Originally Published 25 January 2019
For as long as I can remember, I have always enjoyed drawing. However, I developed a love for drawing portraits at the age of 14. I was working on my Junior Cert art project, which was entitled “My Granny’s Attic”. As part of that, I decided to draw some old black and white family photographs – the type that I might have found in my grandmother’s attic! After I did one, I just wanted to do another one, and then another one. Before I knew it, the entire project consisted of drawings of old photographs of my grandparents, great grandparents, and other older family members. When the project ended, I could not stop, and I went on to draw portraits of various personalities whose photos I found in books or online. That was the beginning of over twenty years of portrait drawing. These drawings dominated my spare time and thoughts for many of the following years.
My name is Mark O’Keeffe and I work as a Senior Front-End Developer for a FinTech company in Dublin. My father, John O’Keeffe, worked in I.T. for many years before he retired. It always seemed like an exciting industry in which to work. Specifically, I enjoy the manipulation of data and the creation of innovative user experiences and interfaces, and the creativity that this requires. I am from Dublin and have always enjoyed living here. It is big enough to always have something new to offer. But also it is small enough to make it feel like home.
Outside of my job, I love to draw pencil portraits of people. The challenge of creating the illusion of a personality and mood on a two-dimensional surface is something that excites me a lot. If a person looks at a portrait that I have drawn and perceives this collection of black lines on a page as a real human being, I am very happy. This is especially so when they try to imagine what the subject is thinking about or doing at that point in time; that means that they have been taken in by the illusion.
The first portrait that I drew was in 1998 and it was a drawing of my grandfather, Patrick O’Keeffe. I did it from an old photograph from 1941 of him in his back garden sitting on a deck-chair and reading the newspaper. I often think to myself that little did he know, as he sat there on that day seventy-eight years ago, that he was kick-starting a life-long passion in portraiture for his then-unborn grandson!
I consider Robert Ballagh to be the best portrait artist out there. He achieves a level of realism and accuracy in his work that is impossible to match. His portrait of Noel Browne is, in my opinion, the best portrait by any artist that I have ever seen. A number of years ago, I was fortunate enough to meet Robert Ballagh and present him with a portrait that I drew. When, about a year later, I saw a photograph in The Irish Times of him working in his studio with my framed portrait sitting on the desk beside him, it absolutely made my day!
Everything in a portrait, for me, is about realism. It has to look real. I am firmly of the view that realism does not consist of just one element. Reality consists of a multitude of details. Everything plays a crucial role in creating that reality. I often hear people say that the most important part of a portrait is the eyes; I completely disagree. Every detail is as important as the next one: the eyes, the cheeks, the shape of the forehead, etc. There are no minor details. They are all major. Therefore, I never regard a portrait as completed until everything has been done. If I draw a face that I am happy with, the poise of the person can still be ruined if I get the shape of the shoulders wrong. Portraiture is composite by nature.
I draw from photographs. So I spend a lot of time looking at the photo and assessing the distances between various elements in the drawing – it is very important to focus on ensuring that accuracy in distance is maintained as much as possible. The very first thing that I do is identify the very central point of the image (as opposed to the face). This will guide me in determining how high up the page to begin drawing, as I do not want to later find out that part of the face will be cut off the page! I then begin drawing the eye that is on the right of the page. The reason for this is that the eyes are typically the most centrally located features on the face, and I can work outwards from there. I always start on the eye to the right due to the fact that I am left-handed. Generally, after the eyes, I will work upwards to just above the eyebrows and then downwards to the upper cheeks and outwards to the tops of the ears. I would then go back up and complete the forehead and some of the hair, and then back down to the lower cheeks, ears, and nose. I would gradually continue to work outward in this fashion. Typically, I prefer to have the top of the head completed before the bottom of the head. I find that this helps me to better determine the overall shape of the head.
The amount of time that it takes to complete a portrait varies from one to another. Some have more detail in them than others. I tend to draw in the evenings or at weekends. So I would complete a portrait in bits and pieces gradually. It could take me anything up to three weeks to complete one on this basis (depending on what I else I have on). But I would estimate that one could take me about 20 hours or so to complete in total. I personally go at a snail’s pace, as I approach every pencil stroke very cautiously.
