Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Sargent, Portraits, and Me.

Supposedly John Singer Sargent's definition of a painted portrait was; "A picture of someone in which
there is something not quite right about the nose." Well, for the past month and a half I have been wrestling
with getting noses, teeth, rocks, folds, flesh, etc, to look like there is nothing wrong with the way in which
I have depicted them, in a commissioned portrait.

Back in the middle of the summer, I took the "Bolt" bus to New York City, to discuss the working procedure
and other aspects of creating a double-portrait of my subjects.

As usual on long bus rides, I passed the time secretly sketching my dozing fellow passengers.

My clients live on the Upper West Side, in one of those beautiful, old, and historic "Brownstones."

Although the interior of their home would have been fun to include as a background for the portrait,
they chose instead to be painted out in their quiet garden, where they spend most of their  time
during the spring and summer. This was a "test shot;" one of many I took on my first visit.

The following week I took many many more photos of them, and the details in their garden, to refer to
once I returned to my studio to do an initial but rough sketch, in the same size as the final portrait, for their

After their approval, I did an even more detailed sketch, this time to pin down every element of the painting,
before transferring the drawing to the canvas. In this detail, you can see the "code" I came up with, to guarantee getting the darks (B) and the halftones (H) where they actually were, in the rock wall. 

With the drawing in reverse on my lightbox, I once again went over every line, this time with a soft pastel pencil, then flipped the drawing into position onto the canvas...and traced everything one final time,
then sprayed the drawing with a "workable" fixative. (whew!)

Finally, I actually get to lay out my colors, and start painting. My goal is to keep moving around the canvas,
getting all the values and colors right, so they will function as a FOIL, for the main stars of this pictorial
event, my clients, who I leave to the very end.

Taaa-taaaaaa! After about 3 weeks of painting, I am satisfied with the final portrait, and I feel I captured
the likeness of my clients, and their environment. The BIG question, of course, is whether they will agree?

This past Saturday I once again made the trip up to New York City, and delivered the painting.

My clients/friends LOVED IT. We celebrated with  a relaxing and delicious brunch, and I ended my day in New York over on the east side of Central Park, where there is a wonderful showing of the "Impressionist" paintings, of the Master himself,...John Singer Sargent.


  1. Love this Bill! Just wonderful...as always!

  2. So cool to see your process, Bill! Ahh! and love the Sargent photo. You spin a great visual story! Hope all is well...Happy Holidays!!

  3. Thank you Ellen and Amy.
    There were actually many more tracings, and revisions, and more tracings, than shown.
    But I figured, its one thing for me to have to go through all the preliminary "drudge" stages, but another to boooor my readers with the processes.

  4. BRAVO!
    And I Love the 'procrastination' sign over yr workdesk.

  5. Whaaaaaat!?
    Me...? A Procrastinator!!!!!!!!!!??????
    You are just a bit toooo crafty-eyed,
    Madame PB.
    Today I'm heading into Philly to see your
    show at Alliance Fransaise.

  6. Hi Bill, really interesting to see your progress there and to compare your commissioned work with the work you started in John's workshop. I love the girl in blue you started on the Sunday. I do like the loosness of it and I also like the idea of "many starts" with the same surface and model. I am interested to know - seeing as John had a wooden palette there was he working in acrylic or oils? And how about yourself?
    As to the commissioned work, yes it is tighter, but as you say that is usually what the clients want to see and you got the likeness and the fond relationship between them spot on. I did a similar one for (and of) the parents of a young woman I know whose mum was dying with cancer. I worked from photographs (it's over a year ago now) and she was able to see it before she died and knew her husband had that fond memory of her. So art serves different purposes Bill at different times but it was quite sad to do.

  7. Thanks, Sheila, for your comments and input.
    The only works I've ever seen of John's have been in oils.