The Great Commission
Late summer of 2017, a long-time member of Berean Bible Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, called to ask if I knew of anyone locally who could do a portrait of the pastor emeritus and his wife, both of whom had recently died of pancreatic cancer. I didn't know any portraitists off-hand but looked into it enough to see that prices were high and likenesses and/or backgrounds not outstanding. I tentatively offered to do the portrait myself (if they were interested) for the following reasons:
- I knew John and Phyllis Stone personally. My parents were married by John in a Sunday morning service in the late 1967, and I was baptized by him. My father taught for years at Berean Christian School and had the Stones' son Pete as one of his students; later he and my dad became fast friends and avid trout fishermen, discussing theology as they drove to and waded in the river. My mother, new to the South when she married, became instant friends with Phyllis, always one of the first people my mom would call with good or bad news or with an invitation for breakfast. Dad went on a couple of out-of-state fishing trips with one or more of the Stones. Pete led the funeral service for my dad, and John performed the burial services for both my parents, despite the fact that he and Phyllis were more ill than we knew at the time. Knowing the Stones all my life seemed like a point in my favor when it came to getting a good likeness from only a batch of snapshots collected over the years.
- As an artist, I am one of the category that is good at duplicating a scene or image, not fabricating a dreamworld, an abstract emotion, or a vibrant canvas focused on color and shape. If I could combine the available snapshots into one image, I could paint it.
- I could do the painting for an estimated half the cost of other likely candidates in Knoxville. I wound up going over my initial time estimate, but I was still well under the pricing of the next possible portraitist.
- I had been wanting to get back into oil painting and try water-mixable oils, and I have been wanting to try my hand at portraits for several years. However, I would NOT recommend getting [back] into oil painting with a commissioned portrait. The fear of failing the friends and family who will be seeing the portrait on a regular basis or falling short of my own high expectations was almost paralyzing.
The Rough Drafts
Before I even started on the preliminary sketches, I pulled together about 6 photographs of the Stones from over the years and created a Photoshop collage of all the best features of each...hair styles and colors, suit vs. tux, glasses vs. none, neckline of Phyllis' dress, jewelry, placement in relation to each other...and a particular photo of them holding hands that was key to the commission. Amazingly, they often stood in about the same position for photos, and the lighting was similar in several, so I had a pretty good image to work with in the end.
I'll spare us all the first two or three quick rough sketches I did. In the first, their features were all out of proportion and not like them. Later, there was a point at which John looked slightly like George W Bush and a different point at which Phyllis resembled Laura Bush. At least I have the excuse that I was looking up V-neck dresses, particularly of a style that might have suited either woman, as I tried to nail down the dress I'd paint Phyllis in. The last rough draft is shown above. In order to focus on exact proportions without distracting myself with assumptions about the placement of their features, I drew them up-side-down -- a known aid to accurate representation. I still miscalculated on the placement of their hands, needing to lower them a couple of inches before I started on the final drawing on canvas (well, Ampersand gessobord to be exact).
Drawing the Portrait on Gessobord
My intent all along was to draw a detailed portrait on gessobord, then do thin layers of paint (glazes) over the graphite, so that the darks and lights of the drawing underneath would provide dimension and solidity, not to mention points of reference, for my painting. This worked up to a point, but in areas where I needed thicker paint or a brighter or darker area than the drawing allowed, I had to abandon the glazing idea. Glazing worked best on their skin, not their clothing, the drawing a great reference point for their hair.