Portrait Painting, The First Ten Years

AMERICAN ARTIST, April 2001.

The buzz of conversation around the finalists’ paintings in the Portrait Society of America’s competition last May concerned a stunning portrait of an elderly gentleman by Michael Shane Neal. Artists attending the annual convention noted the painting’s gestured brushwork, fluid oil colors, and fresh appearance. They marveled at the way Neal captured his subject’s personality and image while maintaining the vitality of the paint. No part of the picture was overworked or burdened with photographic detail.

No one was surprised when Neal’s portrait of Harvey Wells won First Prize in the competition, but they remained curious about the young man who walked to the podium to receive his award. They wondered how someone in his early 30s could have the talent, technical skill, and self-assurance to paint such a portrait. I learned the answer to that question months later when I had lunch with Neal and his wife, Melanie at the fame Café des Artistes in New York City. In town for the unveiling of Neal’s portrait of Jerome L. Greene at Columbia University’s law school, the couple took time out for an interview in a room filled with paintings and drawings by the great illustrator Howard Chandler Christy.

Neal describes his education as an artist as a fortunate set of circumstances. As a child, he was interested in history and art, but in the late 1980s he entered Lipscomb University in Nashville as a premed student. While taking an elective course in figure drawing taught by Carolyn MacDonald, he decided to spend his life working in some profession related to art. “I just loved it, and knew it was what I wanted to do,” he remembers. “My parents were a bit surprised, and frankly, I was uncertain about my career prospects. That’s why I first concentrated on advertising and graphic design.”

In his second year as an art major, Neal took a course from Dawn Whitelaw, a professional artist and teacher who paints commissioned portraits. “Dawn became a strong influence on me because she is a great teacher, and accomplished portrait artist, and a supportive friend,” Neal says. “By her example, I understood that a person could make a living painting portraits. Through her guidance, I discovered the great painters of the past and present who could help me develop my skills and understanding.”

Very few art majors in colleges and universities are introduced to portrait painting or encouraged to pursue it as a profession. Neal was fortunate that the conservative environment of Lipscomb University provided that instruction and support. The alternative would have been to study privately with a professional artist or to enroll in an art school or atelier that stressed the fundamentals of drawing and figure painting.

Neal received his first commission while interning at an advertising agency during his senior year in college. “One of the copywriters noticed a drawing hanging in my office cubicle and asked if I would draw portraits of her parents,” he explains. “I agreed, and was paid $250 for the two drawings. That seemed like a fortune compared to the $6 an hour I was making as an intern, and I enjoyed it far more than working on ads.”

Following graduation in December 1991, Neal received a business license and rented a studio space in the Hillsboro Village section of Nashville. He spent a considerable amount of time promoting himself as a portrait painter and secured four or five commissions the following year – enough to meet his expenses and get his career under way. “I did anything and everything I could to build name recognition,” he explains. “I donated portraits to charitable auctions, participated in group exhibitions, took booths in weekend art fairs, and distributed postcards to anyone who might be interested. I also made a point of keeping my studio door open and inviting people to come by to visit. Eventually those efforts paid off because people would call months after meeting me to discuss a portrait commission.”

From the very beginning, Neal approached portrait painting as a business with special challenges and opportunities. He spent long hours in his studio and assumed his ultimate success or failure would depend on his own efforts. “I think I’ve been able to support myself as a portrait painter because I have a strong work ethic and I treat every commission as a wonderful opportunity to grow as a painter,” he says.

Among the list of names of historic and contemporary artists that Whitelaw recommended to her students at Lipscomb was Everett Raymond Kinstler. Neal found a copy of one of Kinstler’s books in the library and was overwhelmed by the reproductions of paintings and the accompanying text. “The book opened my eyes to all that portrait painting could be,” he remembers. “I began corresponding with Mr. Kinstler in 1993, and the following year I was fortunate enough to take a workshop with him in Montana.”

In 1994 and again in 1995, Neal was one of 10 artists selected to participate in the highly competitive Master Artist program in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where Kinstler was the featured artist. Neal also participated in workshops conducted by such artists as landscape painter Ken Auster. “Mr. Kinstler always urges his students to become complete artists, not just portrait painters. He points out that Sargent, Sorolla, Zorn, and the other great artist of the past painted a range of subjects and worked in a variety of media,” Neal says. “I try to make sure I paint still lifes and landscapes in addition to the commissioned portraits.”

Neal values his friendship with Kinstler, who remains his greatest influence. “He is a constant source of inspiration both artistically and personally,” he comments. “The high standards he sets continually direct and challenge me as an artist.”