In late 2000, I was 17 years old. I had been drawing portraits for two years and was very excited by it all. Towards the end of that year, I heard on the news that the then U.S. President, Bill Clinton, would be visiting Ireland for a third and final time as president before he would leave office in January. There and then, I decided that he was going to receive a portrait of himself whilst he was here. I did not know how or where this would happen. But I had set myself a challenge and I was determined that one way or another, he was going to receive a portrait.
As I thought about how to achieve this, I realised that I should send the portrait to the then Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, and ask him if he might present the portrait to President Clinton. To be frank, I did not think that there was a huge prospect of the Taoiseach doing this. But I reckoned that it was worth a try, as I thought that it would be amazing if he did. So I drew the portrait and sent it to Bertie Ahern’s office in Drumcondra. Bill Clinton came and went, and to my utter shock, I received a letter from Bertie Ahern soon afterwards, informing me that he gave the president the portrait and thanking me for sending it to him. As a 17-year-old Leaving Cert student, I was gobsmacked and it spurred me on to send portraits to many other such individuals over the subsequent years. Indeed, Bertie Ahern would later go on and present more of my portraits to Pope Benedict XVI and to the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair.
John Hume, a person who I greatly admire, wrote a very nice letter to thank me and to invite me to meet with him if I was ever in Derry. George H. W. Bush, the late U.S. President, wrote to tell me that my portrait of his father, Prescott Bush, meant a great deal to him as he said that he still missed him a lot, despite him being gone for many years. Noam Chomsky, the iconic linguist and philosopher, told me that my portrait of him won the approval of his grandchildren.
Out of all my portraits, I am particularly proud of a portrait that I completed last year of my lovely wife, Caoimhe. I asked my sister to take a photo of her on the morning of our wedding day for the purpose of drawing her. It was very special to be able to draw her and I was delighted when she too was happy with it.
The first gallery that accepted my work was the Nora Dunne Gallery in Kimmage in Dublin. For many years, one of my goals in life was to have my work displayed in a gallery. In 2009, I heard that Ben Dunne had opened a new art gallery in Dublin. So I wrote to him and sent him copies of some of my work. When I received an invitation to meet his curator, Karen Harper, and she accepted my work into the gallery, it was an enormously exciting moment for me.
Later that same year, I approached the Apollo Gallery on Dawson Street in Dublin, which was then curated by the late Hugh Charlton. To my absolute delight, they also accepted my work. This was a fantastic opportunity for me. The Apollo Gallery was a very well-known gallery in Dublin City Centre and had been around for decades, and was famous for its collection of Markey Robinson and Jack B. Yeats paintings. The gallery had a very long window running along Dawson Street and on its other side along Duke Street. So any time that one of my portraits was placed in the window, it would receive a lot of attention from passers-by in a very busy part of Dublin. It was great for advertising my work and it resulted in a lot of sales and commissions.
I do see many similarities between my time as a portrait artist and my work in tech – both require great attention to detail as well as a lot of patience. Both require logical approaches and both have strict acceptance criteria; in the case of my portraits, I cannot allow myself to deviate from the image from which I am drawing. As a front-end software developer, part of my work involves creating positive user experiences through the building of innovative user interfaces. This requires a good eye for visuals. This is also a requirement of my portraiture.
I think that my work as a portraitist has benefitted my technological career. In many ways, it requires a similar mindset and approach. You are forced to work in a methodological fashion and you have to bring a lot of patience to it. It forces you to focus on small details, and you work to a strict set of criteria.
I would advise any aspiring portrait artist to be patient with themselves. The required skill-set can be developed over time with practice and you learn what techniques work well. It is very easy to get frustrated when things do not go as you hoped that they would. Remember that a face consists of much more than eyes, ears, a nose, and a mouth. You need to focus on all of the details. Also, remember that pencil strokes should not look like pencil strokes. Become familiar with ways in which pencil strokes can be made to resemble various textures, such as smooth skin, thick hair, or an iris. Pay special attention to depth in a face; you need to remember that you are trying to replicate a three-dimensional image on a two-dimensional space.
I think it is very important to share the artistic passions of technologists around the world. It demonstrates that technology is open as a career for anybody across the board. The skills and attributes that are developed in other areas can be very fruitful to a technological career. It also serves as a reminder that there can be more to life that technology and that it is important to experience and enjoy things from across the spectrum.
To contact Mark about his portraits, you can get in touch with him through firstname.lastname@example.org. To check out Mark’s website, check out the following link: