Sharing the Legacy

FOLIO, Portrait Society of Atlanta, Fall 2002.

In my experience as an artist seeking out portraiture and artists whom I would endeavor to emulate or study, I am occasionally dumbfounded by examples of rare talent which, upon my discovering them, immediately become my new favorite inspirations. Michael Shane Neal, in my opinion and the opinion of many others as you will see, is one of those rare talents. His work, at a relatively young age (33) for such an accomplished professional, closely echoes the bravura and depth of masters such as Sir Thomas Lawrence and John Singer Sargent. It is no coincidence that Everett Raymond Kinstler found him a worthy candidate for his advanced level classes and personal tutelage.

On the scheduled day of our interview, I soon learned Michael Shane Neal utilized two studio spaces in the Nashville area–I had gone to the wrong one. Upon arriving at the “correct” studio, Mr. Neal–or Shane, as he prefers to be called–was gracious and apologetic for the confusion. I found Shane to be a pleasant southern gentleman with a humorously friendly, yet seriously professional demeanor, completely comfortable in his environment. His primary studio is the lower level of an in-town house shared with an architectural firm. Amid the sounds of soft classical music, I noticed numerous mementos neatly framed around the space with works in progress and studies placed about. Among the mementos are signed works by Kinstler, his mentor, and a study of hands by John J. Johansen, one of Kinstler’s mentors (who was a student of Frank Duveneck). Shane keeps his “heroes” at the threshold of his office area where he can see them every day: Sargent, Kinstler, Sorolla, and Zorn. His library is brimming with new and old volumes, well-used and placed where he can easily refer to them from comfortable chairs. He even has Sargent’s obituary from a 1920s newspaper framed on the wall, as it was found casually stuck in the pages of an old book he obtained. Each one of his treasures have interesting stories behind them and I was fascinated as he shared some with me.

Shane Neal is the fortunate recipient of a respected line of knowledge which is directly passed from Sargent to Gordon Stevenson, James Montomery Flagg, and Frank Dumond to Kinstler and now to him. Like those before him, he feels obliged to share the knowledge of these masters so the traditional techniques will continue and not be lost to history. He is humble and honored to have been chosen as a recipient and takes the responsibility to train others very seriously.

Being born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee, Shane studied at Lipscomb University in a PreMed program, which he later changed to graphic art. One of is teachers was Dawn Whitelaw, a local portrait artist of note herself, who noticed his talent and style and directed him to study books by Kinstler. Shane regularly copied out of the books for a couple of years. Later, another acquaintance who knew Kinstler mentioned this student’s love for his work and arranged the opportunity to submit examples of Shane’s work to Kinstler. They eventually spoke by phone and Kinstler was very kind, giving a great critique. Months later, he received another critique and again followed every instruction. Shane’s work continually grew. Kinstler then invited Shane to attend a large workshop in Montana. Shane described it as “a life changing experience for me… an incredible week of instruction, painting the model from life both indoors and out”. In the years to follow Shane would study with Kinstler around the country from New Mexico to Maine. Shane states, “We grew as friends and he has become one of the most important people in my life. Kinstler is solely responsible for my continued growth as an artist. I’ve been very fortunate to have a mentor who is so skilled and generous, a descendent of a great lineage of teaching.”

During our interview, which was completely informal and wonderfully packed with awesome tidbits for the student artist in me, we spoke mostly about his method, his inspirations, and his opinion of the portrait business with and without the use of photography. Shane began, “Using tools–like photographs or even computer programs such as Photoshop–is O.K., but understand the limitations. You can’t replace working from life. If you don’t have enough experience from life, there’s no way you can explain what cannot be determined from the photo–distortion, color shift, etc.” Shane does head sketches on location or at the photo session, works at his studio from those and from photos, then finishes from life. In the final sitting, he usually eliminates unnecessary things since you get too much information from the photos. He adds, “You must be able to draw. Don’t lose that ability by depending on photos or technology.”

Shane advises artists to always be working to become better draftsmen. His primary points to consider are: 1) draftsmanship; 2) value; 3) structure and volume; 4) edge treatment; and 5) color. He is constantly studying–primarily the value painters, Sargent, Sorolla, Zorn and Hals.

