The Good Life

Investing in Oils

Portrait paintings capture more than simple images, becoming family treasures and paying dividends as status symbols
Jun 1, 2000 | By Warren Kalbacker
Investing in Oils

Published May/June 2000

Investing in Oils Portrait paintings capture more than simple images, becoming family treasures and paying dividends as status symbols

By Warren Kalbacker

Morning light streams into William Draper's studio, a quiet refuge high above the traffic and noise of midtown Manhattan. The artist prepares his palette with primary colors. I wonder how the red, yellow and blue hues will meld into the image of my face. And that squiggle of bright green squeezing out of the tube? I don't dare ask for an explanation of technique. Draper is a master.

Images of John F. Kennedy and the young Leonard Bernstein peer down from a wall. Kennedy is managing a smile, but just barely. I note the date: 1962. Maybe he's just learned that the Soviets have landed missiles in Cuba.

"That's a replica I painted of my own Kennedy portrait," Draper points out. "The original now hangs in the White House." I arrived quite a while ago, but Draper's been in no hurry. He's shown me brightly colored landscapes painted during visits to Bermuda, Spain and elsewhere in Europe. Those scenes contrast with the muted tones of a Manhattan view, painted from a high midtown vantage point. Battle scenes from the Second World War hang about the studio. From the frigid Aleutians to the fiercely contested islands of Tinian and Guam, Navy combat artist Draper painted the war as he saw it. He depicted beaches strewn with dead Marines and Japanese corpses. But Navy censors drew the line at the sight of a sailor taking a leak outside his tent. "They took out the golden stream," Draper tells me.

Finally he's doffed his sport jacket and donned a paint-stained smock. He asks my opinion of the fishing hat he'll put on before setting his hand to my portrait.

I realize that Draper's been sizing me up the whole time.

He beckons me to the heavy club chair that is mounted on a platform. Draper suggests several positions for my left arm and shoulder. I manage a few.

"Can you hold that?" he asks.

I tell him it'll be OK for a little while.

"You'll have to hold it for a lot longer than that.

"Your neck!" he commands. "Show plenty of it! Lean forward!"

It's a strain. But I'm being seduced. After all, I've never seen an image of myself except in a mirror or a photo. A mirror behind Draper allows me to watch him work. He's assured and casual, almost cavalier about the process. He dips his brush into one color, then another.

Draper's strokes are quick and broad. Before long I recognize the outline of the top of my head.

"I start out with the dark of your hair and the values--the darks and lights--of your face," he says. "In the old days a lot of painters mixed up light, dark and medium flesh color and their pictures would come out looking like clay models. But I think that to get life in a portrait, you have to see all varieties of color in a face. I see a nice pink on your nose."

I see a splotch of bright red where I suspect my nose may appear. Draper brushes more and more paint onto the canvas. Skin tones appear. Am I really so tanned?

He steps back to consider the work in progress. He asks me to shift back and forth and from side to side.

"I move you around until I feel inspired.

"There once was a girl from Madras..."

I've been warned about Draper's limericks, and I know what part of the anatomy rhymes with Madras. I ask if he learned them in the Navy. No, he answers, he picked them up at Harvard.

After a couple of hours, the image on the canvas looks like a TV news tape that's been digitally altered to disguise a source's identity: a mass of flesh tone.

"I've suddenly decided I'll do you more full face. I have to blur it out and move the nose over."

Finally Draper streaks a bold white line across the featureless face.

"The teeth and smile are hard to paint, but they can make a work," he says.

I hear chirping. No bird has alighted on the windowsill. It's Draper. He's pointing his brush. He wants me to turn left. A moment later he emits the high-pitched shriek of a wild animal. That cry, he tells me, cracked up a stone-faced CIA director who'd posted two security men at the studio door while he sat for his portrait.

"I've painted several CIA chiefs." Draper allows how proud he is of his oils of the nation's top spooks. The catch: not many people see them at the agency's Virginia headquarters. The ticket to the CIA portrait gallery is a security clearance.

"A lot of artists make subjects stay still," Draper says. "I think you've got to make them react. It shows in the face. You're reacting to something."

No kidding. I'm reacting to Draper.

He and I have been at it for the entire morning. He steps back again to take stock of the canvas. "I think this is coming along very well! I love this! I really do!"

