Modern Portraiture With McKay Williamson

I had the great pleasure of working with McKay Williamson over the past few months, on an Instagram collaboration to produce a portrait for me. This blog doesn’t form part of the collaboration, I wanted to write it as I think it’s a really interesting subject, and because I think McKay Williamson are a wonderful company, doing exciting things. However, I shall declare it as an “ad” to cover all bases.

I’d also like to add upfront that, if you’re interested in commissioning a portrait with McKay Williamson, and you mention my name (either The Idle Hands or my actual name, Sandra Baker!), you can get £250 off. Nice!

Portraiture: A Lost Art?

We all take hundreds of photos now, don’t we? Almost everyone has a phone within a metre’s grasp at all times of the day and night. Taking a photo with our phone camera is woven into the fabric of everyday life. We have thousands of photos of our loved ones stored in the iCloud, probably destined to stay there infinitely, never seeing the light of day. Don’t get me wrong, I think this is a wonderful development. I have always been a fan of recording the moment. My lovely nan used to press a 3 pack of camera film (yes, I’m old) into my hand at the beginning of every University term and urge me to “take lots of photos”. She loved seeing them and, now, 25 years later, I couldn’t be more grateful to have a solid reminder of those happy, carefree years (whilst simultaneously being glad that I was limited to 24 shots per film and my every daft, drunken student moment wasn’t caught on camera/film!).

The predecessor to all of this was the portrait. Before the invention of photography, a painted, drawn or sculpted portrait was the only way to record someone’s likeness. Portraiture tends to bring to mind wandering round stately homes, the walls lined with the unsmiling faces of titled ancestors going back centuries. Or Victorians sketching one another by candlelight because the telly hadn’t been invented yet. It’s a beautiful thing to have these enduring images of people long gone, but it may not be something you particularly think about in today’s world, where we’re drowning in photos of ourselves and our loved ones, and can access them at the touch of a button. We don’t “need” an artist to show us what someone looks like. Portraiture has largely evolved into portrait photography.

But let’s backtrack for a moment. The innate beauty of a painted, drawn or sculpted portrait is that we are seeing the subject through the artist’s eyes. No two artists are the same, each brings their own style, their own interpretation, to the subject. No two artists would create the same portrait of the subject (scroll through the contemporary portraits section of the National Portrait Gallery, here, for a quick and easy illustration of this – so many different, wonderful, styles). That’s the crux of it, for me. That’s what makes a portrait special, unique and a future heirloom. Something you’d run back into a burning building to rescue.

McKay Williamson

In the summer of 2020, I began talking to McKay Williamson about an Instagram collaboration, in which we would commission a portrait for me. After reading the initial email, I thought it sounded interesting but, in all honesty, I was expecting to click through to a website showing your standard cheesy, rictus-grin, family portraits. I am also not ashamed to admit when I’m completely wrong! I very rarely get a flicker of excitement about anything in this life (I know, it’s a shame), but I absolutely did when I began scrolling through what McKay Williamson can offer.

McKay Williamson are an art gallery and creative agency based in London and New York. They offer a ton of cool ways to source art for you, they can set you up with non-cheesy family photographers, they can produce videos for you to tell your life story, they create gallery walls for you. It’s all unique and very inspiring. I’m focusing on their portraiture work for the purposes of this blog, but do go and have a look at all the other things they offer too.

McKay Williamson are interested in getting to know you, and your family, and their aim is to help create the right portrait for you. They represent a number of artists, with a quite mind-blowing array of different styles. They will discuss your budget with you and work with that. Richard, the founder of McKay Williamson, is not only a lovely man who you simply enjoy being around, but he has a wealth of knowledge about his artists, the styles that might suit your portrait, and also how the portrait should look in your home (he can advise on framing too).

What Makes A Great Portrait?

