A Portrait of John Howard Sanden
We Catch a Modern Master at His Easel

International Artist Magazine, October/November 2001.

Gordon Wetmore
The Portrait Society of America is pleased to present a feature article on the work of John Howard Sanden who has been in the forefront as a teacher. He and his wife Elizabeth have pioneered the type of teaching seminars that have been held in recent years. He is a valued friend and mentor, as he has been to many artists.

Gordon Wetmore
Chairman, Portrait Society of America

John Howard Sanden with Billy Graham
The Rev. Billy Graham sits for his portrait in the Carnegie Hall, New York studio.

I f you are involved in portrait painting, I'm sure you'll agree with me that it is an extraordinarily difficult and demanding profession. It requires years of training and practice, followed by a lifelong commitment to continuing study and growth as an artist. Every successful portraitist that I know is, above all, a hard worker. A good personal motto for the portrait artist is "never anything but my best".

With every new assignment, the artist eagerly sets out to achieve three things. First, the very best painting of which he or she is capable - a true work of art in all the meanings and implications of that term. Second, a portrayal of the subject that will bring pleasure and satisfaction to client and subject alike, and third, a technically sound product that will endure. This is a big assignment. The possibilities for success are truly staggering to contemplate. The painter realizes that the next painting could be a masterpiece, eventually earning for itself space in a great museum and immortality for the artist in the annals of history. After all, those beautiful portraits in the world's museums were originally just one more "job" to the artist who created them.

Samuel Edmund Oppenheim, my mentor at the Art Students League of New York back in the seventies, was fond of saying that, "There is nothing worth knowing about portrait painting - literally nothing - that cannot be learned by sitting patiently in front of a painting by Velázquez".

Every great art museum is, in effect, a museum of the art of portraiture. The Metropolitan in New York, the Louvre in Paris, the Prado in Madrid, the Uffizzi in Florence all have their assortment of great portraits as the foundation and centerpiece of their collections. You may be surprised to discover just how central to these museums the art of the portrait artist is.

Two Approaches
Throughout the long practice of portraiture, two dominant stylistic approaches have shaped the flow of history. One very influential school has been that of the concealed brushstroke, whereby the artist seeks to render the image with a careful and polished technique. The final results are achieved through a build-up of layers of work. Obvious examples of this approach are works by Holbein, David and Ingres.

A competing approach is a direct attack on the canvas, in which the image begins to take on its final look with the very first strokes of color. Examples of this approach are works by Velázquez, Van Dyck and Hals.

 Whatever the approach, the very first lesson we learn by studying the work of the giants of portraiture is that our portrait must portray a real, living human being who looks as if they are on the verge of moving and speaking. Not an idealized or enhanced portrayal, mind you, but a straightforward, true-to-life rendition of the remarkable human being who sits before you.

The portrait masters also captured the dignity and pageantry of life, which they achieved with breathtaking subtlety of execution. Their people were "real". However, the portrait giants worked with the greatest economy of means, presenting us with another lesson - simplicity is almost always best.

Different portrait painting methods

There are at least seven ways for the portrait artist to proceed. Be aware that two are very difficult and dangerous, and one is hard to justify.

1. Entirely from life sittings
This is the historic procedure. The artist places his canvas alongside the sitter, who sits or stands on a small platform. The artist proceeds entirely from observation.

2. From life sittings and studies
Here the artist prepares preliminary studies and sketches in advance, from which the final canvas is developed in the studio. The assignment may be completed with sittings from life, with finishing touches based on direct observation. The great French painter lngres created his portraits of the Emperor Napoleon in this way.

3. Entirely from studies
Here the artist brings the painting to conclusion without a final reference to the sitter. This is very difficult and requires a great memory.

4. From life sittings and supplementary photographic references
The artist begins the painting directly from the posed sitter. During the sittings, photographs are taken, which allow the artist to continue after the sitter has left the studio. At the conclusion, the sitter returns for finishing touches.

5. A variation of the preceding method
Here the artist begins with the preparation of the photographic reference. The painting is then based on this reference material as well as on the artist's impressions, with the majority of the work done in the studio without the subject present. At the conclusion, the sitter returns to the studio for finishing touches. This is my professional method.

6. Entirely from photographs
In this approach, the artist takes photographic references and then creates the portrait entirely from this basis, without a final sitting or sittings. This is a difficult and dangerous method.

7. With no live contact between artist and subject
Some extraordinary portraits have been created in this way, such as the official White House portrait of President John F. Kennedy by New York artist Aaron Shikler. The painting is a masterpiece, though the artist never saw the subject. Many fine posthumous portraits have been painted. But, if the subject is living, there is no justification for this method.

Which method you choose depends to a large extent on your personality. For instance, Charles Baskerville's career spanned eight decades during which time he painted hundreds of outstanding portraits. He never owned a camera and never made use of one. Everything he did was based directly on personal observation.

My mentor, Samuel Oppenheim, was the direct opposite. Shy and private by nature, he did his best work alone in his studio. He said he found the sitter to be "a great distraction." Hence, his best portrait work was based on a combination of sketches made rapidly from life and a mass of exquisite photographs which he took himself. For Samuel Oppenheim, like many artists, the creation of the photographic reference was a serious creative act in itself.

Norman Rockwell worked entirely from life for the first half of his long career. Then he began to use photographs to help him meet his deadlines. Later, he would show an album of his work, spanning six decades, and challenge the observer to identify the point at which he began to use photography. It is impossible to tell, if you do not know the date.

Each artist must make up his or her own mind on which method to use. What matters is the result.

 
 
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