About portraits

By Mads Rye

I am a figurative/realistic painter.I paint in oil on canvas. Ever since I was very young I have mostly wanted to paint portraits, and as long as I can remember I have been fascinated by the old masters and their techniques. In all the years I have painted I have strived to study them thoroughly.

I am self-taught. I have not received one hour of training. I have never had a mentor, and that, to all intents and purposes, sounds impressive. But actually it isn’t. It’s actually pretty stupid. If I had had a teacher, if I had gone to a school where I could have learned how to paint like they did in the past, then I could have saved myself so much frustration and disappointment over the years. It is therefore a great pleasure for me to be able to teach portraiture and to observe how fast my pupils achieve results they never thought possible, just by following tried and trusted procedure and using good materials.

I have often dreamed of what it would have been like to have been born hundreds of years ago. In times where a young person with potential talent could secure an apprenticeship with a master, learn their trade, become ultimately a master themselves and ensure the continuation of this knowledge to their own apprentices. And so on. And when I think about how much art was produced in those times I am in awe.

When I see a building such as Frederiksborg Slot, for example, where each and every square centimeter has been utilized in the presentation of gilt leather, decorative plaster, wood and gold-leaf work, tapestries, paintings etc, I am amazed. I look up at the ceiling and try and imagine the hours, days, years artists and craftsmen have lain on their backs on scaffolding blinded by dust, plaster and paint in the production of their art. It gives me great respect for my colleagues of these bygone eras.

But back to the present. It is not my mission to paint as in the old days. I endeavour to paint modern portraits of modern people, as an expression of the times we live in. But I do wish that my paintings rest on a solid foundation – based on the generations of painters before me.

I use photography as the basis for my portraits. “Just a minute, what did he say?” you may think. Didn’t he just talk about the methods of the old masters? Well yes, but photography, since its invention, has been used by painters. P.S. Krøjer, one of Denmark’s most respected and gifted artists, worked from photography for almost all of his paintings.

Remember, up until the emergence of photography, no-one had seen the world in black and white, and this tonal clarity was a great revelation in the artistic world. Before photography, painters used many inventive methods of securing their motif to the canvas. From the start of the Renaissance, where we see experimentation with concave mirrors and lenses, images have been projected onto canvases and walls. Caravaggio’s works, among many, are clear examples of this technique. And next door to Vermeer there lived a most talented maker of lenses, who later became the curator of his estate. Vermeer had constructed an enclosed dark room with a lens placed in the wall so his mirrored motif could be projected onto another wall. Take note if you will, almost all of his paintings are roughly the same size and have a window on the left side. These techniques were kept secret by the artists. Not because they were seen as cheating, but because they were regarded as trade secrets not to be gifted to the competition.

When I work on a portrait, as for example the one of danish politician Marianne Jelved, I always begin with a number of conversations with my subject. This is very important for the result and also makes the process easier when there is good chemistry between artist and sitter.
It is my preference if the basis of the painting is in a cooperation with the sitter. Sometimes I may have an idea for the motif even before the first meeting, but it happens often that we arrive at a different place after meeting than the one first imagined.

With Marianne Jelved’s portrait, we soon came to an agreement that it should focus on her professional life, together with her great interest in the Danish Golden Age in art. I painted her in a jacket that had a metal thread woven into the fabric – like a sort of chain mail. She is prepared to do battle so to speak. She shows confidence and intelligence. I’m sure that in a negotiation arena her “opponents” would definitely be in for a long day. As such, I also painted her features with the intention of giving the spectator the impression they were being followed around the room, not only by her eyes, but by her entire face. No escape. Nowhere to hide.

The physical process in creating the portrait begins with taking a series of photos. Out of these I will use one, perhaps several, in forming the basis of the final painting. I then proceed to establish a monochrome underpainting. The canvas and photographic material are then squared up to ensure my proportions are correct.

I use Belgian flax canvas and my colours are made by Old Holland – an artist’s paint manufacturer dating back to the 17th century. I ground my canvas with grey umbra and paint the underpainting in burnt umbra. The white canvas that many believe is the correct start to every painting was first “invented” by the impressionists, who wished to intensify the strength of their colourful palette. Before this, the canvas was prepared with a base colour of Green Earth, Venetian [Titian] Red, or Pale Umbra. The white canvas is a relatively modern invention.

When I have completed a detailed version of the motif in burnt umbra, I begin to paint this over – this time in full colour. Areas are painted to roughly 98% of completion. The background areas are tackled first. I begin with dark to light tones, and paint using a wet-on-wet technique. My palette is uncluttered: Paynes Grey, Red Umbra, Naples Yellow, Brilliant Yellow Light.

