In a dapper Seersucker suit and oxfords, Michael Shane Neal circulated the room, introducing himself and shaking everyone’s hand. This southern gentleman from Nashville, Tennessee, began his discussion and demonstration with a brief review of his history.
Mr. Neal intended to spend his college career in pre-med but quickly learned that people would actually pay him for the art he loves to do. He studied at David Lipscomb University and completed two Master-Artist programs at the Santa Fe institute of Fine Arts. He continues his studies under Everett Raymond Kinstler, learning techniques passed down from Sargent.
He began his professional career first painting, and then eating, fruits and vegetables between whatever commissions he could get. In 1993 he started corresponding with Kinstler, thanks to a client who introduced the two. Kinstler began to critique Neal’s art through the mail on a regular basis, and eventually took him on as a permanent student.
Now, Neal continually studies a 100-year-old tradition of painting that includes knowledge from masters such Sorolla, Henri, Zorn, Adams, and Johanson. This tradition is based on the belief that “painting is the art of interpretation.” For portraits, this includes the idea that the inner likeness is as important, if not more important, than the outer likeness.
To illustrate this concept, Mr. Neal shared a slide presentation comparing photos of subjects to the finished paintings from various masters including his own work. The key to successfully capturing the inner likeness is to capture the personality through simplicity.
His painting demonstration cemented this idea of working from the general to the specific and retaining simplicity. We watched him produce a beautiful portrait of Damon Carter from life as he talked us through his process of painting and the decisions he makes through the process of capturing a likeness.
Starting with an oil primed cotton canvas toned a cool blue gray and a limited palette, Mr. Neal used a broad brush to sketch in a simple drawing. Squinting to reduce his vision to simple shapes, he used thinner and a small bit of paint to dryly build the shapes of the shadows, paying more attention to value than color. Using a rag dampened with thinner to erase mistakes (“Painting is the process of correcting your mistakes”) he built the structure of the face, paying particular attention to the eye sockets, connecting the shadows around the face to build relationships between them, mixing colors on his palette as he went for their value.
Continuing to work with structure and value, he built the portrait, working the paint like clay and adding the mid-range flesh tones. Building the idea of volume, he began to work edges, keeping them soft and emphasizing the relations between the big shapes and the overall effect of the painting. As in caricatures, the individual features may be slightly distorted in order to capture the overall character of the individual, so it is more important to continually ask, “how simply can I say something” than to ask “how accurately can I draw something.” The movement in the brushstrokes and rag marks, combined with the simplicity of drawing helped add life and movement to the portrait, increasing the personality captured in the piece.
After a short break, Mr. Neal began reevaluating the drawing, still leaving parts of the stained canvas to show through the paint, by linking the shapes of the face together. He accented the nose, linked the bottom of the nose to the mouth, accented the corner of the mouth, linked it to the bottom of the lip, and continued around the face, linking and accenting to build the accuracy of the painting while retaining the beautiful simplicity of the under painting.
Utilizing a “body tone,” he added a lighter, middle flesh tone and warmed up the skin color. “The color can be just close, but the value must be accurate.” Using greens and blues in the reds, he grayed the skin tones. He continued by hitting highlights as guides and linking the shapes around the face. He finished the painting by defining the important edges, keeping most of them soft.
Mr. Neal moved us through sketching in the drawing, using value to build structure and volume, adding mid-range flesh tones, and defining edges. He built the face like a mosaic in big, simple patterns, sculpting the shapes by “following the light through the shadow paths” and constantly keeping in mind that simpler is better. Mr. Neal built an accurate likeness, captured a personality and produced a beautiful portrait.
His limited palette, laid out from white to black and warm to cool, includes (in order – Cadmium Yellow, Raw Sienna, Cadmium Red Light, Alizarin Crimson, Burnt Sienna, Burnt Umber, Cerulean Blue, Ultramarine Blue, Sap Green, Viridian, Cadmium Orange, Chrome Oxide Green, Ivory Black, and Titanium White. The palette itself, which he designed, is hand made of wood by Mike Balsley of Turtlewood Products Furniture.
For his medium he uses mostly odorless turpentine, Liquin or Copal Oil for fast-drying travel paintings, and a poppy seed and Turpentine mix in the studio in the further stages of the painting.
For retouches, he either works dry or uses a light poppy seed oil, or a light spray of Blair Retouch Varnish. His final varnish is Damar Varnish.
He often paints on an oil-primed cotton, but usually uses linen for finished portraits. Mr. Neal’s canvas for the demo was toned blue/gray; he uses cool toning for Caucasians, warm for darker skin tones, and recommends lavender for a beautiful tone with certain darker models.
He paints with large Filbert Gran Prix – Silver brushes (size 10 and larger), using small brushes very sparingly.
Mr. Neal paints mostly from life, but uses photos as a tool. The final product is not as exciting if done only from photos. The first photo shoot includes a sitting for a life sketch. Then he paints an oil sketch from the photos. A live sitting is held at the mid-beginning of the final painting, and when finished. He advises, when doing a posthumous portrait, that an artist research any books available and talk to as many friends and family members as possible to determine the subject’s personality and character.
Finally, Mr. Neal left us with these words of wisdom:
“Be an artist first – paint more than portraits.”
“Art is not merely reproduction or interpretation it is an expression of spirit.”
And lastly: “When you deliver a piece, let the client speak first.”
by Lisa S. Duncan