When we return from lunch, I remark on the scent of turpentine in the studio.

"I think it's good for me," Draper replies.

His brush strokes continue through the afternoon. A likeness of me is growing on what was a pure white canvas just hours ago.

"That was a nice stroke when I put on the white for the teeth," says Draper. "That helped me suddenly see you. Then I modified it. The pictures grow. I start with masses of colors, then I get an eye in there, and then the structure of what's around the eye."

Whenever I hear a chirp, I reflexively shift to the left.

"I've got you trained," Draper announces.

More than trained. He's pierced my famous reserve. We break into a duet from Guys and Dolls: "What's in the Daily News?" I sound terrible, as usual. I don't care. I sing at the top of my lungs. Then I actually hear myself confiding in Draper about an old girlfriend.

Just how late is it when that stroke of blue hits the canvas?

"You have quite a nice blue five o'clock shadow," he says. "It's fun to paint. Can't do it on a girl!"

Is this the right time to inquire about Draper's Richard Nixon portrait?

"Your neck is yellower. I'll add burnt sienna and maybe a little red. Green might be in the reflection in your hair."

So there's the green!

"I'm going to move one of your eyes. Can you tell which one?"

I guess it's going to be the left one. I'm correct.

He steps back. "It's brilliant! I love this!"

The guy over there on the canvas looks rather distinguished, if I may say so. Perhaps just a bit younger than Draper's model? And quite affable.

Draper has depicted me in a painterly fashion--the finished work is a collage of broad brush strokes up close, a handsome likeness when viewed from just a few feet away.

"That's an idealized image," I protest. I love what he's done, of course.

"I paint what I see," Draper retorts.

Exactly what I want to hear.

When I depart the studio after the daylong sitting, I feel the same combination of exhaustion and exhilaration that overtakes me after a good workout. And I'm just a bit sore from holding the pose. As I walk home I'm aware that women on the street notice this guy resembling a dashing Argentinean polo player whom Draper has captured on canvas. All right, I'm dreaming. But I begin to contemplate a family portrait tradition. Just how long can my young son sit still?

I discover that my ambition is not unique.

Richard Whitney, who's been commissioned by the U.S. Department of Labor to paint the official portrait of former Secretary Robert Reich, notes, "If you hang on to portraits and pass them down for a few generations, they become your family's most important treasures." And he can't resist adding, "Better than stocks."

He ticks off a few masters who produced portraits: Raphael, Rubens, Titian, Rembrandt. American John Singer Sargent's broad brush-stroke technique and portraits of prominent people in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries make him the favorite of many of today's portrait painters.

"There's a mystique about portraiture," says Sarah Beard Buckley, the founder of Northeast Portraiture, who represents portrait artists around the United States and overseas. She's also quick to acknowledge, "A portrait is a luxury. People have to be educated on what portraiture is and what the value of it is."

"We are historians recording a period of our subjects' lives--their children, their wives, and all their accomplishments," says artist Michael Del Priore. "Posterity is key. Portraits help us learn and record our genealogy."

A portrait is a rare image in this age of photography, as few families maintain a portrait tradition. Corporations, schools and churches have always commissioned portraits to create a record of their leadership. But portraiture is more than mere image duplication. A painting's timeless quality may attract those who've never before considered sitting. After all, art commands attention and respect. And who's to discount the effect on the person who's fortunate enough to have his or her portrait painted?

Says Whitney, "Throughout human history, having one's portrait painted was a symbol that you were valued by society and had contributed. It was the ultimate status symbol."

Much modern art exhibits abstract qualities far removed from the traditional realism associated with portraits. At the same time, portrait painters are quick to make the distinction between a photograph and the most realistic painting.

"Painting a human head is the hardest damn thing," says Whitney. And he stresses, "Photos don't pick out the most beautiful shapes. A camera looks at every little detail equally. But your eyes see a first impression that's a mass of color. When someone walks into a room, you do not see every hair on his head."

A photograph naturally depicts its subject at a single instant. A painting, whether the product of a daylong sitting or weeks of an artist's effort, is what Whitney terms "a compilation of many hours of viewing."

Portrait painter Allan R. Banks insists, "The artist is more of a poet or editor than a photographer. You're looking for the essence of the scene, what will stimulate the viewer. When someone is looking at a great portrait, they should be saying, 'I feel like I know that person.' "

The artist's vision is a response to the person seated on the other side of the easel.

