Jonathan Yeo Tamara Rojo

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Story highlights

Master portrait artist Jonathan Yeo explains how he paints a portrait in six second Vines

Discover: Who to choose to be your subject

Learn: How to build from basics

Remember: What to do when things go wrong

London CNN  — 

A portrait artist promises to capture more than a photograph is ever able to: more than just a glimpse of a person’s external appearance, a portrait can display a person as they truly are. But how does the artists do it?

Jonathan Yeo is one of Britain’s greatest portrait artists. Some of the world’s most famous people – Tony Blair, Nicole Kidman, Damien Hirst, Kevin Spacey, Prince Phillip, and Malala Yousafzai among them – have sat to have their image – and something of their essence – captured by him.

Here, he meets prima ballerina Tamara Rojo, artistic director and star dancer at the English National Ballet, and explains how to create a stunning portrait – from choosing a subject to immortalizing them in paint - broken down into a series of six-second Vines.

You want to choose people you’re going to find interesting company.

It doesn’t even matter if you end up not liking them, if you find them interesting, then that makes for an interesting painting.

It’s only if you find someone boring, then that tends to make the whole process harder.

At the start you’re trying to get the overall shape of the picture and the composition.

It’s tricky when someone has got a very interesting and beautiful face. I’m torn between wanting to make it close up [to the face] – and make it about the expression and intensity – but at the same time the whole composition is really interesting.

Sometimes you get lucky and it happens very quickly and the first idea works well, and you get stuck straight in. Sometimes it takes several goes.

You might start one and not like it. Or you might like some bits of it, and start it again using some parts and not others.

A portrait is basically a document of a relationship between the artist and the sitter, and that kind of changes as you get to know each other.

What I’m doing is, although I’m using paint, I’m kind of drawing.

The advantage of drawing straight onto the canvas is, the bits I like, I’ll keep – and then it could be that it’ll stay as a study. Or it might be that I’ll do another layer and another layer and then It’ll become more three dimensional.

At this stage you don’t necessarily know what’s going to happen.

The idea is that I start by laying down an under-layer of the picture, probably in quite muted colors, like I’m doing here.

And then once you’re happy with the idea of it, that it’s on the right lines, then I don’t have to be quite so fixed or concentrating so hard.

Actually, you start talking more and it’s partly then you see the animation in people’s faces. And then that’s what makes the thing come alive.

You’ve got very good, very strong eyes. It’s important to get that right – more than anything else.

Sometimes it can take quite a long time but if you do get it right, that’s sort of the way into the picture, it’s the thing that captures someone’s attention when they glance at it.

If you get that right, it’s hard for people to look away. It’s a very powerful thing. You can’t fake it. If someone doesn’t have very interesting eyes, then you can’t pretend.

We are interested in faces more than other things.

It’s natural, we get so much more information about what’s going on from other people’s faces, expressions and reactions.

So much of how we communicate isn’t conscious, it’s about how our faces react or don’t react or betray how we’re thinking or emphasize or exaggerate what we’re saying, or contradict it.

If people really want to look at it while I’m doing it, I’ll let them, but on the basis that they don’t say anything to me about it.

Maybe right at the end I’ll ask what they think, but in the middle you don’t want anything that will influence or distort what you’re planning on doing to it.

It’s not often easy to judge at the time when you’ve just done something whether it’s good or not.

You might like something on the day because it’s what you were trying to do, but sometimes the best ones happen by accident.

Because if it wasn’t what you were trying to do that day, you don’t see it as a success. And it’s only by putting it away, forgetting about it, working on something else, coming back and finding it after, that you see it fresh and then you can be more objective about it.

It’s nice having someone sit, but at the same time, the most interesting people are busy and haven’t got all day.

Some things you can do without the person – the dress and the pose you can do from the photos – but then you try to get people back to sit for you for the face and the expression,

For that bit, the photo doesn’t tell the whole story: you want to see, not just how someone looks, but how a person moves and how they react to things, and if you can get those things in, that’s what makes it come alive, really, and makes it more interesting than a photo.