Put on Your Thinking Beret–Strategically Speaking!

William McGregor Paxton's Pink Rose

For Great Portrait Artists, Design is Key

Had Yogi Berra been a painter he surely would have said, “90% of painting is mental and the other half is technical.” When I look at a masterpiece I very rarely concern myself with the technical aspects. I’m much more interested in the thinking process behind the painting. What was the strategic reasoning behind the choices the artist made.

A couple of years ago I went to a gallery opening for my former student, Lori Earley. She was surrounded by a group of ardent fans, peppering her with questions. “Which medium do you use…what brand of paint…which brushes do you like…what kind of canvas…how do you mix skin-tones…?” I’m not saying these questions are without merit, but knowing these answers was not going to make any of them better artists. I’m not saying that technique is unimportant (far from it), but the bottom line is: great painters make great decisions.

Artists may have many arrows in their quivers, but those who hit bullseye after bullseye do it via superior picture making skills. In my classes I call it strategic thinking. It’s the ability to create a unified image, leading the viewer’s eye through a hierarchical balance of colors, values and edges melded together through a balanced design. In short it’s the ability to masterfully manifest your artistic intent. I never had any formal compositional training while in art school, but little by little, working as an illustrator for 30 years, I was able to develop my pictorial composition skills, before becoming a full-time portrait artist.

For me, Illustration was a terrific training ground to learn picture making. (I guess you can say I got paid to learn to design, as well as paint.) Illustrators can traverse one of two paths. They can develop a strong visual style, providing a particular look–which, like fashion design, will eventually become passé. The other route is to become a problem solver. Compared to self-themed fine artists, illustrators need to face problems existing outside of their own realm. Each assignment can be seen as an opportunity to create a fresh and unique strategy. With each new challenge comes the possibility of expanding one’s pictorial lexicon.

Since it was my goal to be as flexible a problem solver as I could be, I found myself navigating a wide range of subject matters and situations, some straight forward and some with a visual twist. My work ranged from movie posters, to scientific illustrations, to book covers and portraits. I seriously doubt, had I been left to my own devices, that I could have broadened my capabilities to the extent that I did. The pressures and time restraints were always imposing. I knew in the industry’s eyes I was only as good as my last assignment. Failure meant losing a client but I loved the pressure, because I had a warrior’s mentality. When the bullets stop flying, only the quick and the dead remain. As Nietzsche said, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” For over thirty years every picture I created made me a better problem solver.

It was my goal to one day–when I retired–switch to portraiture. That retirement came very abruptly, when a client transformed–what would turn out to be my last illustration assignment–into a Photoshop hack job. They rearranged the elements, added a new background and turned a fully rendered figure into a black silhouette–which was embossed in the printing. “Never again,” I swore. It was then, I said to myself, “Marvin you’re now officially a portrait artist.”

It was only logical for me, when I switched over to portrait painting, to bring my problem-solving/picture-making mentality along for the ride. Rather than just painting the same redundant portrait motifs I saw at every turn, I felt that I could make each painting a unique portrayal of my sitter. I saw portraiture being very much like illustration, in that most portrait artists’ works are about their superficial style. My feeling was that my strategic thinking could be a key factor in making my work stand out.

When designing my portrait paintings, I don’t follow any preexisting rules–imagine that? Instead, I put on my thinking beret, to come up with something I’d be thrilled to paint. I decide what the most important aspect of the portrait is and then I build a viable value and color structure around it, using edges to speed up or slow down the way my viewers’ eyes will traverse through the portrait. I call my basic strategy backwards thinking, because I start with the central focus and work backwards, subjugating the pictorial elements to my focus. William Bouguereau and William McGregor Paxton are the picture makers I admire most. I feel neither gets the credit they deserve in this area. Paxton’s advice to, “find a new motif,” and “seek a noble and ample design,” are my guiding lights. These concepts are beautifully illustrated in the above painting, William McGregor Paxton’s, The Pink Rose. You can see how Paxton turns a simple head and shoulder portrait into a strikingly unforgettable artistic tour de force.

Finding the best composition, clothing, props, lighting and pose to portray the character of my sitter, takes effort, but it’s well worth it in the end. I’m constantly looking at great strategic composers, trying to get under the hood, so to speak, of the decision-making mentality of artists like Paxton, Bouguereau, DeCamp, Ingres, Rembrandt, Raeburn and Kramskoy. All this will be discussed in great detail in future blogs.

I’ve often been asked, “Marvin, don’t you get tired just painting portraits?” The answer is a resounding no. I love being a portrait artist. Every face I see is so fascinating. Everyone’s energy is a thing unto it’s own self. I love coming up with a design strategy that incorporates these qualities, while commanding the viewer’s attention, and drawing them in. Even if I won the lottery, I’d still choose to do portraiture. The only difference is, were I to win the lottery, I would pay my subjects to sit for me. Then they would be required to pose for as long as I wished.

Being a great portrait artist requires far more than just rendering skills. If you want to  distinguish yourself, then you need to place a far greater degree of emphasis on problem solving and picture making. Remember, Michelangelo said, “A man paints with his brains and not with his hands!”

Until next time…