Michael Shane Neal, the recipient of Portrait Society of America’s 2001 Grand Prize Award, believes that painting subjects other than commissioned portraits is an essential ingredient toward the pursuit of artistic excellence. Here, he encourages portrait painters to sharpen their creative edge by painting for themselves on a regular basis while avoiding the traps that can often ensnare portrait artists.
Examples from Past Masters
Neal points out that many of the great portrait artists – Zorn, Sorolla, Chase, and Sargent – continually indulged their creativity by painting solely for themselves. John Singer Sargent warned against becoming a mannerist by repeatedly painting only to represent a likeness. Neal agrees with Sargent, believing that those who paint one portrait after another without thought of composition or essence of the sitter become mere technicians. “At one point in Sargent’s career, he had to break with portraiture entirely – it was killing him,” explains Neal. “Even the great artists of today are involved in painting a body of personal work in addition to the commissions. Just look at the works of Burt Silverman – there’s no doubt that he has an individual style and statement.”
Neal suggests that portraitists break out of monotony by regularly painting for creativity’s sake. “As portrait painters, we shouldn’t forget that we’re artists first and not machines,” says Neal. “If you neglect to paint what you are passionate about, your portraits will suffer and your attitude about them may become stale.” One of the subjects dearest to Shane Neal is his wife, Melanie, who often models for his figurative/interior paintings. “She is tall and graceful and never ceases to inspire me,” reflects Neal.
“When you’re painting for yourself, guard against worrying about the marketability of the painting. This time spent at the easel is not for pleasing clients, agents, gallery dealers, or even family members. Rather, it’s a session to explore your natural bent toward subjects you love,” explains Neal. “Painting for yourself gives you a chance to get out of the box of your everyday thinking – to look beyond the surface of the subject, imply something deeper, and add emotion to the painting.”
Neal is not saying here that one should neglect academic training and mastery of certain techniques; however, he understands from personal experience that actively seeking to please yourself, without outside pressure, will make you a better artist. In order to expand his painting repertoire, Neal often commits works for non-portrait shows so that he is forced to explore additional painting ideas.
Expressing Yourself in Portraiture
It’s easy for portrait artists to fall into the trap of repeating their setups, sittings, and backgrounds. Neal resists repeating himself by insisting that since each person is distinctive, every portrait should be a personal interpretation of that individual. “Try hard to look at each sitter in a different way, and keep your mind open toward possibilities. Clients prefer your personal touch, and they really want more than a ‘painted’ photograph, so take time to understand the personality of the sitter and then paint him or her in a way that reflects that personality,” advises Neal.
For example, Neal was commissioned to paint the portrait of a company CEO, but after getting to know a bit about the sitter, decided to situate him in his garden wearing casual clothes rather than standing by a desk with the typical suit and tie.
Neal recommends painting from life whenever possible. “Zorn saw the camera as an additional tool, but not as the means to an end,” says Neal. “There are certain things that can be observed only in the event of a live encounter. The camera has no personal point of view and no sense of selection.”
In one case Neal had been talking to his sitter for quite some time and noticed that he tended to furl his brow during conversation. This trait hadn’t appeared in any of the photographs. By incorporating a hint of that expression, Neal captured the sitter’s typical mood in the final portrait.
Neal is creative in both the setup for his portraits and his brushwork. He does not paint every detail, but economizes his brushstrokes in a somewhat impressionist technique. “You don’t have to cross all the T’s and dot the I’s,” advises Neal. “The viewer should have the opportunity to participate; try not to tell them the entire story.”
by Lori W. Simons