Fanny Rush on favourite portraits, intensive processes, and how young artists can find success

Photography by C.Chris Tubbs

London portrait artist Fanny Rush has been painting portraits for over 20 years, gaining commissions from high profile political figures and glitterati across the globe. Think US Ambassador Robert Tuttle, Nobel Laureate Sir Paul Nurse, Sir Michael Dixon and Charles Dance OBE amongst many others.

Fascinated by the forgotten techniques of Old Masters and studying their original texts, her paintings are labour intensive and require an immense amount of technical skill.

Rush was born into a family of artists. She is the daughter of sculptor Caroline Lucas and landscape painter Peter Rush. She is the sister of sculptor Joe Rush, who is also the creator of Mutoid Waste Company and the art director of Glastonbury Festival. Rush is also granddaughter to Mary Norton, known for her classic children's books The Borrowers and Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

Rush has a beautiful studio/living space in Nine Elms which she has recently renovated after buying two adjoining properties and knocking them through. The art-filled space is full of antiques Rush has collected on her travels as well as artworks by her family members.

Is it too obvious to ask whether you were creative as a child?

My parents are artists, and we were always making art, it was normal rather than exciting. I remember the first time I saw light and colour work together. When I was about eight years old I ran into our dining room where my mother had put a vase of yellow daffodils on a dark polished table, the sunlight from the window was hitting the daffodils and bouncing a yellow reflection from them onto the tabletop. It stopped me in my tracks.

Photography by C.Chris Tubbs

Photography by C.Chris Tubbs

Photography by C.Chris Tubbs

Photography by C.Chris Tubbs

You have an incredible family. Are you all competitive with one another? Any sibling rivalry?

We get on really well; there is no rivalry probably because we all work in very different ways. Joe and I are both independently inspired by the same artists of the past, and it is great to be able to discuss them with him.

It must have been special growing up with your grandmother. Did she read you those stories?

She was a wonderful woman, strong and very elegant; she did everything beautifully. I think I get my strong sense of design form her. She wasn't the story reading type of grandma. I took myself off to read her books on my own.

Other than an inspiring family and background, what else inspires your work?

I love strong shapes and colours and the way they work together with light. The painters who inspire me are Rembrandt, Goya, Titian and Velasquez for their technique, and Hammershoi, William Nicolson, Wyeth for their use of light. Then Hopper, Matisse and Degas for style. Great photographers inspire me too, namely Cartier Bresson, Cecil Beaton and Irving Penn.

Photography by C.Chris Tubbs

Photography by C.Chris Tubbs

Photography by C.Chris Tubbs

Photography by C.Chris Tubbs

Your process sounds intensive, can you tell us more?

I studied the works and the writings of the great Old Master painters and learned everything I know from them. I find that when I have read their original texts and return to their paintings, I see them at a deeper level and notice their techniques and so my work evolved too.

It is intensive – it's a bit like playing chess, paint is put down in a way that will evolve into what I want by the layering of other techniques of panting, frottage and glazes. Even though it's slow, it's always exciting because it is continuously changing.

If you ever get stuck, what do you do to get going again?

I quite often get stuck, something just won't go right when I'm trying to refine it, and the only thing I can do is stop before too much damage is done. I will always see the problem more clearly the next day. I might go onto a different part of the painting that needs big, bold strokes and which is more fun, or I might take the dog for a walk.

Sunil Mittal

Sunil Mittal

Marcelle and Sally

Marcelle and Sally

What do you do if you're ever unhappy with a painting – do you start again or stick at it?

I'm unhappy with lots of parts of every portrait as I work. It is this that makes me work on to get it right, and that is where the joy is; when suddenly it shifts into place. The only portrait I have abandoned was a self-portrait. I couldn't be objective enough to get it right. I gave myself a good talking to, tried again and painted exactly what I saw in the mirror; this was more successful.

Do you have a favourite portrait? Can you tell us the story behind it?

I think my favourite portrait is one of my brother Sam. It's quite an old one, and I can appreciate its value more as time has moved on. I have painted some incredible people all over the world, to be part of their lives for a short time is fascinating.

Do you get your subjects to sit for you? Or do you work from photographs?

When I meet my subjects in their own environment, I notice how they hold themselves and how they look when they are relaxed and engaged. I quickly see how I would like to paint them, and I design my photographs around this idea. It works best if I'm sent off on a stream of talking about myself while I'm clicking away. I want them to be engaging with me, so the portrait painted from these reference photographs will engage with whoever is looking at it. It sounds quite rude, but I never ask them a question because I don't want them to stop and think and talk to me, I want them to forget that they are being photographed.

After we have agreed on our favourites photographs, I can start the portrait. I paint the majority in my London studio up until it's almost finished. Then I need a live sitting. This is to put right anything that my sitters feel needs changing, there won't be much, just a tweak, and I may also see something different when they are in front of me.

I paint internationally, and often my sitters are very busy, so this method works well, I can do the final sitting as I deliver the portrait. We usually have a portrait launch party for all their friends with the painting still slightly damp in places.

Elizabeth Philion

Elizabeth Philion

Cherry and Frank

Cherry and Frank

What features of a person are most challenging to paint? And which are most enjoyable?

Hands, hands are so hard, much harder than faces to get right because the fingers go off into different directions, and the hand is at a different angle every time. At least a skull doesn't move about.

I love painting faces; there is something almost magical about how a few splodges of paint on a piece of fabric can engage with you, and say thank you every time I get some part of it absolutely right.

Your studio in Nine Elms sounds beautiful. Can you describe it?

It was initially a separate flat and office space with a large storage room over two floors. I knocked through, gutted it and rebuilt all the internal walls and staircases. It was wonderful to have so much freedom, and I turned it into my ideal space to live and work. It's a bit unusual, my bedroom and studio are all on the same floor divided by my bathroom and downstairs is just one massive room with a little garden at the back.

Issac, Charles and Raphael

Issac, Charles and Raphael

Charles Dance

Charles Dance

What advice would you give to emerging artists hoping to find similar success?

Just keep on going, don't get downhearted you will always improve if you continue with it, it's like doing anything else. And read everything you can about your craft, even if you are reading the same thing over again from different sources it will go in deeper. Sometimes you will fall on a gem that you haven't come across before that transforms your work. Never stop reading and looking at the work of other artists, as you improve, you will understand it at different levels.

Photograph your best work and show it to as many people as you possibly can. Don't pre-judge who will be interested and you will be surprised.