Life Lessons from a Portrait

Published on 24 November 2023 at 22:34

Medium: Acrylic on Canvas

Date: 2006

Life Lessons from a Portrait

This gentleman, whom I shall call "G," was a very good friend. We had traveled to Tibet together, for instance. He was well-known in Greenwich, CT. G was asked by his daughter for a portrait of himself. He chose to have a painted portrait commissioned by me. Jumping ahead in time, he often asked, "Did you learn something?" This commission did not work out well. I did learn something, and we totally stopped being friends.

But what was it that I learned in the six years and 850 hours I worked on this?

First, I learned to DO HOMEWORK. Take the client to a museum and look at portraits. What really is the client's dream? Does he even know what his dream is? He told me to go ahead and do whatever I wanted. My OWN dream was to do a portrait in the style of Alice Neel. I made a blue suit and a yellow background reflecting G's very bright aura and liveliness. He is a Leo. His tie that he wore was lettered "Capitalist Pig." When he saw the progressing portrait, he said, "I like my portrait, but I want a brown background and a picture that would be like a Rembrandt." We celebrated our interim success with good champagne.

I can do perfect photo-realism. See Blog #10, The Father's Memorial. I took five photographs of him. Another twenty were taken by his extremely beautiful companion, whom I will call "M." She said both to me and to him, "Jay is really good."

As I proceeded under his direction, "My eye does not droop like that," he said. I replied, "Look at the photographs. Look in the mirror!" "Yes, I see you are right," he said. But my nose is not that crooked. Make my lips fuller." I knew that G had been an extremely handsome young man, but although he was still very handsome, he was now past middle age. "You have made my hair too gray. I am glad you got my ears right. I did not tell you, but I had them pinned back. I wondered if you would discover that." My artist neighbor, whom I'll call "V," had advised me, "You got the ears wrong!" "No," I answered, "I spent 40 hours just on the ears." G said, "Make everything perfect. Give me full lips, a perfect nose, a different hairline, and a better hair color than I now suggest. I see that you are following the photos perfectly, but I don't want that. Make me all perfect."

When it was finished, a prominent lady said, "It does not look like you, G." "Well," he said, "Artistic license." Finally, after lots of changes on the hair, and after the portrait was finished, he chopped off some hair above the bottom of his neck and said, "Here, make it this color." That hair was not in the photos.

The clincher came with the varnish. As I am a self-taught artist, I did not learn about materials, which I assumed one did in professional art classes. As this was my first portrait, I wanted it to be perfect. I asked V, a professional art school graduate, about varnish. She said, "I don't know anything about varnish." So, I bought some varnish. This was a new chemical varnish. The directions said to do a very thin coat. Twenty-four hours later, make a second very thin coat. I finished the varnishing with the first coat. However, as I finished, V walked in. "That is not the way you do it!" She grabbed the brush and approached the picture. "No! No!" I said, "Don't do more. I followed the directions." "Well, you don't know how to do this, and I do."

"Yes, I am going to varnish it. I am going to. I am going to do it." I tried to stop her. I grabbed her arm. She was like marble. The steely glint in her eye was totally focused on the portrait. She started to varnish, I said, "No, V, stop. Please stop." She could not hear me. Only by slugging her could I have stopped her. I went into the bathroom. About ten minutes later, she called me, "There, that is varnished." The picture was dripping. In a couple of hours, I went to see G and M in a very good restaurant to deliver the picture. M was so pleased. "You got all the colors just perfectly." G said the hair was not the right color. Yes, the varnish had altered the color a little. He insisted it be changed. I wanted to change it so it could be perfect.

V advised, "Oh, just Xerox it. I have heard they can Xerox on canvas now. Then just change the hair color yourself." But I called the manufacturer of the varnish. The varnish was much heavier than it should have been, but they told me how I might proceed. I worked slowly for 50 hours to remove the varnish and change the hair color. G gave his OK and said not to varnish the hair place which was now duller than the rest of the picture. I wanted to get the whole picture to have an even shine. I varnished just a little. The hair color changed.

G had been very generous to me, and I had wanted the portrait to be a gift from me. In my frustration of working so many hours and having heard how he can disparage something when he finds any fault, I scolded him about the many changes and offered back to him his small down payment. We never spoke again.

I do have the picture. I am very proud of the work I performed. I found a book on portraits. Fifty percent of these often-well-known portraits were not accepted. Sargent's great portrait of Madam X was refused by her family. Sargent felt it was the best portrait he had done. He left it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York where we can admire it now.


Secondly, Communication is a two-way process. Don't imagine for myself, however reasonable I may think that may be. LISTEN to the nuances and put myself in THE CLIENT'S shoes. Had I known what he wanted, I could have done what he wanted. But I could have insisted on his original requests and should have refused his flimsy additions or insisted on further payment for the changes he requested. There was no contract in the beginning. I realized that was a problem. We had spent some years together. We were good friends and drinking buddies. I thought I knew him.


Lastly, and I believe the most important of them all is that I have to leave well enough alone. DO NOT TRY TO BE PERFECT. Embrace the beauty of imperfection, as it often paves the way for creativity and innovation. Perfectionism can be a barrier to progress; it's important to value progress over perfection. Imperfections can also provide unique character and authenticity, making work more relatable and genuine.


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