From the August/September 2013 Issue:

The Art of Portraits

    Writer: John Zeaman |

Capturing the nuances of expression and personality

The profession of portrait painter might seem as outdated as that of town crier or iceman. Hasn’t photography in all its manifestations obviated the need for hand-rendered likenesses?

Well, no.

Although most people are more than satisfied with the likenesses they see of themselves on camera phones, iPads and social media, a small minority still want it done the old-fashioned way.

For some, it’s tradition and status. Presidents, senators, members of royal families, judges, billionaires, society doyennes, CEOs and all those who wish to be in that company have their portraits painted.

An even smaller number love art and know there’s something in the painted likeness that can’t be had in a photographic one.

I recently spoke with three portrait painters about the state of a profession that has probably been around longer than the written word.

They come from different backgrounds and graduated from different colleges. As it turns out, however, all three did postgraduate study at Manhattan’s Art Students League, a bastion of realist art whose alumni list reads like a Who’s Who in American art of the past hundred years.

Ellen Eagle works out of an attic studio in her Glen Ridge, Essex County, home. She is a rarity among portrait painters in working almost exclusively in pastels. She is the author of Pastel Painting Atelier, a book on the history and craft of the medium. Her work has been exhibited in one-person shows at Forum Gallery on Manhattan’s 57th Street, Tomasulo Gallery in Cranford and numerous group exhibits, including one at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton.

Mark Kevin Gonzales is a Brooklyn artist in his 30s. Early in his career, he won the Edward T. McDowell travel grant, which sent him to Europe for postgraduate study. He has also won second place out of 13,000 contestants in The Artist’s Magazine competition and a certificate of honor from the Portrait Society of America.

Jamie Lindholm lives and works in Martinsville, Somerset County. Up until 10 years ago, she was still juggling a career as a business analyst with her art pursuits. Now she devotes herself full-time to art— painting portraits, teaching classes and handling administrative responsibilities with the Portrait Society of America.

Making Connections
Photography is both a rival and a tool for contemporary portrait painters. You can find artists on the Internet who will turn a photograph into a painting without ever seeing you face to face. Eagle, Gonzales and Lindholm insist on the importance of working from life, though all use photographs for reference, especially for such secondary details as clothing or interior décor. Photographs are even more essential when the subject is someone who can’t sit still for long, such as a child or a pet (dog portraits have become especially popular in recent years). Busy executives also fall into this category.

The problem with relying too much on photographs for the likeness and characterization is that you end up with a painting of a photograph rather than a person. “No matter how many megapixels you have, a photo won’t have all the information that the eye picks up,” Lindholm says. “Photos rarely capture the full range of light and darks. Or the subtleties of emotion.”
Plus, photos leave out that extra something that happens between the painter and the subject during a sitting. “I get to know the person,” Gonzales says. “We talk. They tell me about themselves. And that sense of personality or character is an essential part of the process.”

How Long? How Much?
How many sittings does it take to do a portrait? Picasso reportedly made Gertrude Stein endure 90 sittings. Dissatisfied, he wiped out the face and left for Spain. (On returning, he painted in a primitive, mask-like face inspired by archaic Iberian sculpture.) Few sitters have the time or the fortitude for such prolonged sessions.

Eagle would seem to have the most patient subjects. She says an ideal schedule for her is 10 to 15 sessions of two to three hours each. She has a meticulous pastel technique that involves carefully building up layers of unblended color so as to simulate the depth and subtlety of flesh tones.

Gonzales says the course of every portrait is different but that sometimes he can capture the essence in a single sitting. Even in a case like that, however, he usually will keep the painting in the studio for several months to bring it to a state of finish.

So what does it cost?

Prices vary widely depending on the size, the medium and the artist. A charcoal sketch might cost a few hundred dollars, whereas a full-length, multiple-figure family portrait will cost in the tens of thousands. Most painters will do a small-format portrait—maybe 9 by 12 inches—but the most typical format takes in a person’s head and shoulders and is roughly life size. For that, Gonzales charges $2,000; Lindholm, $5,800; and Eagle, $6,000. Children’s portraits are usually much less, perhaps half or even a third the cost of an adult portrait. Full-length adult portraits can be two to three times the cost of a head-and-shoulders format.

Portrait painting is the only painterly genre in which the subject can approve or disapprove of the outcome. To prevent misunderstandings, artists often will do a study to give the subject an idea of how the end product will look. Lindholm does as many as three of these, one for composition, one for dark and light values, and one for color. “My goal is to have no surprises at the end,” she says.

That is not to say that subjects don’t ask for and get changes. John Singer Sargent, one of the most successful portrait painters of all time, once defined a portrait as “a painting in which there is something wrong with the mouth.”

More typically, a client wants to be flattered a bit. “They want fewer wrinkles, or if it’s a man who’s balding, he wants more hair,” Gonzales says.

Columnist John Zeaman is a freelance art critic who writes regularly for The Record and Star-Ledger newspapers. His reviews of exhibits in New Jersey have garnered awards from the New Jersey Press Association, the Society of Professional Journalists (New Jersey chapter) and the Manhattan-based Society of Silurians, the nation’s oldest press club. He is the author of Dog Walks Man, (Lyons Press, September 2010) about art, landscape and dog walking.