THE BLOG
07/31/2012 11:55 am ET Updated Sep 30, 2012

A Closer Look at the Art of Portraiture (Part Two)

Portrait artists (painters and sculptors alike) often spend a lot of time with their subjects, posing them, dressing them, finding the best vantage point, and they need to figure out how to keep the subject alert. Sitting around being sketched and photographed can be wearying, especially for someone who is used to being active and animated. That requires portrait artists to know what to talk about (for then Vice-President George H.W. Bush, they discussed what they watched together on Meet the Press), and sometimes what to listen to. In 2005, singer Tony Bennett came to Marc Mellon's Redding, Connecticut studio for a sitting. For the occasion, Mellon "upgraded my sound system, and I played standards, the American song book, sung by people he knew." Hearing the music kept Bennett cheerful for the whole two hours. "He told me stories about this buddy, that old friend."

On the other hand, posthumous subjects present a whole series of other challenges. Measurements of the sort routinely taken of living subjects -- from the bottom of the chin to the eyebrows, from the widow's peak to the tip of the nose, from the left earlobe to the right side of the mouth, the width of the nostrils (there can be 20 or 30 different measurements taken, depending upon the portrait artist) using calipers, a metal scissor-like instrument with bowed ends -- are necessarily less exact, and photographs are usually focused on the individual's face. What the top or back of the subject's head looks like can be pure guesswork. Portrait painters can get away with things that portrait sculptors cannot. Perhaps the most difficult commission that Wendy Ross ever undertook was a larger-than-life-sized bronze portrait of American Founding Father George Mason (1725-92), which was installed on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. in 2002. Not only were there no photographs to work from, there were few portraits ever painted of him, and the earliest was done 12 years after Mason's death by D.W. Boudet, which hangs in Mason's ancestral home in Virginia.

"My sculpture doesn't look anything like the Boudet," Ross, who lives in Bethesda, Maryland and otherwise creates abstract metal sculptures for private and public settings, said. "I was completely uncharmed by that painting." As a result, she sought to "synthesize George Mason from a variety of sources," including his son's published recollections of his father ("he described part of his father's facial expressions when hearing about some event"), Mason's clothing and even meeting a number of his descendants at a George Mason Society dinner in 2000 ("a number of them had the same patrician nose, high forehead, kind eyes").

The style of contemporary portraiture ranges widely, from smooth, tight realism to flowing, impressionistic and even extending to Pop-influenced work. Most of the governmental and institutional bodies seeking portraits, however, are looking for straight-ahead realism, in line with other portraits that they may have commissioned previously. These agencies and institutions want something that looks like somebody, without a lot of excess art.

There tends to be little variation, too, in terms of the materials artists generally use in the creation of their portraits. Most use oil-based, rather than water-based, clays, because when water-based materials dry they often leave a grainy surface and cracks that need to be smoothed out before making the mold. Ian Killips, president of Andevan Bronze Works, a foundry in Burbank, California, noted that water-based clay needs to be kept wet during the mold-making process and that wetness makes it resist the molding materials. "Soft materials are preferable to artists, but they are the hardest to mold," he said. (The oil in the oil-based clays, on the other hand, protects the surface so that it doesn't dry out, although it is stiffer for sculptors to work with.) Modeling wax, another quite malleable material, has some of the same benefits and drawbacks as water-based clay.

Although oil-based clay is the overwhelming choice for most artists who use bronze foundries, not everyone likes it. In some cases, sculptors fire their water-based clays to produce a terra cotta model that is easier to mold. One may pick up a terra cotta without having to worry about leaving fingerprints or gouges, which is a problem in unfired clay. Art and Ginny Blevins of Tolar, Texas, who regularly produce portraits in busts and reliefs, stated that three-quarters of their work is terra cotta, and they only create bronzes (from terra cotta models) for life-sized pieces. "A lot of people like the terra cotta, because it is so much less expensive than the bronze," Art Blevins said.

For her part, Wendy Ross worries about the stability of both oil- and water-based clays when they are being shipped. "Plastiline" -- her oil-based clay of choice -- "melts in the mail, and it can deform even with plastic peanuts around it," she said. As a result, she produces maquettes in plaster, sometimes adding a patina "in order to make it look like a bronze."

Foundries work with all types of materials that artists use to create models. Jack Muir, co-owner of Kalispell Art Casting in Kalispell, Montana, noted that it is easier to make molds from plaster models than from those in clay and wax, because the plaster has "more integrity. It's more durable. You can pick up the model without worrying so much about damaging it." However, he noted that clays and wax are "more forgiving than plaster," because "if you take a little bit off, you can add a little bit back."

In most instances, a commissioning agreement is signed, requiring the artist to produce the bust/half-size/life-size/monumental sculpture by a certain date, offering up for approval sketches/photographs/maquettes and making changes as agreed-upon by both sides in order that the artwork may be completed. The individual or organization commissioning the portrait will agree to pay the artist a specified amount, usually in installments (for instance, one-third at the signing of the agreement, one-third after the maquette has been approved and one-third when the work is completed and before being shipped). The agreement may be terminated if the original design or maquette is not approved and no compromise on changes can be reached, or if the artist is late by more than 90 days in completing the work, or if the buyer is late by more than 60 days in making a paying. The artist would still retain all payments received.

The price usually is dependent upon the size of the piece, whether or not it is a bust or a full-figure, if there are props or other figures in the image and the overall degree of complexity. Edd Hayes, for instance, charges $15,000 for a bust and between $55,000 and $95,000 for life-sized portraits, while Wendy Ross' portraits range from $65,000 to $300,000 and Marc Mellon stated that he charges "$35,000 and up."

During the period in which the sculpture is being created, the artist would have the artwork insured against fire and theft. The costs of shipping from a foundry or the artist's studio and installation at the portrait's new home would be negotiated. "We never pay for shipping," said Marcey White, wife and business manager for Bethel, Maine portrait sculptor Tom White. "If someone wants Tom to install the work, they have to pay $350 a day for his time out of the studio and all expenses."

After a final payment has been made, the buyer would have the right to exhibit and sell the artwork, but the artist would retain copyright and, with that, be credited as the author of the piece and have the ability to use the image of the sculpture in brochures or on a Web site, as well as make reproductions that the artist would own and could sell. When Marc Mellon made his bust of George H.W. Bush, he had been commissioned by noted art collector Vincent Melzac to produce two castings, one for the National Portrait Gallery and the other for the Central Intelligence Agency. Some years later, Mellon was contacted by someone at the CIA who stated that the Bush Library at Texas A&M "wanted to borrow its bust, and they weren't sure they'd ever get it back." Soon after, someone from the Bush Library contacted Mellon, asking him to make a new cast of the sculpture. "They told me I would have the honor of making a donation," Mellon said. "I told them I was gratified by their interest but, under existing tax law, I would only be able to deduct casting costs and not the value of the piece." (Mellon still had the rubber molds for the bust.) Melzac had died by that time and could not sponsor this casting, but the Texas A&M Foundation came up with $50,000 to pay the artist to produce a new bust.

At other times, artists intend from the start to produce their portraits as editions. Hayes noted that he sometimes makes editions of half life-sized portraits (in editions of 10-15, "maybe up to 25"), "if I feel I have a market for it," selling each for between $7,500 and $9,000. The benefit to the individual or organization that originally commissioned him is that "they get a better price." He noted that some clients are "delighted" to see their portraits in other places and, if they aren't, buyers may choose to purchase the copyright from him for an additional fee.

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