Everyone needs a hero. Not the kind in tights and capes, but someone out in front of them to admire and emulate, somebody who has already achieved the kind of things you are trying to get to. This is certainly true for artists.
When I first began painting I was inspired by Rembrandt, as I’ve said. I didn’t believe I could be Rembrandt – I’m not delusional – but I wanted him out in front of me like some kind of Grail. So, while he remained the unattainable goal to shoot for, I needed to pick someone as a first hero who was doing things I could maybe realistically achieve if I worked hard enough, things I could learn from to help me get started. I was very fortunate in meeting a real live artist – Johnny Jonas – who offered to show me ‘a few tricks’ and who was kind enough to encourage me to believe I could do what he did – even if, as I was to discover – it wasn’t as easy as he made it look. Johnny was my first hero and he remains a dear and valued friend to this day. He became a true mentor as well as a friend. I was lucky.
What if you are not similarly fortunate in meeting someone like Johnny? Well, there are plenty of ‘how to’ books on portrait painting, some of them a little older now and perhaps not as easy to find in your local store, but they are out there if you search on line. Books by artists like John Howard Sanden, Everett Raymond Kinstler, Tom Coates, Burt Silverman, Chris Saper and so many more who have had wonderful careers and offer great practical tips and advice. If you are keen to develop as an oil painter, Richard Schmid’s book ‘Alla Prima – Everything I know about Oil Painting’ available at: www.RichardSchmid.com is the Bible. Essential on any oil painter’s shelf. These are all terrific representational painters, living in the real world, who are themselves in awe of past masters like Rembrandt, Sargent and Velasquez, so the goals they set can seem more attainable and less impossible to ever reach.
Many of today’s successful artists offer instructional DVD’s rather than books and these are wonderful tools for learning. On DVD you can actually watch how they work, see them make their first decisions, mix colours and build the foundations of a portrait before bringing it to a wonderful conclusion. Everyone has a subtly different approach, a different choice of palette, prefers different brushes and so on. I find it’s wonderful to see as many as I can and learn from them all. There’s no one way of painting, no single formula, but there are fundamentals of drawing, tone, colour temperature and edge control that all these artists aim for, goals they would all agree on, even if they set out for them by different routes. Find what works for you.
Fortunately for all of us, many of today’s great portraitists offer workshops. These may be expensive to attend, hard to get into, and often far from where you live, but they can make a big difference in discovering the way forward. And how often do you get to be in the same room as a hero? I learned an enormous amount from a week with Burt Silverman when I was already 20 years into my career and would love to spend time in workshops with other of my heroes. There is always so much more to learn.
When I first started I looked at work I thought I just might be able to do if I practiced enough. As I got closer to those first targets, I found the goalposts shifted and I was looking at work that was tougher to match, techniques and skill sets that were further into the distance. New heroes. By trying to copy them, by experimenting with their materials, approaches and techniques I discovered things that worked for me and began to grow. I’m still doing it, still looking towards the gods on Mt. Olympus, still scrambling up the slopes, scraping my knees, but the example of those heroes keeps me climbing.
For the past 26 years I’ve also been teaching classes and workshops of my own, passing on all I’ve learned and growing further through the process. That so many people have wanted to learn from me is a big responsibility. Perhaps in my own small way I have may have been a bit of a hero to them and whilst I certainly don’t see myself that way, I am proud to be a part of the chain of learning through doing that goes all the way back through my heroes to the Masters of the past.
If I had said ‘It’s Rembrandt or bust’ right at the outset, I’d have doomed myself to a lifetime of disappointment, but by picking more mortal heroes I have managed to keep learning – and I hope I always will.