Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Classic Portraiture Book by John Howard Sanden - Painting the Head in Oil

Some time ago at a garage sale or old book store I stumbled on this 1976 book, Painting the Head in Oil, by John Howard Sanden. If memory serves me, I was not yet an oil painter, but dreamed of one day abandoning the slapdash, hurried, frequent-all-nighter schedule of a commercial illustrator in favor of leisurely painting subjects in my spacious, 2-stories-tall, natural-light, north-facing windowed portrait studio.

Hey, I can dream, can't I?

I was young, full of future, butbusy raising a family... and there wasn't an internet back then, so I really did not know who Sanden was. But one glance through his book told me that he knew what he was talking about. He was a portrait painter.

And he's one of those painters whose brush marks leave proof that he is in full control of his paint at all times. His paintings are never overworked, and always present a good and flattering likeness. He's painted some of the most famous people in the world, including very famous people you've never heard of. (This irony in pictures was the beginning of my understanding that the world is bigger than I could imagine).

Unlike many art books on portraiture that display fine examples of a master's work, with little practical how-to, this one talks about flesh-tone colors, mixing, premixing, mediums, and much more.

If I have one criticism, it is at the same time praise for Sanden who, due to his tremendous skill and eye for proportion, still makes portrait painting look too easy. But that is not the fault of either the author nor the publisher. The publishers are not painters nor even faintly expert in that which they publish. They are about selling books. What do they know about painting to even ask for additional clarity?

And Sanden? He's so good that when it comes to explaining some aspects of his own methods of painting, there are some issues that are so basic and instinctual to him that he probably cannot imagine they need explaining. Such is the caveat of mastery.