraits when she was a student at art school in England to earn a little extra money, hitting popular streets such as Charing Cross Rd in the hope someone would be keen to have their portrait done.

It was an art she continued here in New Zealand and still did, often offering to draw people's portraits at events such as the Alexandra Blossom Festival and Thieves Alley.

To capture people's personality, she did not like working from photographs and did not ask people to stay still.

‘‘I find if someone stays still for too long they look despondent.''

It was one of those things that was either successful in capturing a likeness or not, she said.

She painted landscapes using a similar approach - painting on the spot to capture the changing conditions - although some she worked up from sketches, such as the stream and pool work which won an Otago Art Society Summer Exhibition award.

During her recent residency at the society's rooms at the Dunedin Railway Station she chose to paint Otago Daily Times columnist Elspeth McLean.

‘‘It was a lot of fun.''


Otago Daily Times columnist Elspeth McLean discovers the joys of having her portrait painted.

I'm a sucker for a good wheedle.

Accordingly, when an email invitation arrived in early January, with the subject line ‘‘Wheedling'', asking if I would consent to have my portrait painted, there was no hesitation.

The artist, Jude Ansbacher, said the sitting would take one and a-half to two hours at Dunedin's Art Station, and, since it wouldn't be until March, I would have plenty of time to think up an excuse.

In my rapid response, I asked if she thought I would be able to sit still long enough and were there any colours I should avoid. I sought confirmation no nudity would be involved. More wheedling followed.

‘‘Thanks for being a sport: (now you will wonder just how awful I am going to make you look!)'' and ‘‘I will leave the colour scheme to your exquisite taste''.

I've been an admirer of Jude's work since last year when she came to a Literacy Aotearoa class I was tutoring, to brush up her computer skills. As it turned out Jude wasn't too concerned about my ability to sit still.

Jude reckons some artists demand their subjects stoically maintain a specific position for the sitting and refrain from talking, but in her experience, after about 20 minutes of that, the model starts to look increasingly ‘‘glum''.

Yes, I would be allowed to chat to her, but I should not expect much scintillating repartee from her end because she would be concentrating. During a frantic clothes-trying-on session, sans exquisite taste, I toyed with the idea of being topical, with what I call my failed flag referendum frock. However, I decided its pattern would be annoyingly complicated for Jude.

Instead, I chose basic black underneath an old favourite, a long flowing robe in an unusual green.

People who knew of the planned sitting often asked how I would feel if I didn't like the painting.

I wasn't bothered about that. I'd seen portraits Jude had done of people I knew and I thought she had captured their essence. Jude readily admits portraits are challenging, for both the artist and the sitter.

It helps if the latter is not vain, she says, although I maintain there's a little vanity in all of us. I assured her I was not expecting to look like Marilyn Monroe.

When sitting day dawned, I felt a little nervous, knowing the painting would be proceeding as tourists visiting the Art Station wandered about.

As I arrived, I was met by Cheryl Dalton, the other learner from my computing class. Cheryl

had come to see Jude at work.

Jude declared Cheryl ‘‘the court jester'' and plonked her on a chair to entertain me.

I can't say too much about the topics we traversed. A fan of Jude's, who spent some time listening to our hyperbole and hilarity, reckoned we had the makings of a Roger Hall-style play. Every now and then I had to ignore Cheryl (who could see the work on the easel) frowning, and was a little alarmed when the painting was turned upside down and Cheryl announced I would have to stand on my head.

I was aware of holding my head to one side, like a querulous old chook. Do I usually do that?

And then, it was over. Apart from some minor touching-up later, Jude's work was done.

Cheryl declared I looked strong and confident. There was talk of me looking as if I were about to take on a cabinet minister, who shall remain nameless.

Clearly, I can fool some of the people some of the time.

-Segment by Elpseth McLean 

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