Sally Ward Portrait painter

What led you to specialize in portrait painting?

I’ve always been interested in the human figure as a subject and used to draw faces endlessly as a child. About 10 years ago when I picked up painting again, a friend commissioned me to paint a portrait after seeing a sketch I had done of my son. I’ve not been without a portrait commission on the go since then.

The allure of portraiture is not just about finding a physical likeness but is also about revealing an emotional truth about the sitter or the sitter’s situation. The portraits which I am most attracted to as a viewer are those which move me on some level and those which prompt me to ask questions. I find faces and people continually fascinating. The expression and posture of a sitter can tell a whole story about that person.

Lulu, oil on canvas, 30cm x 30cm

Are most, of your portraits commissions?

I always have a commission on the go or in the pipeline, but I try to ensure that I find time for my own work as well so that I can develop my practice without the worry of needing to meet a brief. I can be hard to get the balance right sometimes.

Do you say, ‘Yes’ to a commission, face unseen?

I prefer to have sittings for a commission as I find it important to get to know the person I am painting. The personality, gestures and subtle quirks of a sitter will very much inform my painting, as much as the physical characteristics. I cannot really explain how this happens, but it just does. I feel the portrait will have more emotional depth if I have some form of connection with the sitter.

Discuss a face that was full of character.  Why it excited you right from the beginning?

The Artist’s Mother, oil on canvas, 30cm x 30cm

One of my first oil portraits, painted around 5 years ago, was of my mother. She was full of worry at the time, moving out of her home of 40 years and life seemed very uncertain. It wasn’t really a conscious thing to want to paint her in that state, but the emotions of the time (for both of us) were so powerful that the portrait was a means of expressing them. It’s an honest portrait – not flattering, but a very accurate description of her at that time.

How do you get your sitter, to be relaxed?

I find that on first meeting, both the sitter and I can be a little nervous which is natural. I prefer to have a chat with my sitters to begin with usually in their own homes to get to know them a bit and find out what they are hoping for from the portrait. My brain will be taking in all sorts of information (consciously and unconsciously) about their gestures, how they sit, their dominant expression and key aspects of their personality which will feed into my ideas for the painting. I will then do some sketches from life which is very useful for getting to a place of stillness. I usually find that after this, sitters are more relaxed, I can then take some reference photos as well.

How do you keep the work honest without upsetting the sitter?

I particularly enjoy painting close family or friends who I know are happy for me to interpret them as honestly as possible. For commissions, it can sometimes be more challenging because these paintings serve a different purpose. A sitting will be a collaboration of finding the right pose and expression which best reflects the sitter, but which also has the potential to be a great painting.

Show and explain the three mediums you use, oils, watercolours, and charcoal, and why you make the choice?

Oils and charcoal are the mediums I feel most comfortable with. When I was a teenager, I did a lot of life painting in oils and life drawing in charcoal. I like standing at an easel which works really well for these two mediums.

I love oils because of their versatility. You can evolve paintings, work over them, and build up depth which is difficult to obtain with other mediums. There are also so many techniques which can create different effects many of which I employ in my work – such as glazing (building up layers of thin paint), alla prima (wet on wet), scumbling (dragging a dry brush with minimal paint on it), and sfumato (softening edges).

Charcoal is also a wonderful medium – I enjoy working quickly and loosely with it, for tonal studies and life drawing.

Watercolour is a more precise medium. I picked up watercolours out of necessity when my children were very young when I didn’t want to leave oils around. It’s a lovely delicate medium but it requires me to work extremely slowly and precisely which is perhaps not where I’m most comfortable as an artist.

You painted my dear friend, Nancy who died recently.  Discuss the importance of this commission. How it feels to know that your portrait of Nancy is now a living memory for her family.


Nancy, oil on canvas, 30cm x 30cm

Nancy remains one of my favourite commissions to date, and I was extremely sad to hear that she passed away last year. I spent a few hours with Nancy for the sitting just before the pandemic. She was such a delightful and vital woman, intelligent and interested in the process, and very patient. Her face was also full of character. To have a sitter who is so interesting physically and in their personality is a gift for any portrait artist. I’m humbled that the painting will be lasting reminder of Nancy for her family, hopefully capturing her essence as well as her physical likeness.

You also paint children.  How do you go about this aspect of your work?

Boy with Dressing Gown, oil on canvas, 60cm x 80 cm.

It is difficult to get a child to sit still for too long so for younger children I have tended to work from photographs. For slightly older children I have undertaken sittings which have worked very well, and I have various methods for holding their attention!

How do you set up a sitting of a child?

For older children much the same way I would for an adult, though I do try to be a lot quicker. Strategic use of a TV, Xbox or tablet is helpful!

Discuss the direction and importance of light on a portrait?

