Is Portrait Painting More Difficult Than Brain Surgery?

Are You Up for the Challenge of Being a Portrait Artist?

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself! So said Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Obviously, FDR never tried to enroll anyone in a portrait artist workshop. Fear is something that people–particularly those considering whether to reach for their dreams–need to face.

Not that learning to be a portrait artist isn’t a terribly daunting task. Although many–my wife included–would debate the following comparison, I always tell my students, “Portrait painting isn’t brain surgery, it’s much more difficult.” It’s my way of saying that the number of variables a realistic portrait artist must deal with is exceedingly high. Seriously though, I’m not trying to belittle the difficulty faced by those in the field of neurosurgery. To be a brain surgeon, you must be ridiculously smart. Surgeons deal with life and death situations, although to be fair, some portrait artists able to create the illusion of life. Creating life–or the illusion thereof–is pretty awesome.

I truly believe achieving greatness as a portrait artist is one of the most difficult things a human being can attempt. I base this on the fact that–as I see it–very few portrait artists in history have reached that exalted position. (What constitutes greatness in portraiture will offer much fodder for future blog posts.)

But just because something is über challenging, what exactly is there to fear? A lot of people site fear of failure as the reason for refusing to challenge themselves. If you think about it, fearing failure makes no sense. You’re automatically a failure the instant you back away. Even if you fail, you’re no worse off than when you started. I think what people truly fear is success. It’s human survival instinct to want to maintain the status quo–at all cost. Success can potentially overturn the apple cart. How will being successful alter your life? Confronting success takes courage.

I recently spoke with a woman considering my New York Portrait Workshop at the School of Visual Arts. She expressed great trepidation with regards to participating–although she eventually registered. I thought maybe something’s in the air, because a couple of my recent Atlanta students said they were fearful, as well. One of them, Margaret Kaufman, called Binders’ Director of Education, Jacob Gunter, many times, waffling back and forth, unsure if she should attend. Fortunately Jacob was able to assuage her fears and ultimately, she chose to come.

Margaret is very new to painting. She had recently taken a couple of plein air workshops and one on flower painting. Prior to my portrait artist workshop, she had never even attempted to paint a human head. Margaret had the following to say about her experience:

I feel I learned a tremendous amount. You helped me overcome my insecurities and are a dedicated amazing teacher. If you ever need me to speak directly with any insecure potential students I would be pleased to help out. I feel you have helped start me on my journey as a portrait painter and I look forward to working with you and learning from you next summer. It is about the journey – and you have helped me get a great start. I can’t thank you enough.

The awesome portrait at the top of this post is her first ever. She managed to push through her fear and she blew her own mind in the process. It was an honor to witness her growth and I look forward to seeing her fulfill her great potential. Near the end of the workshop, Margaret emailed a picture of her painting to her husband, so he could see the progress she had made. His response, “Did you sign up for Marvin’s next workshop yet?” I thought that was a pretty smart thing to say. After all he is a neurosurgeon.

Until next time…


  1. Wow that is her first portrait?
    I… FEAR.. that I am missing out on something.

  2. I am aching to come to your workshop, but can’t work it out this year. I am overseas.
    Have you considered doing a workshop in Europe? I will sign up now.

    • Thanks for your interest Abbe. I don’t have any connections in Europe. I would be interested if something could be worked out with an established venue. I wouldn’t be able to come this year anyway, so you might want to start planning to come to the US next summer, assuming a European venue doesn’t pan out.

  3. I think portrait painting IS incredibly hard too. Your students painting is awesome. Maybe I will come to one of your classes sometime? I’m not afraid.


  1. […] Mattelson writes a blog he’s titled, “Portrait Painting is More Difficult Than Brain Surgery”. He says that From the moment we’re born, we learn to recognize faces; it’s a […]

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