By Stephen Gjertson
Portrait painting is a difficult and sometimes exasperating art. To survive, the portrait painter must be talented, flexible, thick-skinned, and tenacious: talented enough to meet the artistic and creative demands of fine portraiture, flexible enough to balance artistic ideals with the realities of the profession in the modern world, thick-skinned enough to take the unreasonable demands and criticism that sometimes come from hard-to-please clients, and tenacious enough to stick with it in spite of the stress involved.
In our present iconoclastic art world, where anything that has been done before is apt to be labeled irrelevant, the skilled portrait painter is still in demand. Abstract Expressionist, Cubist or childishly executed portraits do not appeal to most people. Consequently, throughout his long career, Richard Lack was a highly sought-after portrait artist. He began his career by painting six portraits for the Joseph P. Kennedy family. Since then he painted many prominent Minnesotans in the fields of law, medicine, business, education, and religion. Lack’s portraits of Minnesota governors Wendell Anderson and Albert Quie hang in the Minnesota State Capitol.
During his later career Lack limited his portraiture to family members, and devoted most of his time and energy to painting figurative works based on ideas formulated by the Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung, the founder of analytical psychology. In 1999 I spent an afternoon in Lack’s studio and questioned him about his portraiture and the art of portrait painting.
Early Years, R. H. Ives Gammell and the Boston School
Q. When did you first become interested in portraiture?
A. My interest in art always included portraiture, and it has contributed to my success over the years. But none will ever match my first real “commission.” When I was sixteen, a high school friend, an aspiring ventriloquist, commissioned me to paint an oil portrait of him from life, for the then enormous sum of $25. The portrait was received enthusiastically and I was hooked!
Q. You studied with R. H. Ives Gammell in Boston. Did his training adequately prepare you for painting portraits?
A. Through Gammell, I was extremely fortunate to tap into the Boston tradition. Boston painters such as William Paxton (Gammell’s teacher), Edmund Tarbell, and Joseph DeCamp were among the finest American portrait painters of their generation. If someone with a trained eye carefully examines Paxton’s The Italian Girl, Tarbell’s Justice Hammond, or DeCamp’s Portrait of Theodore Roosevelt, they will see what fine portrait painters these men were. Gammell himself painted many portraits. His training included head studies that emphasized the principles and methods employed by the Boston artists.
Q. What are these principles?
A. They’re the principles of visual impressionism: getting the “big look,” carefully separating light and shadow, drawing and spotting the large masses, and refining only after the shapes and values are correctly observed and put down. Gammell’s teaching reflected the Boston painter’s concern for, and emphasis upon, getting “the notes” or correct color value relationships, of what you were painting. Gammell continually stressed seeing the parts in relation to the whole. These are tall orders for even the most experienced painter, but unless these principles are emphasized again and again to young students, they will consistently produce work that is nothing more than a chaotic collection of carefully rendered pieces. I owe the foundation of the painter’s art, the ability to “see,” to my training with Ives Gammell. Without this foundation I would have accomplished little of worth as an artist.
Q. Concerning portraits, did you do more than head studies with Ives Gammell?
A. Yes, occasionally. In the spring of 1955, while I was still working with him, I traveled to Europe to study the Old Masters. In Italy, I bought a rather picturesque hat that I thought would make an attractive prop. Soon after I returned, we went to Provincetown, on Cape Cod, where Gammell painted during the summers. There, our routine was more relaxed. I had a small studio of my own and wanted to develop more personal ideas away from the influence of Gammell and the Boston impressionists. I had the memory of Rubens, Frans Hals, Van Dyck, and the Italians fresh in my mind.
I was in love with a beautiful Hungarian girl named Katherine Vietorisz, and wanted to paint her portrait. She sat for me on Sundays, and I painted her in the hat that I had purchased in Italy. She must have liked the portrait because she consented to marry me that fall.
Use and Misuse of Photography
Q. I often hear people say that in the 20th Century, portrait photography has replaced portrait painting. Can you explain the differences between them?
A. I would say that portrait photography emphasizes that which is instantaneous and fleeting. It captures one particular moment. The fine art of portraiture, on the other hand, is a summing up, a synthesis of varied aspects of the sitter observed and selected over a period of time. Also, if one compares a life-size photographic portrait with an oil portrait, the oil portrait (assuming it’s a good one) will be superior in all of the aesthetic qualities: composition, design, color, expression, and the beauty of paint handling. There is also the matter of permanence. If a painting is soundly crafted and well cared for, it will retain its color and harmony for centuries. A photograph has a tendency to fade and lose its color in a relatively short time.
Q. Given this fact, what role, if any, does photography play in your work, other than its obvious necessity when painting deceased persons?
A. I will use photographs from time to time as an aid in composing, particularly for commissioned portraits. Occasionally I have to fall back on them when I have difficulty getting enough sittings. However, I avoid photographs as a substitute for nature and seldom accept portrait commissions that must be done completely from photographs. Fortunately, I can afford this luxury since I do a wide variety of work and don’t rely on portrait painting for my entire income.
