x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Custom portrait basics

Having customised portraits is not so much de rigueur as yet another sign of our self confidently strident egotism

There was a time when having art commissioned for you either indicated your rank in Debrett's Peerage or your role as muse to Francis Bacon. Not so these days. It seems that having customised portraits is not so much de rigueur as yet another sign of our self confidently strident egotism. Take, for example, the rise in the number of portrait photography studios in the UAE. This week I've been sent three links to check websites should I want a Mario Testino-style black and white image of myself to adorn my home. I'm trying not to bow to pressure but I question whether the need for a huge canvas of one's family in the living room does not in fact underline our obsession with celebrity. Are celluloid images surpassing the world of canvasses? After all, the bidding war and ultimate sale of images of the twins Knox and Vivienne Jolie-Pitt equalled that of a minor Picasso and surpassed some of art's greatest masters. For the US$14 million (Dh51 million) reportedly spent, one could do rather well at Christies.

Walk into any villa in a gated community and you'll probably be confronted with a family photographed in artfully casual gear which looks more like an advert for Gap than a token of family affection. These photographs seem to scream "Don't we have it all?" (And invariably it seems that they do). The house, the family and now the famous photograph which is framed, signed and often worth up to, or over, Dh45,000. Possibly more tasteful than the old masters style portrait photos which are often for sale in shopping centres, the family group portrait seems to underscore a need in society to be someone and reiterates that we have not progressed that far from the era of the stately home gallery.

Another way to reinforce this is to go the Pop Art route, where for a few thousand dirhams you can commission your own faux Warhol portrait or Lichtenstein canvas. I had thought of getting something from the local art wizard Nora Badanian, whose work combines some witty takes on Pop Art themes with corporate and personal commissions. What has stopped me is deciding how I wanted to be portrayed - after all art is forever.

In addition, there are the myriad websites which offer art to go with your home decor. In essence, it's the sort of colour matching service which some people mistake for real taste. Art should never match your sofa. If it does, then you are probably living in a hotel-like environment where bland is the overriding ethos and personality is destroyed. So how should you avoid some basic pitfalls? If you do want to commission some work, firstly it's best to know the artist concerned and meet before the project starts. Check their credentials and if you want to get advice go to a recognised gallery and get some recommendations. The Majlis Gallery in Dubai is a good place to start as it represents many artists who offer this sort of service. Once you've met the artist, he or she should get to know you and hopefully take a detailed brief of your tastes and expectations. Next, you should have in mind what you want - whether it's an abstract representation of an emotion, a more straightforward portrait, a sentimental gift for a loved one or a favourite landscape. (If you have any tear sheets or clippings to show the artist, even better). Then decide on the size and budget and ask to see the work as it takes shape. You won't be getting a bargain; this kind of work takes time, so being in control of how your work turns out is your right, not a privilege. Lastly, don't make the mistake of framing the portrait poorly. Nothing is worse than an overly decorative frame or setting which detracts from the actual image.