Getting a Good Start - by Kyle Keith

I met Everett Raymond Kinstler just as I was completing my studies at the New York Academy of Art. My instructor at the time, Peter Cox, took me to Mr. Kinstler’s studio and introduced us. I felt fortunate to have corresponded with him over the years, and he was very supportive of me as an artist. Mr. Kinstler often asked me, “Does it feel like the person you are painting?” It has taken me many years to begin to understand what he was really asking me with those words. He said that particular word “feeling” meant more to him than any other concerns as a portrait artist.


If I hope to achieve that ineffable quality, which I do, then how do I proceed? Reluctantly, as an itinerant portrait artist, I rely to some degree on the use of a camera to record a likeness of my subjects. Therefore, to get a good start, I have to make it a priority to internalize those aspects of my time spent with the subjects that the camera cannot record. This includes the attitude of the subjects, their personalities, and their interactions, as well as the mood of the moment. Gathering this information and then creating studies is of great importance to me because it serves as a means of working through my thoughts and “into” the portrait. This process enables me to get to the heart of the painting and eventually to a portrait that most importantly feels like the subjects. There is that word again!

Study of a young boy, 20x16", oil

Initially, after gathering my references, I return to the studio to begin sketches which are both drawn and painted (some to be seen and some not). These works help to familiarize myself with the subject and to retain an impression, as it might be months before I am able to work on the actual painting. The study of the young boy shown here, which was executed rapidly on a canvas panel with a gestural graphite drawing and then oil, is a preparation for an upcoming portrait of him and his two sisters. I cannot say for certain whether this pose will end up in the final portrait, but it will serve as a guiding reminder of time spent with the young subject and as a reflection of a certain attitude he exhibited.


Since I am only considering the possibilities of the portrait, I don’t treat this stage as too precious, and I am happy to keep it unfinished and “rough around the edges,” so to speak. This process of starting and thinking through the work by means of studies helps me to feel confident that I will get to the feel and the heart of the subject.


Next, I will be describing how I move forward through the commission. Since I have already started the portrait process by painting varied studies of my subjects (see above), I now had to plan on the actual composition and interaction of the three children. This can be a reflection of how the children tended to engage with me and each other during our sitting, and the sense that I gleaned from that time. It can certainly be true that you only have one chance to make a first impression, and I find the entire moment, attitudes, personalities and atmosphere will stay with me throughout the portrait painting process. In bringing it together,


I will work these impressions into the painting with a balance of shapes, light and darks, and emotion. I channel these energies much like a director arranging and preparing actors on a stage.

Dabal Children drawing on canvas

Most portrait commissions are collaborations between the artist and the client. Ideally, the client will say, “just do your thing”, but that is the exception. It is rare that the client commissioning the portrait will not have certain desires or expectations that the artist must interpret to some degree. In this particular case, the client had proposed spaces for the portrait to hang that forced me to think about a scale I generally reserve for studies. My inclination is to create paintings with more space surrounding the figure while keeping the portrait life-size or just under life-size. The perceived presence of the subject in the portrait by the viewer is important to me and the scale is often the key contributing factor. Keeping in mind that 3 three-quarter length subjects made up the commissioned work, I embraced the smaller scale. My initial hesitation due to my tendency towards larger works was alleviated through the painting process, and I began to enjoy working with the scale of this particular portrait.

Dabal Children, 36.5 x 34.25”, oil on linen

Most often I begin on a larger set of stretcher bars and linen canvas than needed in anticipation of changes. Working on a toned ground, I first established broad lines in charcoal to indicate the general flow or placement of the shapes. Once I feel I have a sense of the abstract arrangement and proportions, I begin to get more specific in my drawing; eventually in this instance, sealing the lines with ink. I allow myself the freedom to shift, move, or eliminate elements as I paint. Most importantly, I allow the painting to speak and react accordingly. I cannot say this is the right way, but it is simply the way I am comfortable working. Two elements in this work that changed significantly included sliding the brother closer to his sisters. In addition, the eldest daughter, who is the central figure, shifted in her position and gaze several times during the painting. The window was an addition that I brought in order to pull together the experience with the richer interior. These are aspects that I cannot always pre-plan as they are affected by scale and simply “listening” to what the painting has to say.


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