Q. What are the hazards of relying on photography?
A. Photography can be the kiss of death to fine portraiture, especially for the neophyte. It distorts color, values, and shapes; all of those visual elements with which the painter is concerned. Photographs rarely portray the true visual relationships seen in nature. However, due to many factors, such as the difficulty of obtaining adequate sittings and so forth, I realize that photography has become a necessity for many portrait painters today. Indeed, the vast majority of contemporary portraits are done from photographs. The result of this practice is a scarcity of fine portraits today. In fact, I can think of no previous period in our Western tradition in which portrait painting has fallen to such a low state. The problem lies in a reliance on photographs by painters who are inadequately trained. Unfortunately, they are unable to see the difference between photography and nature. I dare say that many contemporary portrait painters are unable to draw at all without projecting photos or slides. They are unable to observe and execute a fine portrait from life, and their reliance on photos often produces paintings that are distorted, overly detailed, and poorly designed.
Achieving a Look, Procedures and Challenges
Q. In relation to portrait painting of the past, what have you tried to incorporate into your portraits that you feel is unique or of our own time?
A. My aim has been to capture the “look” of the contemporary personality through such obvious means as hairstyle, clothing, gesture and so forth. My compositions, on the other hand, are inspired by the older masters and are quite traditional, not experimental. I strive to achieve a certain intensity of workmanship and paint handling, along with good impressionist color and values that mark my work as a product of this century, yet is connected to the older tradition of American and European portrait painting.
Q. What percentage of your work has been devoted to portraiture?
A. I would estimate that almost one-third of my work has been portraiture.
Q. How many sittings do you normally require?
A. I usually ask for twelve two-hour sittings. Sometimes more are necessary, depending on the complexity of the composition. If all goes smoothly, I may be able to finish in less.
Q. What is your general procedure when painting a portrait?
A. My procedure varies from work to work. Larger, more complex portraits require a small color sketch and/or a charcoal cartoon. For smaller, simpler work I will often begin directly on a canvas lightly toned with raw umber, sketching in line with a number 3 or number 4 round bristle brush, then shifting to a larger brush to broadly insert the main values. Of course, the paint is very thin at this stage. I almost always stretch the canvas to a size that is two or three inches larger all around than the final size of the painting. This allows me extra room to compose the picture. When the design is firmly established, I can re-stretch the canvas to the appropriate size.
Years ago I purchased a fine, contemporary, life-size manikin or painter’s lay figure, as they were once called. It was made in Italy and is cast in heavy-duty plastic from a carved wooden original. It is fully articulated and quite serviceable. I do all my finishing work for clothes from the manikin. When it is properly set up with the portrait’s props and so forth, it is one of the most useful items in my studio.
Q. You have painted portraits of all your family members as well as commissioned portraits. What are some of the specific problems you experience when painting each group?
A. I have painted my children many times, in both formal portraits and indoor and outdoor genre paintings. When they were younger, I could bribe or cajole them into sitting for me. As they got older and their lives became filled with other activities they posed less frequently. Now, of course, they are no longer at home, though my son, Michael, sat for a small portrait head a few years ago.
As for commissioned portraits, I always paint them within the tranquility and familiarity of my studio. There I am able to control the light and create an atmosphere conducive to work. My studio is conveniently located and is accessible to sitters in the Twin Cities area. I have found that people are usually accommodating, keep their appointments for sittings, and are pleased and appreciative when the work is completed.
Q. What other challenges have you experienced?
A. Some painters complain about the tedium of trying to paint busy people in a busy world, but I can honestly say that most of my commissioned portraits are the products of rather pleasant experiences. However, before accepting a commission, I explain the portrait process very carefully to the sitter and make sure that they recognize the commitment that they must make to ensure the success of the work. Portrait painting is a partnership between the artist and the sitter. Portrait painters must employ their skill in the service of the sitter yet, at the same time, maintain complete control over all aesthetic and artistic decisions. The artist is the expert in these matters. I have found that most people who were willing to work with me were satisfied with the result.
The most important thing to bear in mind when painting a person whose time is limited is to have a good composition worked out and to have a clear conception of how to characterize the sitter. I do this rather intuitively during the first few sittings.
On Location in London
Q. You mentioned that you always paint your portraits in the tranquility of you studio. Have you ever gone on location to paint a portrait?
A. I have generally been content to paint portraits of people living in my local area. There was one very enjoyable exception to this, however. Late one evening, in the fall of 1989, I received a phone call from London, England. It was Michael Wilmot, the future 6th Baronet Eardley-Wilmot. He wanted me to paint a portrait of his young wife, Diana. As it turned out, this fellow had searched throughout England and Western Europe for a painter who could do the job to his liking. Unsatisfied by the work of the artists that he found, he inquired at London’s National Portrait Gallery about painters working in the United States. He was referred to two American museums, both of which independently recommended me. Needless to say, I was quite surprised.
We spoke for a while about the various possibilities: them traveling to Minnesota or me traveling to London. They eventually invited me and my wife, Katherine, to stay with them in their flat in Kensington, near Holland Park. We went there in the spring of 1990. It was ideal, and very relaxed. Their flat had six floors, with a garden on the roof. The top floor was large and had a semi-northern exposure. With draperies I was able to convert it into a usable studio. My wife and I stayed in the entire floor below, which was very comfortable.
