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.