"You emphasize character as you look at the person over and over," says Whitney.

According to Banks, "More goes on during a sitting than the actual portrait being painted." He notes that his studio is a workplace, but it's also an environment conducive to interaction between two people who may have different backgrounds, interests and temperaments. "For that one time you're hooked up," he says. "You enter a person's world."

Interaction between painter and subject is inevitable and intimate--and compounded by the speed with which it unfolds. The artist quickly becomes confessor, psychiatrist and old buddy. For a client who's accustomed to wielding a measure of authority, that may be a difficult relationship to contemplate. Artists are used to disarming the rich and powerful, often with a degree of gentleness.

"When I paint a portrait, it's the only time I'm in control," says Draper. He recalls that Nixon sat in his studio after he left the White House and displayed great charm. Draper admits that the president was very concerned about being favorably portrayed, but only laughs when queried about the challenge of rendering his subject's famous five o'clock shadow. Could artist and subject have reminisced about their wartime service in the Pacific? Or maybe they shared limericks?

Once a person has given himself over to the artist, and even if the subject has watched the painting progress in the painter's studio, the result may appear startlingly different from a mirror or photo image.

"When someone is shown their portrait for the first time, it's a shock," says Marian MacKinney, president of Portraits Inc., a New York-based firm that represents Draper and about 200 other artists.

"We don't really know what we look like," says MacKinney. "When someone comes in for their first sitting, they put on the face they look at in the mirror. They raise the eyebrow they always raise when they finish brushing their teeth, but it's not the way they look to everyone else."

The thought of portraiture may conjure the stern paterfamilias gazing down from the wall in a grand house or a retired CEO overseeing the boardroom, but the impetus to sit for an oil portrait--or a pastel or a charcoal sketch--may spring less from tradition than from the allure of a new and different image. A relaxed, even casual, likeness may result.

"There's a lot of romance about painting and that part of it is coming back," says Banks.

According to MacKinney, "Children have always been painted, but women over 50 are now sitting where formerly they would not."

She adds that women often give their husbands a gift of a portrait of themselves and their children to hang at the office. And she notes that many men, who once might have struck a pose in business attire, now prefer to have their portraits depict them "doing what they love to do."

Artists love to pose subjects in garb other than "boring dark suits." Colorful clerical, academic and military dress have long delighted painters.

Banks, who's devoted to the classical realist style and specializes in plein air (outdoor) paintings, notes, "I love the outdoors, and it's easy to convince subjects to pose in hunting gear or aboard their boats. Plein air light is very difficult to paint, but when you view a painting done outdoors, whether it's impressionist or even academic in style, it's extremely uplifting."

What man's man wouldn't want to be remembered more for his prowess at the helm of his yacht than at his desk? Many portraits provide viewers with a biography of the subject by illustrating a background and details that convey the person's interests and beliefs.

Richard Whitney has included a lit cigar and even a class ring when he feels such details help project the subject's personality. Often Whitney will point to a finished work and say, "If you took a photo you wouldn't come up with that image, because it doesn't exist." What such a portrait depicts is the result of collaboration between the artist and subject, and that may be quite different from a photograph because the facial expression, gestures, background and details are composed from many places in the subject's life.

Whitney describes his portrait of former Labor Secretary Reich as at the stage he terms "compositional study."

"I've got the basic idea of the pose, of the gestures I want," says Whitney. "I'm trying to come up with a design that will reflect his background as a writer, intellectual and labor secretary."

Reich's portrait will not only show his likeness, but also display papers and books on his desk and a photo of his wife and children.

Whitney stresses the idea that he's not making a mere picture. "I go through this process of design to make a work of art," he insists. "The Spanish master Velázquez was the first great impressionistic painter in that he painted the visual impression of the look of the person, not every detail. That's what I aim to do. I employ some classical, academic element in the painting, but I only put in what I feel is essential."

Whitney will spend weeks or months adding layers of oils to "perfect the image." He notes, "From a distance I want the work to look real and to breathe. Up close I want you to be aware that it's made out of paint."

Renaissance popes and princes seem to have had little difficulty summoning masters to paint their portraits. Today's would-be subjects can enlist artists' representatives to help them engage a portrait painter. (These individuals function as agents for the artists, who pay commissions out of their fees. See sidebar, page 240.)

