Thomas J. Schell is one of those wonderful rarities in the world, and, though we have known each other many years, it was only a few years ago that I finally decided to paint a portrait of him. He is a kind man, of quick wit and brilliant intellect, who has always been a loyal friend. I asked him to come to my studio wearing a suit, to reflect his profession as attorney, but he arrived dressed casually, which was truer to the person he is, and the person who really need to be portrayed.
Neither of us had the time to do life-sittings, so I set Tom up in a chair to get some photographs from which I could work during life's in-between moments. While we laughed and talked and ate over-buttered popcorn, I snapped off several hundred shots. From these photos, I cobbled a few together which showed Tom with a mischievous little smile, and which left the impression that he knew something which the viewer did not. (Since Tom was my high school class valedictorian, a dual-major in math and philosophy at Yale, and a graduate of NYU Law, it was easy for me to keep up the "pretense" that Tom knew something I didn't!).
For my canvas, I settled on a size of 12" X 16": don't ask me why; it just seemed right. I sealed a piece of unprimed linen with Gamblin PVA sizing, and then applied an acrylic gesso ground. When this was dry, I stretched it on a set of medium-weight Best stretcher bars, and stapled it in place using nickel staples to prevent rust, which might damage the support. (I also used copper tacks, but this was more for aesthetics, really). Finally, I toned the canvas a warm grey using a mixture of yellow ochre and ivory black oil paint, and set it aside while I worked on the portrait drawing.
Prior to beginning this project, I was thinking a lot about Frederic, Lord Leighton. I had seen several of his originals over the years, but it had been only recently that I had seen some of his preparatory drawings for his finished paintings. Leighton went to great lengths in his work, drawing first the model in the nude, then doing fabric studies, then drawing the model in the fabric, and so on, before he built up enough information to do the final cartoon for his painting. I decided that with this portrait of Tom, that I would do a full-size complete drawing, before doing the painting, to follow in Leighton's footsteps and to reap the benefits of this extra planning.
I set to work on a piece of cool grey Canson pastel paper (approximately value 5 on the Munsell value scale), using chocolate and Chinese white colored pencils made by Derwent. The pencils were a joy; precise and non-smearing, they became a favorite of mine. Working a few minutes here, and a few minutes there, I eventually completed the drawing, and gridded it for transfer to the canvas.
It was at this point, things fell apart. What was I thinking? I had spent time doing this preparatory drawing, and now I was going to draw it all over again? Did I really need to work out any complicated composition that required the first drawing? Had I learned more about my subject? Why hadn't I just drawn it in paint from the beginning?
Since I had drawn the portrait at the same size of the canvas, I knew I had options which might cut out this additional labor. I thought about using graphite transfer paper to get the image on the canvas, but I didn't want to trace over the drawing to enable the transfer. I thought about placing tracing paper on top of the drawing first, but because of the toned paper and the subtleties of the pencil, the image was lost through the tracing paper. I could project the image with an Artograph, but honestly, I feel they always distort the image. Instead, I decided to appropriate a method I often used when illustrating.
When I was illustrating, I found it was most convenient for me to protect my original sketches, by painting on photocopies. There were several reasons for this: 1). when I redrew my images from the sketch, they often became stiffer when I established specific lines, rather than relying on the movement of the original lines which were still present in a photocopy, 2). as I painted, I always had my original drawing to reference as I worked if I painted on a photocopy, 3). if I screwed up big time, I could always make another photocopy, and 4). if I preserved the original drawing, then I had another piece of original art to sell for a profit.
I got the idea from Donato Giancola, a fellow illustrator and former classmate of mine in art school. Donato works this way on most, if not all of his work, having his sketches copied on to acid free rolls of paper before adhering them to wooden supports for painting.
I brought my drawing of Tom to Fedex Kinkos, and had copies made on an engineering copier, the kind used to reproduce building plans. Because the machine is designed to read blueprints, it can be set to register contrast basically by setting the background tone to white. What this accomplished for me was allowing the chocolate pencil lines to reproduce in the copy, while the gray of the paper did not register at all. The Chinese white, of course, could not be copied, as the white of the paper was as light as the background in the copy could get. I used the paper pre-loaded in the machine, instead of loading my own acid-free paper, because I had no concerns that this copy needed to be archival (I'll explain why in a moment).
There was no question that I was going to execute this portrait on linen: I would not paint on a smooth photocopy. So to transfer the drawing to the canvas at this point, I borrowed a method from William Adolphe Bouguereau. Using a piece of tracing paper cut to the size of the canvas, I set out to create my own transfer paper. I covered the tracing paper with raw umber oil paint and linseed oil, and let it sit for a while. When the paper had absorbed as much oil as it could, I laid this paper, paint side down, on the toned canvas. As long as I did not disturb the paper, not much of the paint transferred to the canvas. Next, I laid the engineering copy of my drawing on top of my homemade transfer paper, and taped this sandwich together, so nothing could shift.
(Here is the canvas with the transferred raw umber lines. Using a rag soaked in turpentine, I wiped some of the tone off in the face area.)
Using a ball point pen, I traced over the lines of the engineering copy. When I removed the paper, there was my drawing, cleanly transferred to the canvas, and in oil, no less. I let the raw umber dry overnight, and next, I was ready to block in color.
(In the background is a standing screen made from old closet doors. It's great for a back-drop when setting up models. Taped to it is the original drawing of Tom, and two engineering copies of that same image.)
I laid in color over the entire figure, background, and chair, and eventually, started working more detail into sections, starting with the figure's left cheek and ear. However, it still sits unfinished in my studio, years later, this portrait of "Dorian" Schell.
So why the reference to Oscar Wilde's classic story? Does the portrait in my studio appear to be that of an older man while Tom remains young? Does Tom commit all sorts of evil deeds (he is a lawyer, after all), which mar the portrait I began of him, while he remains the same? Is it a magic portrait? Well, yes, in a sense it is magic, just like all painted portraits.
As a society, we have all grown accustomed to photographs of ourselves, but a painted portrait is something different. It is designed for posterity. It will be how we are remembered by our progeny.
Perhaps it was the idea that my portrait of Tom would outlast him, but at the same time I commenced this portrait, he decided to improve himself. He began eating better and exercising, and lost more than thirty pounds. He purchased new glasses, and went out and bought a new wardrobe. He redefined his outward appearance, but my portrait stayed the same.
(Tom Schell, unfinished)
Tom and I joke together now that the painting must remain unfinished. He is a new man, while the old him sits in my studio, smirking at me, always knowing some secret I'll never figure out. If I were to complete the portrait, would the person I know revert to his old self? Who knows, but I am glad to say that the true Tom, the inner Tom whom I've known now for nearly three decades, remains the same, in person and in paint, and I'm happy to call him friend.