Recap: “Face-Off” at the Portrait Society

by Anna Bain

I spent Memorial Day weekend in Philadelphia, enjoying the incredible “Art of the Portrait” conference that is put on each year by the Portrait Society of America. One of the highlights of the event is the “Face-Off” competition, which kicks off the weekend activities with great momentum. Conference attendees get a chance to sit and watch their favorite artists do an alla prima portrait from start to finish, but the twist is that it’s not just one artist working… there are actually fifteen of them, all painting at once from live models! Most attendees choose to wander in circles around the artists so they can try and take it all in. The energy and excitement in the room is contagious. Each artist tries to do his or her best possible work in less than three hours, as attendees vote on their favorite at the end, and the winning artist gets to do a demo on the big stage later on during the weekend.

This year’s artists included Casey Baugh, Ryan Brown, Ellen Cooper, Michelle Dunaway, Stephen Early, John Ennis, Rose Frantzen, David Kassan, Robert Liberace, Bart Lindstrom, Susan Lyon, Tony Pro, Alexandra Tyng, Mary Whyte, and Lea Wight. Almost all the artists chose to work in oil, with the exception of Mary Whyte, whose signature medium is watercolor, and Susan Lyon, who worked in conte.

As I wandered the room, trying my best to see what everyone was doing, I was astounded by the diversity in the work. Not only did each artist begin their painting differently, but they varied in all other aspects, from canvas or panel size, palette, color and brush choices, and methods of measuring, to even the way they stood or sat in front of the model. Some squinted at the model and blocked in big shapes; others put down anchor points and backed away from their canvas after nearly every stroke.  Some artists, such as Michelle Dunaway and Tony Pro, were used to working alla prima in their everyday work, so it seemed to come easily to them. Michelle zeroed in on the eye sockets and worked out from there; Tony began his painting by blocking in the light and shadow masses with middle values.

Some of the others who typically work in a more classical style, such as Ryan Brown and David Kassan, took their usual approach and “sped it up.” Ryan Brown began his block-in with a traditional “cartoon,” a drawing consisting of two values representing the light and shadow. David Kassan, Alexandra Tyng, Robert Liberace, and several others, began their paintings with light line drawings using warm tones and a small brush. 

Rose Frantzen began her painting with oil sticks, “feeling out” the gesture and pose with what might have appeared to most a doodle-like and unorthodox approach. (It works for her!)

The winner of this year’s Face-Off was Mary Whyte, whose beautiful watercolor portrait impressed everyone, especially those of us who usually work in oil!

Overall, the quality of work this year was excellent and the finished paintings looked great. There was enough technique being wielded in that room to rival the most prestigious of art schools. Because conference attendees could watch what was going on, it became a great opportunity to figure out who they might wish to study from in the future. After all, each artist had something unique to offer.

Stephen Early and Rob Liberace

Mary Whyte's winning watercolor portrait

Ryan Brown

Mary Whyte and Rose Frantzen

Tony Pro and Michelle Dunaway


  1. Audrey Lemler | June 05, 2012

    Such an awesome event!

  2. Mara | June 07, 2012

    Thank you, Anna! It’s great to get a glimpse into this conference since I’ve not yet attended one (yet). When are you going to be one of the demonstrators? 🙂

  3. Jessica Snavely | June 12, 2012

    I am always amazed by the diversity of styles and techniques, and the watercolor is beautiful! Sounds like a great event – thank your for sharing!

  4. Gail Mannering | June 14, 2012

    Thank you, Anna! So that’s why I’m confused ! Too
    many classes from too many different artists.
    It’s smarter to study with just one favorite !!!!

  5. Vanessa Rothe | January 08, 2013

    Such a great event for portrait painters, I hope to attend next year and watch friends and colleagues create. Michelle’s work is so beautiful…. Thank you for sharing this article.

  6. Catherine Carney | January 21, 2013

    I was there and in person this Face-Off was wonderful!

  7. Kate Colquitt | July 11, 2013

    Fun!! Thank’s for sharing and enabling those who are unable to attend to see our modern masters at work.

  8. robert chamberlin seattle | October 14, 2013

    Could you please forward my email to Gail Mannering ( she was in the comments section) I have some of her art work that she did 30 years ago…would love to return it thanks

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