High school Art student paints three generations of her family

Last Updated on April 2, 2023

This article features the outstanding paintings and drawings of Sophie Cahill, completed as part of her A Level Personal Investigation (Unit 3) in her final year of high school at St Bede’s Catholic School and Byron Sixth Form College

Taking inspiration from leading contemporary British artists, Lucian Freud and Jenny Saville, Sophie’s Personal Investigation explores the way that age distorts, changes and adds character to a face. Her project includes painted portraits of herself, her mother and grandmother, with careful attention given to brush strokes and surface qualities. Her project demonstrates the enormous benefit that a student gains when selecting a subject that has a deep personal connection.

We were lucky enough to interview Sophie about her A Level Art project. Her responses are below. 

Lucian Freud sketchbook
With confident brushstrokes, Sophie imitates the honest, raw depiction of Lucian Freud’s mother on her deathbed. This sketchbook page is accompanied by Sophie’s annotation: “The majority of the painting is largely white, with only her head, hands and feet having any colour allowing Freud to create a sense of calm serenity. Even the colours are quite muted, which I think works particularly well. Through producing this pastiche, I learned about using thick paint and how by dry brushing you can demonstrate the effects of aging on the face.”
Jenny Saville painting analysis
It is common for high school Art students to analyse the work of contemporary painter Jenny Saville. Accompanying this skilful recreation of Saville’s work, Sophie writes: “In my opinion, using these colours make the subject appear dead and cold, whereas the use of reds and purples create the idea that the face is hot and freshly beaten. I find this image very powerful with a disturbing air about it. […] I particularly enjoy Saville’s work because of the way she dramatizes any flaws to create an image that portrays a dark and twisted image.”
A Level portraiture age
These paintings of her grandfather are complemented with photographs that show evidence of working first-hand. Sophie begins with small areas of the face, using heavy strokes and layered dry brushing, before tackling the face as a whole. Set upon a pale, lemon coloured ground, the dry brushing helps to create the impression of aged, weathered skin – a stunning example of A Level portraiture.

Your Personal Investigation is titled ‘Investigation of Age through Portraiture’. Please talk to us about the ideas behind your topic and why you chose this.

Sophie: The idea of looking at age came to me through looking at Lucien Freud’s work; not at the subject of his paintings, but the way his style changed through his age. I looked at the different ways he captured the character in the face of his sitters, through his use of texture and brushstroke and technique. I thought it may be challenging to show the effects of age upon faces. For this reason I decided to experiment with a range of people from different generations. Starting with a piece of my granddad, I experimented with the use texture and brushstroke. It was after this time that I came across a psalm which made a real connection with me:

You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body and knit me together in my mother’s womb. You saw me before I was born. Psalm 139 (Holy Bible, NLT)

This generated the idea to use I, my mother and grandmother as models. Using models that I have an emotional connection with made the portraits both easier and more challenging at the same time. For example, I knew how to portray characteristics nobody else knew except me, but I also didn’t want to be cruel in the way that I painted wrinkles etc.

painting eyes and lips
These sketchbook studies show beautiful attention to detail: preliminary paintings of eyes, lips and other facial features, as Sophie practises using different mediums and techniques.

Which artists did you study as part of your project and how did these influence your compositions and painting technique?

I knew before even looking at artists the direction I wanted to take, creating portraits which were heavily textured and with a bold use of colour and brushstroke. I chose to look at Freud because I was inspired by the raw way in which he depicts his subjects. I was inspired by the way he used texture and layers of colour to create a sense of depth in his work. Through looking at his work I understood the way he portrayed personality in his work, which is what I aimed to do in my own.

From looking at Freud’s work and learning to paint in his style, I moved on to look at the work of Jenny Saville. I liked the way that she layered unrealistic colour to achieve depth to her work (much like Freud). I was also interested in the way she distorted the figure and face within her work. Her manipulation and exaggeration of the figure has a raw and disturbing element about it.

I was inspired by the way Saville uses such heavy texture and dark colours to create twisted imagery. It took me a while to develop the confidence to do this in my own work though. I would have loved to see some of Saville’s and Freud’s work but I am yet to have the chance (there’s still time for that).

portraiture painting A Level Art
This sequence of A Level Art work shows Sophie’s mother photographed, drawn and then painted in the style of Saville. In this painting, Sophie experiments with using a green coloured ground beneath the skin.
Jenny Saville da Vinci drawing
As Sophie’s project progresses, she moves away from realistic representation and embraces more gestural mark-making. This is an imitation of Jenny Saville’s da Vinci drawing, where Saville overlays sketches of a squirming child upon classical portraits – perhaps hinting at the loss of control and chaos of motherhood.
portraiture development for A Level Art
Here Sophie begins to develop her portraits, overlaying images as she explores viewpoints and composition. The bottom painting has been worked over with coloured pencil and is one of the most striking and mature pieces of her A Level submission.
grandmother portrait
Working from her own original photographs of her family, this painting captures the tranquillity and peace in Sophie’s Grandmother’s expression.

Your final piece is a stunning large-scale triptych that was featured in the Sunderland Echo. Please talk to us about the decision making process behind this piece.

On deciding to create my final piece, I never would have imagined creating such a large-scale triptych. I had never worked at that scale before, so it seemed like it would be quite a daunting experience, but my teacher advised me to work in this scale, to create real statement and I knew that he wouldn’t have advised me to, if he didn’t think I was capable. Using such a close-up of the photographs was simply to draw focus onto the faces. I wanted the eyes in particularly to be realistic and the scale used allowed me to detail them properly. The composition of the images was my homage to Titian’s ‘Allegory of Life’. Where his painting looks out, I wanted mine to create a sense of looking in and personal reflection.

Sophie Cahill artwork
Sophie’s project culminates in a large scale triptych, depicting three generations of her family upon huge canvases. The women have similar expressions and positions, with heads resting upon hands, looking in different directions. The stunning conclusion to her A Level Art project also provides an important visual record for her family, which will be treasured for generations to come.

What advice do you have for other high school Art students who wish to gain excellent grades?

Well, I don’t know how I would have done it without the help of my art teacher. He helped me progress so much in a year alone, and I think the thing that helped me progress the most was his constructive criticism. So if anyone tells you your work is fantastic and can’t be improved first time around, take the praise and the compliment but don’t be satisfied. Look for faults and actively seek criticism. If you take it constructively and work hard to improve, the praise at the end is far more rewarding than false praise at the start.

If you have enjoyed reading about Sophie’s A Level Personal Investigation, you might wish to view more of the Featured Art Projects on this website!


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