Like most professional portraitists who paint busy executives, active children, or deceased individuals, Neal is obliged to use photographs as his primary source material. “I paint from life as much and as often as I can, but clients can seldom give me more than a few hours to paint a head study,” he explains. “After spending time getting to know them and discussing the commission, I take a lot of photographs and either paint a small oil study or draw a charcoal sketch. Most clients enjoy watching me paint or draw because it engages them in the creative process.”

Early in his career, Neal carried an array of lights, filters, and painting supplies to his client’s house, but he soon discovered he could do just as well with two clip-on hardware lights and a portable easel. “Instead of driving around Nashville my car loaded with supplies, I was traveling by air to reach clients all over the country. That forced me to streamline my equipment, and I found that I just didn’t need an elaborate lighting system. I could rely on natural light and a couple of inexpensive hardware lights.”

At first, Neal packed his brushes and paints into a French half easel and bought solvent once he arrived at his destination. Recently, he acquired a Soltek Easel, which is ideal for painting on location. The compact and lightweight portable easel allows Neal to paint on small panels or larger stretched canvases. Normally, he paints head studies on sheets of canvas measuring 16” x 20” or 20” x 24” that are taped or stapled to pieces of Fome-Cor, making them light and easy to pack in a suitcase while they are still wet.

Once the photographs are processed, Neal paints a small study of the portrait, making sure to keep it loose and suggestive so the client can focus on the color and composition of the portrait. He takes the study and his photographic source material to the client to give them an indication of how he envisions the final painting. If they seem pleased with his plan, Neal returns to his studio and spends several months painting the finished portrait. In all, it takes him approximately 12 months to complete a commission.

Although his painting procedure may vary with each portrait, Neal generally works in the studio on a canvas toned with a cool, bluish gray made from a combination of burnt umber, cerulean blue, and raw sienna oil paint. He loosely wraps a generous amount of canvas around stretcher bars in case he needs to adjust the painting’s final dimensions or move the figure within the rectangular space. After completing the portrait, he lightly moistens any creases on the back of the canvas and tightens it using stretcher clamps.

Neal’s palette is also toned with a 50-percent value and holds the following colors (arranged counterclockwise): Permalba white, cadmium yellow light, raw sienna, cadmium red light, alizarin crimson, burnt sienna, burnt umber, cerulean blue, French ultramarine blue, sap green, and mars black.

The artist occasionally draws the figure in charcoal on the toned canvas, but more frequently he sketches it with paint that has been thinned with turpentine. During the rest of the painting process, he uses a medium made from poppyseed oil and turpentine that slows the drying time and allows him to manipulate the paint for several days. In certain arid working conditions he also adds oil of cloves to the paint to further slow the drying time.

Through most of the painting process, Neal works within the middle range of values, avoiding the strong darks and lights until the final stages. “If you can get a painting to work when you only have middle values on the canvas, then the accents of dark and light bring the figure to life in those final hours of painting,” he explains.

Two of the key elements of Neal’s technique are his use of large, filbert-shaped bristle brushes and the distance that he maintains from the canvas while painting. “I stand while I work and walk 15 to 18 feet away from the canvas to evaluate each section as I paint it,” he explains. “I want the picture to read well from that distance. Most of the painting is done with a No. 4 or No. 6 brush, although I have available a range from No. 2 up to a small house-painting brush. I never use sable brushes because they generally encourage blending and softening to a degree that I’m not looking for in my portraits.”

During the early years of his career, most of Neal’s portrait commissions came directly to him from people living in the Nashville area. Now he works with agents who bring him their clients, most of whom live in different parts of the country. Clients are asked to sign a one-page contract that establishes the obligations of both parties and requires a 40-percent deposit. “Melanie and I are quite disciplined about not spending that money until the finished portrait is accepted,” he says. Neal delivers the portrait in a frame he selects, but clients are free to choose an alternative frame. He follows the common practice of charging clients for the frame and his travel expenses.

The portrait brokers who represent Neal consider him to be one of the rising stars in the profession. They speak about his talent, his professionalism, and his warm personality when describing the attributes that help him stand out among other painters. He is represented by Portrait Brokers of America in Birmingham, Alabama; Portraits South in Raleigh, North Carolina; Portrait Source in Hendersonville, North Carolina; The Portrait Group in Reston, Virginia; Hollis Taggart Galleries in New York City; Heike Pickett Gallery in Lexington, Kentucky; Brazier Fine Art in Richmond; and Anne Laine Goad Art Inc. in Brentwood, Tennessee. Neal is also a member of the National Arts Club, The Allied Artist of America, and the Artists’ Fellowship.

by M. Stephen Doherty