Portrait of an Artist

THE TENNESSEAN, November 21, 2004.

Not unlike a priest, police detective or psychologist, Michael Shane Neal works hard to get people to trust him. It’s absolutely essential in his line of work, even if he’s not in the business of saving souls, lives, or sanities.

Neal, 35, a Nashville native, is a portrait painter – a remarkably successful portrait painter with clients of note from around the country.

“My goal is to create a strong work of art that also happens to be a portrait,” Neal said. “A good likeness is important, of course, but I also want the work to be as unique as the individual I’m painting.”

Several weeks back, he attended a gala event at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, where his portrait of a Michigan senator was installed with pomp and circumstance in the Italianate Senate Reception Room. It was one of two new works that represent the first additions to the space in almost 50 years.

Three years ago, he snagged top prize from among some 600 entrants in the 2001 Portrait Society of America’s International Portrait Competition.

Chattanooga artist Gordon Wetmore, who chairs that society, a Florida-based nonprofit group promoting fine art portraiture, admires the Nashvillian’s brand of work.

“His portraits are painterly in technique but also capture the subject in such a natural and fresh and realistic way,” Wetmore said. “He gets beyond the likeness.”

In the wake of such national exposure, Neal has been working at near-fever pitch, memorializing the faces, postures and gestures of men, women and children who can afford his steep fees.

Commanding up to $30,000 for a single full-length oil portrait – and reporting a two-year waiting list – Neal now fashions from 25 to 30 portraits a year, at times working 80 hours a week.

Thanks to his immersion in his craft, and a sparkling new studio space, Neal hardly seems to notice.

Just the other day, Neal conducted a quick tour of the two-level, 600-square-foot, sunlight-drenched studio he recently completed in the back yard of his Green Hills area home.

The high ceiling of the main room is lit by a towering bank of windows, which are custom built to throw just the right amount of illumination on his state-of-the-art easel. He’s also proud of a fancy new adjustable platform on which his clients are able to sit comfortably at just the right height.

Aside from the latest technical tricks, Neal has no shortage of inspirational tools.

One is an actual handwritten note to an admirer from John Singer Sargent, who lived 1856-1925 and is generally considered the outstanding society portraitist of his time.

Another hero represented throughout Neal’s workspace – through a couple of books and several photographs – is Neal’s mentor, Raymond Kinstler of New York City, who has painted notables from John Wayne to Tennessee Williams to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

But the presiding presence in the room is unmistakably the large, elegant portrait of Neal’s wife, Melanie. It’s one work Neal can’t quite seem to finish – a bit too close to home, no doubt.

A former pre-med student at Lipscomb University, Neal ended up with a bachelor of arts degree and continued his study at the Santa Fe (N.M.) Institute of Fine Arts.

Talking to him, you soon discover there’s much more at stake for Neal, who, despite his current success, is still involved in self-discovery.

“I’m working harder than ever to grow as an artist, constantly trying to push myself.”

For anyone who thinks portrait work is inherently limited as an expressive genre, Neal has this to say: “It’s as limitless as the personality of the sitter.”

Which brings us back to this artist’s chief challenge – not just connecting with his client, but also getting past the obvious to that which lies below.

Take the case of the commercial real estate executive, a charming, dapper man with a Southern drawl. As soon as Neal began to work, the client’s personality froze up, virtually erecting a protective wall between himself and the artist trying hard to glimpse beyond that wall.

Neal fell back on gesture, studying the subject’s habits and manners.

He’d noticed that the man was never without his hat and often sat with the hat on his lap. That hat soon became an important part of the finished portrait, a type of easily identifiable symbol familiar to anyone who knew the man.

And it’s not just hats. Another Neal client always had a crooked necktie, while yet another held his glasses in a certain way. That’s the kind of observation Neal builds on to convey something essential.

Wetmore said it’s all about that connection: “I think a good portrait painter has to really like and enjoy people. Shane does that in spades.”

Neal begins with photographs and often executes a small study of the subject. Then comes a detailed discussion of the options, and the artist and client work together to fashion a scene, a posture, an attitude. Then the artist retreats into the studio to work his magic.

That magic, an old-fashioned kind of magic, Wetmore says, is just what many people want in this era of cell phones and e-mail.

“It’s in the nature of human beings to value handcrafted things the most in times like this,” he said.

And the numbers back him up. Wetmore’s group now boasts 2,250 members worldwide. The very best command up to $250,000 per painting.
by Alan Bostick