Once a painter is hired, the client should be prepared for a number of sittings, and patience will make the process run more smoothly. After all, if popes could take time from combating the rising tide of Protestantism and princes could put mercantilist ambitions on hold long enough to pose, why shouldn't twentieth-century ladies and gentlemen make every effort to accommodate portrait artists?

Some do. Michael Del Priore notes, "Some CEO types see sitting for their portrait as the cultural refinement it really is and they want to relish the opportunity to experience it."

A portrait can take anywhere from days to months to progress from conception to unveiling. Some artists work from photos or a combination of photos and life sittings. Photography has been characterized as the note-taking process of the modern portrait painter.

Not for William Draper, though.

"I was taught in the old days that it was cheating," he says. His technique: observe the subject and apply paint directly to the canvas. Draper will not even make a preliminary drawing, or "cartoon," to guide his composition or his brush strokes.

"I don't draw," Draper declares. He relates his trauma as a young art student mistaking a color class for a drawing class and enduring the instructor's withering criticism. He did manage to overcome that setback.

"I'm very observant," Draper adds. No argument there.

Del Priore insists, "If someone wants me to do a portrait and I only get a photo, that means I'm nothing but a copyist. My first criterion is to meet and get to know the subject."

Del Priore keeps an initial meeting as casual as possible. He'll do some photography and a couple of sketches. Then he retreats to his studio to "figure out this portrait." Del Priore's style: "a little traditional and a little painterly, which means impressionist. I don't paint portraits camera-perfect. I want to show characteristics that make the painting come alive."

Richard Whitney has spent a day and a half at Robert Reich's Cambridge, Massachusetts, home. During such a session, he usually takes a few hundred candid photos and paints color studies of each element of the portrait, in which he strives to master the subject's tones. Whitney develops his compositional studies and begins the portrait back at his studio. "If it's a complicated portrait like Reich's, I'll do a small version of the painting first," he says. Whitney will return to Cambridge for the final four-to-five-hour sitting.

Most portrait artists hardly seem to be moody denizens of isolated ateliers. Oscar Wilde's fictional Basil Hallward, who paints the fictional Dorian Gray and claims he's an artist who "never talks or listens" appears, well, fictional. Just what did Leonardo say to Mona Lisa to elicit that smile? And how did John Singer Sargent draw out that sexy pose from Madam X? Conversation? Music? If it's impossible for a CIA chief to resist William Draper's wild animal cries and bawdy limericks, the average person may have little hope of resisting the painter determined to reveal the personality as well as portray a likeness.

Of course, the ice doesn't always melt immediately.

Whitney recalls painting John Sununu, the former White House chief of staff and former New Hampshire governor. "At the first sitting he was very formal and intimidating. He made me very nervous. But when he came to my studio and saw the advanced portrait, he broke out into a big grin and became my best buddy.

"That was not my only experience like that," Whitney adds.

"You have to like people and paint them at their best," says the gregarious Michael Del Priore. "When a family hires me to paint their children, what it really means is that I'm invited to become part of their family. The work I'm doing for them stays with them forever."

Allan Banks says that generally asks a subject to devote about a month of part-time sittings, each lasting from an hour and a half to three hours, to a portrait.

"You have a first impression but you wind up painting another picture because of getting to know a person over several sittings," he says. "You might be talking business with a guy who built a company from nothing and then one of you mentions a son or daughter. You see a change come over subjects if they're talking about somebody they love. That begins to come across in how they look. The artist instantly picks that up and it starts coming through in the portrait."

Banks relates a story about Sargent's portraits of John D. Rockefeller. Sargent's first likeness of Rockefeller portrayed the man as a stern captain of industry. A later portrait, painted after Sargent became acquainted with Rockefeller the philanthropist, was "incredibly sympathetic and charming."

Banks also reveals--with the well-heeled subject in mind--the artist's time-honored technique of career advancement. The one-on-one sitting is "when as an artist you can gently express your dream to do something ambitious." Michelangelo must have recognized the opportunity to further his "greater goals" during several intimate sittings with Pope Julius II. After all, his powerful subject had other prized commissions to award: those frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, not to mention the design of St. Peter's itself, to mention only two.