When the whole canvas is painted, I then see to it in detail. At the very end, I bring in my sitter once more to ensure I have captured the correct expression. Before I sign the canvas, I paint a self –portrait, hidden somewhere in the painting.

So, a detailed technical description of what I do. It has always been a personal irritation that my colleagues have purposely never revealed their hand, so to speak, when it comes to their expertise. I have often wished I was the proverbial fly on the wall that could flitt back and forth through time from one artist’s studio to another. It is understandable that some aspects of the painting process are hard to describe, such as personal opinions on expression and composition for example, but a little openness can be of great benefit to artists – both contemporary and future, and thus to art in general. Therefore, I begin with myself.

However, don’t suppose for a minute that this is me being super generous. It is also self-serving. I often believe that my working methods are misconceived by my colleagues, and conclusions are reached that may be way off the mark. Hopefully with clarity there will come more of an understanding of what I wish to achieve.

For me it is important that my portraits capture elements of a person’s true being. My technical ability is without meaning if it is impossible for me to imbue the sitter’s psyche. The technical likeness is only one fundament in the portrayal of this. Just as I expect a classical musician to play the notes he has before him, so too is his endeavor pointless if his exercise is purely superficial. The fascination with all forms of art is in the ability to convey in communication a pure feeling of depth and truth. My use of technical realism is to help to persuade the spectator that what he sees is real, and therefore become open to the acceptance of the all-important aspects of depth of character in the portrait.


In the summer of 1997 Mads Rye decided to concentrate on painting. It is at this point that his career really took off.
In 1998 he was accepted at both the Charlottenborg Spring Exhibition and Den Frie Autumn Exhibition, receiving in both cases very positive reviews.
In September 1999 he was invited to exhibit at Sophienholm where, as one of ten young artists, he was chosen to “lead painting into the new millennium”.
Since then, Mads has been represented by many of the biggest galleries in Denmark.

Mads Rye is a painter focusing on figurative realism, and is an extremely technically competent painter. He is most widely known for his portraits and has, in the last few years, completed works for both private and corporate clients in Denmark, Sweden, Ireland, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Japan and the USA. In connection with his first retrospective exhibition at Frederiksborg Castle he has been offered a position of guest professor at Beijing Art Academy.

Curriculum Vitae

Mads Rye (27-07-1956)
Selected Exhibitions

Frederiksborg Castle – Exhibition of 35 portraits brought home from Luxembourg, Spain, Switzerland, Ireland and Sweden in connection with the unveiling of the portrait of former Minister for Culture, Marianne Jelved, 2007.

From the autumn of 2006 to the present day, Mads Rye has worked exclusively on commissions. First and foremost portraits.

Gallerie Wolfsen – Aalborg, Denmark, September, 2006

Gallerihuset – Copenhagen, Summer 2006

Sheen Falls Lodge – Ireland, Spring 2005

Gallerihuset – Copenhagen, Spring 2005

Copenhagen Art Fair – Gallerihuset, September, 2004

Gallerihuset – Copenhagen, Autumn 2004

Gallerihuset – Copenhagen, Autumn 2003

Det Hemmelige Galleri – Herning, Denmark, Autumn 2002

Galerie Wolfsen – Aalborg, Denmark, April, 2002

The 5 on Tour – Exhibition Tour in Denmark 2000 – 2002, arranged by The Secretariat of Exhibition Tours, The Danish Arts Foundation.

Copenhagen Art Fair, Galleri Egelund, September, 2001

Sønderborg Slot – Denmark, June, 2001

Galerie Wolfsen – Aalborg, Denmark, April, 2001

Galleri Egelund – Copenhagen, May, 2000

Galleri Egelund – Copenhagen, December, 1999

Copenhagen Art Fair – Galleri Egelund, September, 1999

Sophienholm – Copenhagen, August, 1999

Galleri Epoke – Copenhagen, August, 1999

The Autumn Exhibitions ’Den Frie’ – Copenhagen, 1998

The Spring Exhibition Charlottenborg – Copenhagen 1998

Galleri Florence Gifu – Japan, 1996 and 1997

1 % – Galleri Tauber & Christensen, Copenhagen, 1996

Mother Towles Collection – Boston, 1995

Babylon Utopia – Glyptoteket, Copenhagen, 1993

Parafrase – Brøndsalen, Copenhagen, 1993

Naked and Nude – Brøndsalen, Copenhagen, 1992