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The Future of Portrait Painting

From remarks delivered January 27, 2006, at the Carolina Country Club,
Raleigh, North Carolina, marking the thirtieth anniversary of Portraits South.

he great artist Richard Schmid—perhaps the foremost living American artist—in his brilliant book of instruction and counsel, Alla Prima, says this: "May each painting that you do... include an expression of gratitude for the extraordinary privilege of being an artist."

I love that quotation. First of all, I note that we are to be thankful that we are artists, but more than that—that we should recognize that being an artist is a privilege—and that the privilege is a sacred gift.

How do we respond to this? How do we respond to the extraordinary gift of a precious privilege? The answer is: by being the very best artist that we can be.

It means that—no matter what our age or no matter how many years we have been in this business—we daily strive to improve our craft, our drawing, our tonal values, our color, our design. We are never satisfied. That elusive masterpiece still lies out before us somewhere.

Dear friends, I heard something the other day that I found deeply troubling. It was a casual remark from a beloved longtime friend and fellow artist. I will not mention his name, because most of us in this room would recognize it. This artist is a painter of children's portraits, and I had asked him to describe his methods. Here, in part, is what he said: "After the child is dressed and ready, we go into the back yard. I have my 35mm digital camera ready, and I follow the child around the yard, snapping rapidly as we go. The next day, back in the studio, I select the best one and go to work."

I remember saying to myself, "God help us!" Have we come to this? Following a child around the backyard, snapping candid photos, one of which will be enlarged, hand-colored and framed? Have we come, at last, to this?

If that is where we are—and every exhibition of contemporary portraiture that I see seems to confirm that is indeed is where we are—then we are staring directly at the imminent demise of portrait painting.

If we have reduced the noble art of Velázquez, Rembrandt and Van Dyck to following a child around the backyard with a 35mm SLR, then we are finished. Finished, utterly, as one of the great artistic pursuits of mankind—a pursuit that began before the dawn of history, flourished during many great centuries, reached its apogee in the eighteenth century, and died pathetically, unmourned, in the twenty-first.

Can we avoid such a melancholy end? Of course we can. How? By returning—every one of us—to the principles and standards that elevated this profession to be the crowning glory of the Louvre, the Prado, the Uffizi, and the Metropolitan... by working diligently at our command of drawing, by straining to grasp the subtleties of the tonal values, by worshiping at the altar of nature's exquisite color in all its complexity and diversity—and by studying the giants of the past, those titans in the museums who have shown us the way.

We can save our profession from extinction, we can restore it, we can enhance it by a determined study of the great masters. There is the solution: a determined study of the great masters. And by turning our backs on the effects of the candid backyard image.

But now I'm preaching. You know that I love you all, and I am so proud to be a member of this group. I hope that you will not hold against me that bit of chastisement. It is a warning delivered from the heart.

God bless you all, and God bless us as we work to carry portrait painting to new heights. We can do it. Thank you, and good night.



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