I brought my own paint box and bought an easel and the other necessary supplies in London. The light was suitable from about 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. Lady Wilmot posed in the mornings when they were in town. I did a preliminary sketch for their approval, and then began the portrait. At first I was a little uneasy — after all, Reynolds and Kneller had painted members of the Wilmot family. After a short time with the Wilmots, however, I felt more comfortable. They were very busy and went out of town fairly often, so I had a lot of free time between sittings. I had no manikin, and Lady Wilmot was so busy that Katherine posed for the clothing. She and I were in no rush, and we treated the experience as a vacation. We visited her native Hungary for a week and toured London extensively. Leighton House was within walking distance of the Wilmot’s home.
The Wilmots are nice, down-to-earth people, and we enjoyed their company very much. They owned a small, luxurious hotel, and the hotel chauffeur drove us around the city. We were quite pampered and spent two delightful months in England. When the three-quarter length standing portrait was completed, the Wilmots were very pleased. Before we left England they hosted a small unveiling of the painting for their friends.
Q. You paint landscapes outdoors. Do you think that this has helped your portrait work?
A. Oh, yes, painting landscapes has been immensely helpful to me in my portrait-painting career. It taught me how to handle paint and how to achieve richness of color. Painting impressionist landscapes is also a very good way to develop dexterity with the brush.
Mediocrity: The Legacy of Modernism
Q. Sargent sarcastically quipped that a portrait was a painting with something wrong with the mouth, meaning, I assume, that it is difficult to please a portrait sitter. How do you relate this to your work and the contemporary portrait-painting scene?
A. A sitter who feels vaguely dissatisfied with a likeness often attributes it to a mouth that is not painted quite right, as Sargent has said. While this may be true, it may also be true that the trouble lies elsewhere. The painting may be poorly designed or have inharmonious color or incorrectly related value relationships.
On the other hand, people today are probably easier to please than they were, say, a hundred and thirty years ago. The general artistic incompetence that has resulted from “Modernist” orthodoxy and its enmity toward traditional art and teaching has flooded the world with so many poorly done images that intelligent laymen are often willing to accept as professional work that which is amateurish, even childish. Others, if they are familiar with the so-called fine art scene, may feel intimidated by all of the incomprehensible “art speak” that has saturated the art world for so long and may be hesitant to venture an opinion about works of art, including ours.
Q. Looking back over your career, which of your portraits have, in your opinion, come the closest to achieving the qualities you are after in portraiture?
A. My finest male portraits are those of Minneapolis businessmen Ray Mithun and Frank Donaldson, and heart specialist Dr. Reuben Berman. One of my best female portraits is that of Joan Hegerman. The full-length portrait of my daughter, Susanna, and the three-quarter-length portrait of Lynne Alexander are two of my most successful portraits of young females. The two portraits of my mother would, I believe, be my best portraits of an older person. The full-length portrait of seven-year-old Katy Long is among the best of my occasional portraits of children.
Advice to Young Artists
Q. Portrait painting is difficult. What advice would you give to young painters?
A. It goes without saying that fine training, especially under a practicing portrait painter, is essential. Of course, one may be a very fine painter and yet not have that rather mysterious gift that enables one to paint satisfactory portraits. For a young person starting a career, it is advisable to give portrait painting a try. After several attempts, you will know whether you enjoy portrait painting enough to put up with its undesirable drawbacks.
A good portrait painter must like people, be able to relate to many different types of sitters, talk while painting (this is difficult for some painters) and, above all, have a highly developed memory for visual effects. I believe that it also helps to be highly intuitive. This enables the painter to go below the surface and dig out the real personality.
Q. Please elaborate on the necessity of having a highly developed visual memory in painting portraits from life.
A. Memory training is crucial to the portrait painter. However, you can’t memorize well unless you’re trained to know what to look for. I used to tell my students that one-third of every portrait is done from the model while two-thirds is done away from the model. For instance, while painting from the model, I will make careful observations and notations about placement, color, value, and so forth. After the model leaves I will develop the work from memory, based on these notations. At the next sitting I will check the accuracy of this work, make necessary corrections, and go on.
Q. Is it possible for young portrait painters to make a living in today’s world?
A. Certainly. Portrait painting can be lucrative. It’s one of the few genres left to the artist today that has an existing market. If one can paint a fine portrait, is willing to begin modestly, and work long and hard, there is no question that one can have a successful career.
Richard Lack was the first recipient of The American Society of Portrait Artists Founder’s Award. The Founder’s Award is their highest award. It is given to artists who have elevated and continued the tradition of fine portraiture, through work of exceptional merit and the consistent, thorough training of younger artists. Throughout his long and distinguished career, Lack’s work exhibited the highest standard of both artistry and craftsmanship. As founder and director of Atelier Lack, he was one of a handful of artists who endeavored to keep the great traditions of Western art alive in his generation.
This article first appeared in the winter 1999 issue of The Portrait Signature, journal of The American Society of Portrait Artists.