Face value

By Aaren Madden, January 2013

Portrait artist David Goatley believes everyone has a story that’s worth telling.

The Reluctant Sitter” is an oil painting by David Goatley depicting a common scene in the Montmartre district of Paris. A suited man sits awkwardly at an outdoor café table while a thin man with graying, long hair, large clipboard propped against his waist, looms over and sketches. His face is angled to allow his gaze to flit from paper to his unwilling subject’s face. Though his back is to us, we sense the sitter does not know quite where to direct his own eyes. His dining companion’s are cast down, intent on his meal, actively ignoring the unfolding drama. The crimson café sets off the two main characters by contrasting their cool grey clothing, thrusting the tension forward. The painting is about looking; specifically how we look at each other, and what we reveal or conceal in doing so. 

Goatley, primarily a portrait artist, finds this dynamic particularly fascinating. “The artists are producing a result very quickly in less than ideal conditions, and every now and again, you see someone doing that who can really draw…I kind of admire them for their tenacity,” he chuckles in his leisurely South London cadence. Goatley’s own subjects are seldom reluctant; in fact, most end up feeling incredibly special and find the experience profound, he says. After so many years, he has learned this about people: “Everybody is valuable. Everybody matters. Everybody has a story that is worth telling.”

Geographically speaking, Goatley’s story has two major chapters: he once said, “I was born in England, but I was made in Canada.” He studied at Camberwell College of Arts and worked in advertising in London for 16 years, eventually founding his own agency. With England in recession and a young family to support, he and his first wife, landscape painter Deborah Tilby, decided to make a go of it here in her hometown. Though the region was home to other great portraitists like Myfanwy Pavelic, a flood of commissions did not await when they arrived in 1992. To make a name for himself, Goatley embarked on a series of paintings of well-known figures in theatre, music and dance at the time, culminating in an exhibition called “Stage Struck.” His portrait of actor Colin Skinner was central at the actor’s memorial service. 

Since then, Goatley estimates he has done over 2000 portraits. The diverse list includes corporate and academic leaders; three Lieutenant Governors, including one recently unveiled of Steven Point; local philanthropists like Eric Charman and Jeneece Edroff; musicians, fellow artists, and a wide variety of men, women and children in various provinces and at least 24 states. Some of these, as well as other paintings by Goatley, are on display regularly at Morris Gallery in Victoria.

Though his career began in 1989, he knew he was a portrait painter at age 15 when he saw a Rembrandt painting at the National Gallery simply titled “Old Man in an Armchair.” “This is where it all started,” Goatley says, holding up a well-worn postcard of that very image. He was visiting the gallery with his father, a commercial artist, and realized, “When my father is that age, that’s what he is going to look like. And that is what I want to be able to do.” Remarkably, “he did end up looking very like this,” Goatley says—and he did get to paint that portrait. 

Recently, Goatley contributed two works to the exhibition and book, Art for an Oil-Free Coast. The project involved 50 artists travelling to various regions of the Great Bear Rainforest to document in original artwork what they saw. The 60 works are being auctioned off till January 9, with all proceeds to Raincoast Conservation Foundation’s oil-free coast campaign.

Goatley was the only portrait painter in the group, and since “part of the story is the people who will be affected by an oil spill up on that coast,” he was pleased to take part and travel to Klemtu. He was inspired by the people there, who, impossibly, have emerged from 90 percent unemployment in the 1980s to virtually 100 percent employment today in areas such as ecotourism, fishing, and selective logging. Their way of life will vanish with an oil spill.

The journey was affecting and the results are powerful: An image of hereditary chief Charlie Mason, “Telling it Like It Is,” (see front cover) is an invocation. A painting in landscape configuration is titled “Visions of the Future, Visions of the Past.” Elected Chief Doug Neasloss stands in the foreground, while Mason stands at the water’s edge, his back to the viewer, looking at the village (see painting behind Goatley in photograph to left). Neasloss looks over his shoulder and locks eyes with the viewer, offering a challenge and a question: See this place as I do. Will you allow this to be taken from us? In addition to these, Goatley is working on a series of paintings based on the people he encountered and came to know; he plans to return.

“The reason I started [painting portraits] in the first place is, I don’t think there is anything more interesting than people and their stories,” he shares. “Painting a portrait of someone is a relationship, an exchange. You can only paint what someone gives you. It’s a process of sharing your observations and their feelings about themselves…you get to know someone, and that’s a privilege.”

The portrait itself is the manifestation of this knowledge and the painter’s sustained gaze upon the sitter. It’s different from a photograph, which captures an instant in time. Here the viewer, in one image, is seeing hours of accumulated brushstrokes, gestures and choices that emerge into the finished product.

The inherent challenge is balancing the technical and the essential, or that which conveys in two dimensions the sum of who the sitter is as a person at that time; finding, as Goatley puts it, “the inner workings of the mind.”

Beginning with that goal is a fool’s game, though, he says. “I think portraits should be paintings first and likenesses second.” His first rule is to treat the sitter “like an object in space.” Mastering the technical—the highlights, shadows, proportions—reveals the essential. “If you are lucky and practised and good at this, you get to be able to find the inner life of somebody in a painting. You’ve got to get the outside right, and in doing that, the inside is revealed,” he explains, adding thoughtfully, “The life you’ve lived is in your face. If you’ve lived it well, your face tends to tell that story. If it has been difficult or traumatic or tough, that tends to be revealed in there, too.” 

Due to that—and perhaps not so unlike those wandering artists in Montmartre—Goatley is sometimes compelled to approach strangers on the street and ask to paint them. “Miso,” named for the sitter (who turned out to be an artist himself), is one result. He’s been known to offer the finished portraits back to the sitter free of charge: a Zimbabwean student at the University of Saskatchewan, who was a background model for its official portrait of Chancellor Vera Pezer, has an incredible Christmas gift for her mother this year. “Being able to do this is a gift,” Goatley concludes. “And gifts are only valuable if you share them.” 


David Goatley’s work can be seen at Victoria’s Morris Gallery on Alpha Street at 428 Burnside Rd East, 250-388-6652, www.morrisgallery.ca. Also see www.davidgoatley.com. Go to www.raincoast.org for more info on Art for an Oil-Free Coast, as well as a video on the project. The auction continues till January 9, 2013.

Aaren Madden admits to being an avid watcher of people.