Two Countries in One Portrait

written by Sophie | Sophie’s Studio

My Self Portrait with Dog was painted over the course of the months November 2017 until January 2018, although the seed for it was planted way before that still. In the painting I wanted to incorporate a few things as well as show my inspiration and influences. Yet the painting could not be an ode to some old masters; it had to be able to stand its own ground.  The original idea for the composition came from studying interior scenes in Dutch old master paintings. These often featured a peek into a back room where scenes played out that provided extra meaning to the main subject matter.  

Dutch Interior Scenes

Dutch 17th century masters such as Pieter de Hooch and Gabriel Metsu often used the idea of showing a room behind the room in which the main subject is situated. The back room often functioned to extend the context of the scene or to provide some symbolic meaning. The lighting in many of these masterpieces is often very beautiful and subtle. There is also often a handsome spaniel present. Well, I got one of those.... (next time I should portray him stealing some food as he is particularly good at that. His other talent is cuddles....)

Sophie Ploeg Blog De Hooch

Pieter de Hooch, Mother nursing her Child, oil on canvas, 80x60cm, 1674-76, Detroit Institute of Art

Sophie Ploeg Blog

Diego Velazquez, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, oil on canvas, 60x103cm, 1618

The idea for my painting was enhanced by seeing Velazquez's Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (National Gallery, London), where the peek-through is not very clear and realistic, but I really loved how the kitchen maid is placed in the foreground. Although the Velazquez painting is perhaps  a less clear influence for my self portrait, it lingered in my mind for a long time.

The idea for my self portrait simmered in my head for quite a few months. After a while I decided to try out some poses with my camera (which has a remote control). I tried different clothing and different props. First there was a laptop on the table, which proved too dominant in shape (large big and meaningless grey rectangle, seen from the back), then nothing (who to do with my hands?) and in the end I settled on a cup (of tea). 

Why a cup of tea? Well, besides the fact that I love tea, I also thought this would perfectly show one of the concepts in the work: my two home countries. 

My Two Home Countries

I moved to the United Kingdom in the year 2000 to be with my British (now) husband. In the many years I have been here (add to the 18 years the years of travelling back and forth, studying in the UK) I have come to love the UK as my main home. Yes, I miss the Dutch cheese and the Dutch directness but I don't think I could live without the rolling green hills, the country houses and the cream teas. I suppose my heart belongs to both countries by now. I am raising two young lads here and this is our home. 

Unfortunately the Brexit vote has caused a change in Britain that is significant. Much of the press and the government seem to have swayed to an anti-foreigner agenda, which creates strong feelings in everone, or so it seems. When I moved to the UK it was as simple as moving to another town. We simply hired a van and moved the contents of my small flat from The Hague to the UK. No questions asked, it was never a problem. I have always felt welcome and part of society here in the UK. We now see anti-immigrant sentiments and xenophobia all around us and all of a sudden politics has become more 'real' than ever before. 

My cup of tea can well be an innocent prop in my self portrait. A prop that shows I love my daily Earl Grey or English Breakfast. But a few might have noticed that it is a Spode porcelain cup, made in Stoke-on-Trent, and in a way, the British 19th century version of Delft Blue porcelain. In the painting I painted an antique map of The Netherlands on the wall behind me. In real life it is not there, I have included it for symbolic reasons; there are quiet references to both my home countries. 

Sophie Ploeg, Self Portrait with Dog, oil on panel, 80x60cm. Click to enlarge

What the Portrait Means to Me

Of course it is totally ok to not see or want to see any of these meanings in my painting. My art is not political, or socially critical,  and my self portraits are not always just about me. A work of art can have meaning for you that is personal to you and you alone. So although this is one of my more 'meaningful' paintings, it doesn't have to mean to you what it means to me. 

The Painterly Side of the Portrait

Although I chose a British cup of tea, and an antique map of Holland, I spent much more time on the aesthetic side of the painting. For me the aesthetic side is always the main consideration and the main topic of my works. I spent much more time painting the folds of the scarf and the wood grain of the table than thinking about meaning and symbolism (Hey, I am no conceptual artist). 