Light is one of my primary concerns while painting and it fascinates me. When striving for a likeness I will be occupied with how the light falls on the face, the way it defines bone structure and the contours of the sitter’s features. Representing light convincingly will make a portrait feel believable and will help achieve a sense of realism which is what I aim for in my work.

Do you discuss where the portrait will be hung and have the sitter in an appropriate position

Richard Biggs, Headmaster of King’s College School, Taunton, oil on canvas, 65cm x 80cm

Sometimes. Recently I was formally commissioned by an institution – a painting of the retiring headmaster for King’s College School in Taunton. In this case the painting had to be very much painted with the position of the hang in mind. During sittings I usually try a number of positions to see how the light, composition and posture will work best.

Discuss the importance of entering your work for art prizes?

Self-Portrait, oil on canvas board, 30cm x 30xm (exhibited at the Royal Society of Portrait Painters Annual Exhibition, 2019).

Competitions have been really important for me and have helped me build my profile as an artist. I entered my first competitions around 5 years ago. My first and second oil portraits were selected on successive years for the Royal Society of Portrait Painters annual exhibition, which is a very prestigious competition showcasing the work of some of the leading portrait artists in the UK and beyond. I also reached the final of Sky Portrait Artist of the Year – a high profile TV art competition running in the UK. The competitions extended my reach to a much wider audience and have led to some exciting opportunities.

Comment on the work you entered for the Ruth Borchard Self Portrait Prize?

My Lockdown Self-Portrait was highly commended by judges for the Ruth Borchard Self-Portrait prize in 2021. Lockdown was not a good time for me, as for many people. During the winter lockdowns I lost a close member of my family to cancer. The isolation, grief, and relentless home-schooling of my two children was suffocating. Painting the portrait was cathartic and helped me get through that time. When I look at that painting, I see the sadness and claustrophobia I was feeling at the time.


Lockdown Self-Portrait 2021, oil on canvas, 50cm x 60cm (long-listed for Ruth Borchard Prize)

What are your thoughts on all women exhibitions?

I’m very positive about them because there is still a big imbalance in the art world and therefore, I think it is justified to give female art some space of its own. It’s really important that women are better represented and are given access to opportunities to overcome some of the barriers we face (such as pay inequality). The Society of Women Artists is a great example of an organisation which does this in the UK. I exhibited with them last year at the Mall Galleries in London and it was a wonderful celebration of female art and the determination of women to create.

Explain about your life drawing sketches?

I feel that life drawing and painting underpins my love of art. I was lucky enough to be sent to life classes from the age of fourteen by my school and I have always loved the nude as a subject both in my own art, but also in the history of art. It is immediate and freeing to work quickly from a model. I also believe it is simply the best way to practice – through observation of light, line, proportions etc.

How often do you go to a Life Drawing class?

life drawing

Not as much as I would like to. I go whenever I have the time, which is sadly not that often now. I like going particularly when I have a bit of creative block. It is a good reset to help me get back to basics and just draw from life.

How influential are the other artists, and their work to you?

Very influential. I absolutely love art, learning about it, and looking at it as much as painting and drawing. I go to as many exhibitions as I can, and always come away with something from each one which no doubt filters into my practice in some way. Particular influences include Rembrandt, Freud and early 20th century British art. I follow a lot of contemporary artists on Instagram as well, which is also a constant source of inspiration.

Discuss the influences involved in your landscape art.

Richmond Park, charcoal and chalk

The landscapes I have done have tended to be in charcoal and were directly influenced by a David Hockney’s retrospective exhibition at the Tate in 2017, which exhibited 25 of his charcoal drawings of Yorkshire woodland. I thought they were exquisite and was keen to try myself.

Discuss the process involved in Sky Portrait Artist of the Year.

That is a big question! The TV competition requires artists to paint a portrait of a celebrity sitter within 4 hours. I had to find ways of truncating my process into a 4 hour-time frame which was very helpful for me in understanding my own process, as well as very challenging. The time pressure was stressful but ultimately enjoyable. I loved getting to know the other artists, and seeing how they approached the same subject and the feedback I received for my work from the judges still blows me away.

Portrait Artist of the Year, Heat Steps

You are also willing to work from and excellent photograph if the sitter is not available.  Discuss this aspect of your work.

I prefer to have live sittings, but sometimes it is not possible (for example with posthumous portraits). This is more challenging because I can’t appreciate the nuances of personality and gesture from a photograph, and I find it harder to connect with the painting if I don’t know the sitter. If I’m honest, I also just don’t enjoy working solely from photographs – understanding the person I am painting is part of the joy of portraiture for me. However, for a painting to work from a photograph alone it needs to have good lighting with some interesting shadows at the very least, with a natural resting expression.


Sally Ward

Deborah Blakeley, Melbourne, Australia

Interview by Deborah Blakeley, April 2023