Portrait artists deal with the delicate (or maybe indelicate) issue that many of their subjects may not exactly fulfill conventional ideals of beauty--which themselves change with the times.

Draper insists that he "paints 'em as I see 'em." But an artist's ideal of a fine likeness doesn't always coincide with movie-star looks. Draper opens his portfolio to a picture of a gentleman whom no one would regard as handsome but whom he recalls as a favorite subject because of his craggy facial features.

Whitney notes, "People want to look their best and I try to paint them at their best." But he quickly adds, "I try also to make them as God made them."

Whitney's portly subjects will not experience major weight loss at the hands of the artist.

"A 300-pound person can't be painted as 200 pounds because that's no longer characteristic of what the person looks like," he says. "I will put together the best elements of a subject, but I won't lie."

The paint finally dries, the portrait is framed and hung, and family and friends gather for the unveiling. And then?

Banks's goal for his portraits: "The work becomes something besides just a likeness of a daughter or wife. I hope it becomes what we know as art, something we can appreciate for a long time."

Draper's likeness of me inspires me to pick up a favorite book from my college days, Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. I reread Dorian's wish: "If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old!" But I quickly recall that Gray's involvement with his portrait did not have a happy ending. I dream up a better scenario for Draper's oil. My son, William, who's just 10, will pass the painting to any children he might have. And they'll view the picture decades from now and decide, "We feel like we know that guy."

Warren Kalbacker, a freelance writer living in New York City, is a regular contributor to Cigar Aficionado.


While portrait painters no longer are the only option for preserving your image for the ages, many still ply their trade. Finding the artist who best suits your needs and expectations should be your goal. Artists' representatives will be your best aid in looking for your perfect match.

Marian MacKinney of Portraits Inc. urges potential clients to first let go of that "mirror image" they have of themselves.

"As soon as you realize that you don't know what you look like, that's a good start," she says.

When MacKinney meets with a client, she immediately asks whether a portrait is intended for a family room or will hang in a more formal part of the house, where it will be viewed by visitors. Taste in furniture and decor comes into play as she seeks to match an artist's style with a subject's expectations.

"If their home is very modern with lots of glass, they'll often go for a style of portrait that's crisper, something very close to photorealism," she says.

But not always. Other clients favor "free and interpretive" portraits that exhibit more of the brush stroke. MacKinney will show each client samples of the 40 or so artists whose work is currently on hand and the portfolios of the other 160 artists she represents to determine which style appeals to a client. An initial consultation usually takes about an hour and a half ("It's exhausting for the client," she observes), and more often than not, several meetings are conducted before she introduces client and artist.

Sarah Beard Buckley of Northeast Portraiture explains her approach, "My role is to make artists and those who commission them understand one another. If someone has an art history background or is a big collector, I have to be careful with whom I match them."

She says that some artists want total control over a work, while others are much more flexible in terms of a client's wishes. She advises clients "to think about how they want to be portrayed and about what to include in their portrait that symbolizes what they value," and she urges them to avoid "a run to clutter."

The person who commissions a portrait will have to decide which size (a three-quarters-length pose is most popular, followed by full length) and which medium they wish for the work.

"Almost all great paintings of history are in oils," portrait painter Richard Whitney says. "It's the longest-lasting medium."

Buckley points out that artists specialize within mediaand that oil paintings can run the gamut from the "hyperrealistic, almost photographic, to bravura brush strokes like John Singer Sargent."

Drawings, pastels and charcoals are relaxed and informal media, according to MacKinney. She notes that pastels on paper are a popular medium for children's portraits.

"Pastels offer a softer interpretation," she says. "It's also a quick medium. There's no worry about developing layers of paint and the long drying time." (Oil paintings can take as long as a year to cure.)

The cost of portraiture varies widely, based on the size of painting, the medium and the artist. A single-subject oil portrait usually runs between $10,000 and $35,000. Pastels and charcoals are usually cheaper ($4,000 to $8,000). The following resources can get you started on the road to posterity:

985 Park Avenue
New York, NY 10028
Fax 212-988-3755

25 Storey Avenue, Suite 162
Newburyport, MA 01950

2781 Zelda Road
Montgomery, AL 36106

Not an agent, but a very useful resource nonetheless, the society's website lists major portrait brokers and all members by state and country.

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