I worked hard on getting the cool light from a hidden window on the one side and the warm light of the room on the other side. The lighting had to read right on my hands, the cup, my face and the table.  I probably spent the most time on getting the values right. I wanted the back room to be lighter and brighter but remain in the background. That was a challenge I had to spent some time on to figure out. In the end I tried to solve it by keeping the values in the studio very close together (low contrast) and paint everything in that room in a high (bright) key. 

The foreground, on the other hand, had the more interesting light (a cool light from our right and a warm light from the left) and a much darker setting. The contrast is much stronger, creating the focus area I was after.

Sophie Ploeg self portrait

First colour block in of my self portrait


I always start painting with an underpainting in Burnt Umber and White (well, usually Warm White or Extra Brilliant Yellow Light) and create a rough set up of the whole painting. Some artists would go quite far with this and create a highly detailed monochrome depiction of the final painting. 

I keep things fairly simple and more importantly simplified. I paint the composition and fill in the darks and lights, I squint, and figure out if this could become the painting I intend to create. Doing this gives me the opportunity to double check values, composition, and to just see if the whole thing would work. In this case I also explored the value map (so to speak) in a pencil sketch first. 

After my monochrome underpainting I start blocking in some colour. This is still a very simplified process; the colours are 'average' colours and the result is a colour study. I do not paint in any transitions in light and shade and I don't paint any details. The dark green jumper is just a dark green shape or 'block' without any variation in colour or value.  Again, like at almost every stage of my painting, it gives me the opportunity to check and more importantly correct the overall effect of the painting. 

After this stage I move on to making the 'blocks' smaller and smaller, until I am working into very fine detail indeed. The brushes get smaller and the colours more subtle over the course of the painting process. 

This is not a Political Portrait

Did I paint a 'political portrait'? I don't think I did, although perhaps knowing what I just told you puts you off the painting. For me the painting is about my two home countries and only in the UK, in today's political climate, is having two home countries connected to Brexit. In the future, I hope, it will just refer to my two home countries, period. 

But at the end of the day it is very much about aesthetics as well. This is me, in my home, with my dog. Sometimes it is not a good thing to know what the artist intended or envisaged. At other times it adds interest and depth. I hope that for you it is the latter on this occasion. 

Sophie Ploeg self portrait

click images to enlarge

Sophie Ploeg self portrait
Sophie Ploeg self portrait
Sophie Ploeg self portrait
Sophie Ploeg self portrait

Published: April 24, 2018

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  1. Sophie – nice work…I find myself impatient for Tuesdays and a new insight from you!

    Looking at your painting, I see an issue that’s intrigued me ever since I tried to capture myself on canvas, which is “expression”. My family says I end up looking stern or even mean in my attempts and beg to see a friendlier face. My retort is that they’re seeing intensity and, in truth, I find it impossible to smile for three hours w/o looking goofy. The other challenge is coming up with a likeness that accurately represents my age. Have you experienced these issues too?

    1. Thanks so much John! Hope I can keep on providing insightful Tuesdays! 😉

      As for stern and mean faces…well just look at my latest pastel self portrait… It looks pretty grim to me, but I was simply concentrating while looking in the mirror. The grim concentrated expression is often the clearest give-away that a portrait is a self portrait painted from life. Nothing wrong with looking a bit stern now and then!

      As for age accuracy, mm, I must say I never really bother about that. I suppose if I would look a whole lot younger I would adjust as it would be very wrong ( or for fear of people calling me vain) but otherwise I don’t think I’d be interested in the right age. I think, generally speaking, it ends up about right. A self portrait is a great exercise in painting as we don’t need to please anyone and can experiment and play. Age, stern faces and likenesses are for once of no matter. The freedom is huge!

  2. Thanks so much for sharing your process, Sophie. I particularly like your description of the thought you put into the composition of the work, the light effects and the influence of the Old Masters. In my opinion, you have produced a work which does stand on its own, without explanation, but your description of the components and the meaning behind them gives a verbal aspect to the visual work. I also think it may really help those who may not be artists, when they view and read, to appreciate some of the processes which go into the production of a fine visual work. Well done, and well described!

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