The first stage of commissioning my own portrait was for me to go down to London, to visit McKay Williamson’s gallery. Richard asked that I bring down a selection of photos which might make good portraits, which I did. I have two daughters, so took down a few of each of them. Now, as I said, Richard knows his stuff, and he knows what makes a good portrait. You might think this is the artist. I mean, yes, the artist is an important factor, but what’s more important is the subject. Richard sums it up as follows:

“The expression on the subject’s face must make us wonder what they are thinking about”

Eureka! We want to see the complexity of the person we’re looking at. What makes a great photo does not necessarily translate into a great portrait. A photo captures that fleeting moment in time, but a portrait goes deeper. The time it takes to paint or draw a portrait lends itself to this fuller, more rounded exploration of the subject. I’m going to let Richard talk about this in the video below, as his passion for the subject shines through (and you can look at lots of examples of the projects McKay Williamson have worked on). And yes, that’s me getting emotional in the middle of it!

So, with all of that in mind, and going through all of my photos, Richard and I settled on this photo of Polly, my youngest. I had secretly hoped that this would be the one (and felt pretty proud of myself that Richard agreed!). You can see how her expression ticks that elusive “what is she thinking?” box. I love the crooked party hat (it was Christmas Day). She’s not smiling, but her eyes are focused completely on me. There’s something mysterious, untouchable, about that expression. Nailed it.

The Artist

We had our subject, and now I needed to pick my artist. McKay Williamson represent a range of artists, from those at the beginning of their career, who offer a more affordable option, to artists exhibited in the National Portrait Gallery. I’d already browsed through the work of each artist on McKay Williamson’s website (you can see them here) before I visited the gallery, but seeing the art in the flesh was wonderful. My online browsing had given me an idea of the artist I wanted to paint Polly, but seeing his work up close confirmed it. I wanted Paul Wright. His use of bold brush strokes and vivid colour just hit me in the heart, and I think that’s how you’ve got to choose your artist! Here’s a pic of me and Richard in front of one of Paul’s portraits, in which I’m probably saying “please, please, please can I have Paul?!”. Thankfully, Paul was up for it and I did a happy dance.

Here are some of the other artists’ works I loved, so you can see the breadth of styles available (you can see all of their portfolios here).

You can also come along with me and see my first visit to McKay Williamson in this video, so you can get a feel for the whole process. It was a lovely morning out!

The Big Reveal

Subject and artist decided upon, Paul set to work and painted Polly. I had little glimpses of the portrait as it evolved when he shared them on his Instagram feed, but the final version was kept under wraps, and I went down to London again, fizzing with excitement for the big reveal. It was everything you’d hope a big reveal would be, Richard did the whole “ta-daaaa” portrait reveal from underneath a cloth, I got a bit teary, it was wonderful. The portrait was bigger than I’d imagined and absolutely breathtaking in the flesh. I couldn’t stop looking at it – her eyes, her mouth. Paul somehow managed to capture the very Polly-ness of Polly, more than the photo he worked from even showed. There’s some kind of magic going on there, and this is exactly what Richard talked about when he described how portraits go deeper into their subject than photographs.

My girl.

You can also watch my video of the reveal process here.

Coming Home

I brought the portrait back to Leeds on the train (she got her own seat!) and annoyingly, we were put into lockdown again almost immediately afterwards, so it took longer than I wanted to get her framed, but at last it happened. I picked a fairly modern, wide, gold frame, with a second black frame used as a mount, with a shadow gap around the painting, so the canvas is suspended in the middle. I am beyond delighted with it. I still hadn’t quite decided where to hang it, but when I got it home from the framer, I was so excited to see it up, I took down a picture I had hanging up in the kitchen already, and used the hook, just to see how it looked on the wall. Turns out, that was the perfect spot for it all along! Using the dark green wall colour as a background really makes the colours in the portrait sing out and, while my eldest daughter Kitty is slightly miffed at having her annoying little sister looking over her every time she uses the kitchen (haha!), it’s made that whole corner feel pulled together and upped the luxe-factor considerably.

Do I recommend McKay Williamson? In a heartbeat. It’s been a joyful experience. If you want to record your family memories in a unique, special and exciting way, they are your people. And yes, I am going to have to get a portrait of my eldest daughter, to even things out!


  1. Fiona
    13 June 2021 / 2:25 pm

    I really enjoyed reading this. It’s given me some real food for thought as I’ve been thinking about getting a professional photo done of my little boy but I love this idea so much more.

    Your chosen artist has done such a beautiful likeness of your daughter too.

    • 23 July 2021 / 8:54 pm

      Hi Fiona, I’m so glad it gave you food for thought, it really was an experience to treasure.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Looking for Something?