Posted by: Julie Duell | March 10, 2008


ASSOCIATED POSTS: “PORTRAIT PAINTING METHODS”                                            “TONY LA SPINA – ARTWORK”

Well here we are “Archibald Prize” time again – 2014!  One of the few times most Aussies pause for a moment to think about portraits in the art world.

The 2014 winner of the Archibald prize went to Fiona Lowry for her ethereal portrait of Penelope Seidler.  Click to enlarge.

Lowry's portrait of Penelope Seidler 2014 Archibald winner


Most artists who love painting portraits have a crack at the “Archibald”  at some stage of their artistic lives.

My partner, Tony La Spina’s oil portrait of the well known music composer, Alfred Hill, was hung in the 1956 Archibald Prize.  Unfortunately we only have a sepia print of it to show you – but look at those incredible artistic hands and the faraway gaze…


At bit about Tony La Spina…Tony was born in Sydney in 1926 to Sicilian born parents.  He began his art training at the A. Dattilo-Rubbo Art School in Sydney and then served in the Australian Army in World War II as an Interpreter, which took him to London after war ended.  After some art study at Hetherlies Art School there, Tony returned to Australia to spend 5 years full time art study at the National Art School, Sydney from 1950-55.   He spent over 30 years teaching art & ceramics in the Coffs Harbour region. For more information visit the Post “TONY LA SPINA”.

Tony and I became special friends in 2001. Here we are in his studio back then.


This portrait I did of Tony below won a Portrait Award in 2010 on the Central Coast of NSW. I couldn’t decide which angle to paint, so included all 3.


Lets view some more of Tony’s beautiful sensitive portrait work…

email-portrait-of-antonia-the-artists-daughter-by-tony-la-spina-email.jpg     email-portrait-of-helen-truscott-by-tony-la-spina-email.jpg     rae-la-spina.jpg

Above: Tony’s daughter, Antonia … Helen Truscott … Tony’s wife, Rae.


Above: Oil portrait of Hubert Bailey – c. 1980s

polish-model.jpg     self-portrait-tony-la-spina-email.jpg     liane-the-artists-daughter-by-tony-la-spina.jpg

Above: A Polish model,  self portrait & Tony’s lovely daughter, Liane.

coffs-harbour-friend.jpg     portrait-model-by-tony-la-spina.jpg     julie-duell-by-tony-la-spina-2007.jpg

Above: Margaret Herdigen, a model & a work in progress – portrait of me.


Above:  “Joy” a dear friend from Coffs Harbour.

Fantastic work! Thanks Tony for sharing these pics with us.


I’ve sometimes been asked if I ever had a crack at the Archibald?  Well, yes – I gave it my best shot back in 1992 with two entries, which took 3 months each to paint!   I’m eternally glad I didn’t paint them solely ‘for’ the Archibald, and would have painted these portraits anyway – because at pick-up time –  there they were, in the basement of the Art Gallery of N.S.W.  with hundreds of others, not even unwrapped! 

I sincerely hope there is a better system in place these days, because a lot of artists go to great expense and trouble to transport large works to the Art Gallery of N.S.W. to be appraised for hanging.   I believe that in fairness to them all, their paintings at least need to be viewed!  

Do you have any comments about the Archibald? Can anyone throw some light on how procedures are now or how they have operated in the past? I think it’s important for prospective entrants to know.

Here are my entries from back in 1992… both very large oils:

The first is of James David Hill, affectionately known to  country people as “Jimmy the Whip”. He learned the art of whipmaking from his father, (pictured at left of the portrait) and along with servicing the needs of country folk, Jim plaited the famous 12 strand whips used in the films “Indiana Jones” and  “The Man from Snowy River” (remember Jim pulling Jessica up that slippery wet cliff-face with his whip? Just as well Jimmy made a strong one!)

Jim posed by our fireplace at MacMasters Beach for his portrait,  so I included an old lamp and clock from my childhood on the mantlepiece to ehance the ‘old world’ setting.


Using a mirror in the portrait meant I could capture 2 views of Jim’s face.  Luckily, I painted him just before he cut off all that crinkly ginger beard!


The second portrait I entered in 1992 was of Dr. John Laxton, Environmental Consultant, painted in a watery background with his occupational activities;  gathering specimens/measuring samples superimposed behind the main image:


Portraiture has always fascinated me, as it has so many artists, but it would have to be about the most demanding of subject matter.   Not only does a likeness need to be attained but hopefully something more – some rendition that reveals the personality of the sitter or an aspect of them that is conveyed to the artist.


I read once that Sir William Dobell had a method he employed – he would invite the sitter for a cup of tea and chat. If after they left he couldn’t picture a strong enough image of them to make a rough sketch, he would more often than not refuse the commission.


