The Probity of Portrait Drawing

Burton Silverman, series of drawings for a portrait of Ms. Gasparini

Obsessively observant and strongly reactive by nature, artists do well to have a sketchbook at the ready to record the steady influx of sensorial sightings and incessant mind noise that ever threatens to knock them clear off the planet.  Channeling these seemingly random influxes into material manifestations (no matter what the art form) separates those that are working artists from those that simply suffer from an artistic temperament.  The former appreciate that temporal sensations and remarkable sightings are fleeting visitors – momentary apparitions that favor grand entries and hasty retreats.  Drawing however is a flattering admirer – an act of true deference that entices epiphanies to linger longer.  And should the exploring line be earnest in its searching, and honest in its depiction, a tell-tale trace of nature’s truth can be had forever.

I admire artists that sketch; drawing is an act of survival in an unmapped wilderness. Equipped with a bare minimum of tools and materials—something that leaves a mark, something to receive said mark, and relying solely on a steady hand and a searching eyethe artist stands before an uncharted terrain, be that the crags and hollows that shape unfamiliar faces or jagged shorelines.  Sketching creates the map.  If a sketch could talk it would say, “This is what I saw.  This is how I felt.  This is essence.”  

Drawing documents truth – all great art, be that a portrait or a landscape, gets our attention because it imagines what we cannot imagine for ourselves.  Said works, more often than not, begin as far-flung hunches or perhaps even observed accidents – then evolve into fixed visions held in place with line and tone.  Think of Sargent’s numerous sketches for his portrait of Madame X; he draws her standing, twirling, fanning herself and finally collapsing on a chaise – only to rise again and start posing anew.  At what point does her bodice strap become unmoored—and does Sargent not spy this great reveal? A less observant artist surely would have missed this tell-tale slip (in all fairness to Sargent, the lady was a bit of a tart); a less brave artist would have closed his eyes to this no surer a truth. 

Burton Silverman, a master portraitist and realist painter represented by Portraits, Inc., is, like Sargent, unswerving in his search for a compelling view of his subjects – the aim being to see, and graphically depict,  the essence of his sitter’s true self.  Most certainly, we all present a multitude of faces for the world to see – but there is always that one, a singular expression or pose, which once captured in a sketch brings great delight to all that come upon it.  “Oh yes,” the viewer chimes, “that is she—you really got her!”  Pictured here are a series of drawings Silverman completed for his portrait of Ms. Gasparini.  In the presence of but one person, the artist has seen and rendered a remarkable range of expressions and moods—sometimes subtly, sometimes not.  The series reads like a flip-book – an animated sequence documenting in real time the unfolding of a relationship between an artist and his subject.  Gasparini appears bemused in one drawing, in another she slips away, lost in thought and perhaps a bit troubled.  In the last she holds her head alight and meets the viewer’s gaze with bright attentive eyes. As a mutual trust between the sitter and the artist takes root, he sees her becoming her true self—and draws that.  We the viewer are allowed to see the evidence – a drawing of the genuine Gasparini – the assured doyenne allowing her best to shine through.

Silverman notes that, “like almost all the artists I can think of, my art making started with drawing. Certainly as a kid, virtually the only art materials available (remember this was the Great Depression) were pencil and paper. So I drew, made pictures.  Actually I have been "studying” drawing all my professional life in this sense; I use it constantly to prepare for a painting that is either a figure study or  a portrait.  Here the drawing becomes an exploration, not just for getting a facial resemblance but trying to get at some characteristic, perhaps a psychological trait – something that elicits my sense of that person past the initial setting up a "pose." The quotation marks around pose are intended to elicit its dual meaning – as in someone “striking a pose” – a pretense.  My last book, The Intimate Eye, was criticized on Amazon because the drawings were thought to be “incomplete, mere sketches.”  Funny, the book was a recreation of an actual sketchbook and the reproduced drawings aimed for something I consistently sought after – the life of the person being drawn – rather than a total and complete formal rendering.  But alas the critique was partly right; I’m sort of offhanded about making completely realized images which has become the standard in the revival of academic training.”

Well said, Mr. Silverman; a great drawing does not persist in describing every detail in sharp focus – we have cameras that handle that task quite well.  A drawing can offer another kind of visual experience. Like Baroque architecture, great drawing stages a grand and often dramatic promenade for the eye.  Varying line weight, small and big shifts in tone, and solid mass in contrast to empty space drive narrative expression.  Fine details, best held in reserve for greatest impact, ensure that the story hits home.

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By Michael Gormley 

Michael Gormley is a painter, writer, curator and regular contributor to the Portraits, Inc. blog.  Gormley is the former editor of American Artist magazine and most recently created the fine art catalog for Craftsy--an online education platform.

Portraits, Inc. was founded in 1942 in New York on Park Avenue. Over its 70-year history, Portraits, Inc. has carefully assembled a select group of the world’s foremost portrait artists offering a range of styles and prices. Recognized as the industry leader, Portraits, Inc. provides expert guidance for discerning clients interested in commissioning fine art portraits.