Humor helps while he paints the famous
Portraiture is a reviving art in the United States today, and some painters, like Raymond Everett Kinstler of New York, are busier now than they have ever been.
Mr. Kinstler has portrayed persons from many walks of life who have come from more than 40 states. He is probably best known for his official White House portrait of President Gerald R. Ford, and his painting of John Wayne, which depicts the actor as the "quintessential cowboy" and now hangs in the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City.
He has painted, as well, more than 25 US government cabinet members, as well as ambassadors and governors. The portrait still sitting on the old-fashioned easel, which was a gift to Mr. Kinstler from his friend and mentor, the late James Montgomery Flagg, is that of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kurt Waldheim.
His first important commission, he recalls, was in 1963 when he was asked to do official portraits of astronauts Alan B. Shepard Jr. and M. Scott Carpenter.
Portraits are commissioned for two chief reasons, says the artist: the desire to record the likeness of a person who has made a distinct contribution to history and the desire to capture on canvas the likeness of a spouse or child.
"If we had to wait for individuals themselves to decide to have their portraits painted, we'd soon be out of business," Mr. Kinstler says with a laugh. "Most people have to be gently persuaded into the project."
This artist's method, in his picturesque studio in the National Arts Club on Gramercy Park, is to put subjects at ease with such joviality and stream of friendly patter that they will enjoy the four or five 2 1/2-hour sittings that are usually required.
Mr. Kinstler spends an average of 50 hours on most portraits, and as much as 80 hours on some. This includes the 10 or 12 hours of "sitting" time when he works directly from life and the additional hours that he works on the canvas without the subject's presence. A painting can take two years, or two weeks, to complete. He says his painting of Gov. John Connally of Texas took two years of sketching, thinking, and searching out the right approach plus one long weekend when he finalized the painting.
Mr. Kinstler, whose work hangs in more than 500 collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, calls himself an "academic" who paints realistically. He does not take liberties with likenesses. His paintings are strong and vigorous and exude the verve of life.
If he has been accused of flattering some of his subjects, he hurriedly assures one that not all his subjects have been elated with his perception of them. "I try not to compromise he says. "But it is a tough problem. I think an artist can be honest and still come up with an attractive portrait."
Most people have their portrait but once in a lifetime, so it is imperative that it be a true reflection, says the artist. His awesome responsibility, as he sees it, is to freeze on canvas some respect of the sitter's essential being. His perception of the subject must ring with such truth and conviction that it will easily transmit the individuality and uniqueness of the subject.
He agrees with art historian Richard McLanathan, that "in all successful portraits there is an impact of personality that transcends time and place." He also agrees that a successful portrait is also a successful painting and has all the qualities of true art.
How does an artist find insights into his subject's character? He listens with both outer and inner ear as he talks to his subjects and notes their responses and reactions. Sometimes he talks to family members or visits the home where the painting will hang. He takes note of interests and hobbies and atmosphere.
Finally, with all of the information he has gathered, he applies his own taste, style, and professional skills. "In short, I bring my own point of view and interpretation to the work."