As well as a healthy number of commissions, I’ve enjoyed painting my family over the years of course, as most artists do. Here are a few thumbnails…

1.  my late husband, John Duell  2. my son, Scott, first as a child and then 3. as an adult with his lovely wife, Michelle 4. my daughter, Melissa Joy as a 3 year old and then 5. again at age 20.  6. A self portrait in 1977 7. another, in the 1980s over a collage of life drawings. 8. Portrait of Julia Clare and 9. Portrait of Amelia Joy.

portrait-of-john-duell-copy.jpg    julie-duells-son-scott-ferguson-oils-1980-copy.jpg    scott-michelle-ferguson-oil-portrait-2001-copy.jpg    melissa-joy-ferguson-3-yrs.jpg    melissa-joy-oil-portrait-of-the-artists-daughter-on-her-20th-birthday-copy.jpg    julie-self-portrait-1977.jpg    self-portrait-the-collage-of-drawings.jpg        

At first I remember being intimidated by the need to paint someone wearing reading glasses! So I practised by painting this one from a tiny B&W photo cut out of an old newspaper.  I don’t know who the gentleman was but I called him “Mr. Patience” because of his delightful expression…

I also recall one of my first commissioned portraits in 1970/1 and how difficult it was.   Dr. Allan F. Dwyer was a world renouned spinal surgeon and far too busy to sit for me, so I had to paint him from a photograph which was delivered with an actual surgical gown and mask to superimpose over the suit he was wearing in the photo!    It turned out fairly well considering, and was hung in memorium in the Mater Hospital after he died the following year. (Note: the photo is not  true to colour – the blue was far less intense)


I wasn’t aware of very much interest in Portrait painting in the Gosford area in the early years, so when Pamela Thalben-Ball gave a portraiture demonstration using a real model for the Central Coast Art Society around about 1980 it was a breath of fresh air! I for one was very grateful for some guidance to enhance my self-taught discoveries…so “Thankyou Pamela” wherever you are!

Now here is something some readers might relate to…


If I had any advice for anyone taking on their first portrait commission, it would be “Do get at least a minimum non-refundable deposit when you start to cover your materials.”  Then if the client doesn’t like the finished painting or for any reason fails to follow through, you are at least not out of pocket other than your time.

I’ve had a good number of portrait commissions over the years and only two problems– one where the lady concerned found it insufficiently flattering and the other ordered by a bereaved family to be painted from a photograph of their loved one.  Unfortunately their grief abated before it was time to collect the work – so no collection of the work took place or payment for my time.  Such is life!

The fragile “ego thing” …  Artists beware that there are (often hidden) expectations that the artist should flatter the model.  Many people carry within them a self image that is much younger!

Beware those hidden extras  too that can end up doubling or tripling the time element!   I’ve had inclusions like family heirloom jewelery, Scottish tartans etc. that have taken more time to paint than the head study! A simple request to begin with can grow into a monster if one isn’t careful!   Have other artists had an experience along these lines? Do tell!

How do we solve these problems? Any ideas?  A written agreement following a questionaire perhaps?

I feel there has to be a leap of faith by the client in the artist’s ability (based on examples of the artists work) and clearcut decisions about size, medium and presentation  in order to go ahead with a commission.

After all, portraiture is the most demanding and time consuming of all subjects to paint and if the artist’s hands are tied by curtailing freedom of expression, their best work cannot result.

Perhaps the main problem as one of client expectation.  Those commissioning a work will no doubt have some sort of pre-conception in their mind as to what they want (whether they think so, or not!) .  Somehow many associate art with magic and think that artists can visualise their thoughts (well, I for one certainly cannot!)  Even if this were possible, why would any artist want to paint another person’s vision instead of their own?

There is often a kind of “ownership” or “dictatorship” that can be imposed on an artist by a client (if the artist allows it) – where money is involved within the consumer/purchaser society we live in.  How much is reasonably acceptable? What do you think?

Personally, where portraiture is concerned from the artist’s point of view, there is nothing like total freedom to choose your subject and rendition without dancing to anyone else’s drummer.   But let’s not just hear from other artists, what experiences have you had as one who has perhaps commissioned a work?  There are 2 sides to everything!


If you have any art related stories to do with Portraits, please share.   Also if you have any past associations with the Datilla Rubbo Art School in Sydney, we would all love to hear! 

Cheers,  Julie


Thanks Tony for sharing that.  What a nasty experience!  It just goes to show how vulnerable we are when we are young, experienced and trusting.    Any comments anyone?    Julie

Note; To view or leave comments, you may need to click on “Continue reading” below.


  1. Check out Tony’s comments in letter form at the end of Post 6. What a portrait painting experience he had as a young man! Julie

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