Regarding structure and volume, he stresses one must have a thorough
understanding of 3-D and how to translate it into 2-D through the illusion of
3-D. He stays mindful of these questions at all times: “Is it a box or a ball?
Does it have sharp or soft edges?” Kinstler taught him that the difference
between a good versus a great painting is the understanding of edges. He
advises, “Be sensitive to the treatment of edges during the process rather than altering them afterwards. If you have to make a choice, choose softer over crisp–especially since photos have too much crispness and your eye is not usually focused all over the scene at once as is sometimes done by the camera. Therefore, I find it helpful to throw photos or slides slightly out of focus for truer edges.”

Color is secondary to value in the painting method Shane endorses. He uses a limited palette of 10 or less colors as was used by Kinstler and Sargent. Shane explains, “You don’t need fifty colors to produce what you need. After all, good color comes from good value.”

Shane discussed the constant struggle of portraits to contain the right composition and atmosphere. He is more interested in the character of the subject than simply the physical likeness. “That is another thing that gets lost with photos,” he cautions. He gets a mental suggestion from painting the person from life and may exaggerate some points to capture the character. His style is brushy and his works are not comparable to photos, though some clients may try to compare them. The important issue is that the client or viewer emotionally “connect” with the subject. His greatest compliment is when someone says, “That feels just like” someone. He prefers that sort of comment to something like “look at the great detail” or someone being impressed with the superficial aspects. “Great artists leave some things unsaid and suggested rather than just copying what you see like a machine,” he explained.

“You can go too far–like in 20th Century art where feelings override and statements are imagined,” he continues. “There are all areas of focus and some artists and clients prefer tight reproductions of reality… I prefer loose. I just want to catch the spirit or feeling of the subject. That’s what I’m after.”

Shane holds true to the title of “painter” exclaiming, “I love paint and the way it looks on the canvas. I want it to look or be evident that I (or an artist) PUT a mark there. Not just brushiness for brushiness’ sake though. Use bravura with care and don’t repeat yourself. Every portrait must be considered a painting of an individual. Look for ways to connect with their personality, but don’t use formulas like a common shape of the head, or predicting skin tones, etc. … Even though I love paint, I don’t paint too heavily–some people really use it buttery thick.”

“Sargent saw beauty in everything,” Shane continues. “He mastered the ability to take his language and say something with it. His virtuosity only increased with age rather than peaking at 25 as some say he did.” Shane explains that he doesn’t want to paint exactly like Sargent, Sorolla or Zorn, but he would love “to paint with the same understanding they had.” Admittedly, though, he studies their technique and approach to give his work the look he wants. He states, “They painted from life and squinted to get the effect of what they saw.” The lesson is to capture the essentials–then everything else is like icing. “You don’t need as much detail if you catch the feeling, essence or effect.”

Shane noted that Sargent and his other heroes painted with large brushes and worked in the mid-range tones. They added dark and light accents toward the end. He summarizes, “Everything is in the middle values! Very little is in the extremes if you make it work in the middle first. They were always sketching–they drew and drew! They sculpted as they painted rather than filling in drawn outlines. You can see how Sargent shaped the head as a form, the socket then the details–not “filling in” a preplanned sketch. If you want to give a painting more strength or power, try using less detail… be selective. Sorolla was best at that.”

It is clear that one could learn a lot from Michael Shane Neal. This fact was recently acknowledged by his being invited–or challenged–to present a demonstration at the 2002 Portrait Society of America “The Art of the Portrait” Seminar in Philadelphia. He will return to lecture and demonstrate at their 2003 Washington D.C. conference. He has won numerous awards for his portraiture including Grand Prize in the 2001 Portrait Society of America International Portrait Competition and First Place the 2000 competition. He confided, “That was the greatest reinforcement for me… that others like what I’m doing.” Possessing a tireless work ethic, he is booked for over two years with an impressive (if not daunting) amount of portrait commissions. Among them is a commission to paint Arthur Vandenberg for permanent installation in the Senate Reception Room of the U.S. Capitol. He is enjoying the status of a rising star in the portrait world nationally and beyond. Articles on Shane have been published in magazines such as American Artist, The Artist (where he again will be featured in their March 2003 issue), The International Artist, the Portrait Society of America’s quarterly publication, and numerous newspapers.

Following Kinstler’s lead and inspired by his generosity of spirit, Shane wants to be as giving as his mentor. As Shane put it, “I’ve learned the importance of that sensitivity to continually share what I’ve learned with others.”

by Suzanne Lavone Smith