How David Jon Kassan Paints Oil Portraits

This article on David Jon Kassan and his portrait painting tips originally appeared in the April 11, 2011 issue of The Artist’s Magazine under the title “Urban Studies,” by Jill Bossert.

Brush Back (oil, 24x23) by David Jon Kassan

Brush Back (oil, 24×23) by David Jon Kassan

The conventional portrait shows a seated figure ostensibly in comfort as he or she looks toward the viewer. David Jon Kassan, in contrast, often has his figures standing, and in place of a cozy interior, he positions them against the stark backdrop of a graffiti-laden wall. Visually trapped, the figures offer wary or veiled gazes—or avert their eyes altogether. Nonetheless, they confront the viewer, just as Kassan confronts the challenge of painting.

Early Commitment

“I’m stubborn. I believe in myself, and though I know I have a lot to learn, I’m confident I can do it,” says Kassan, who credits his success in part to the influence of his Romanian-Ukrainian immigrant grandparents’ determination, his father’s work ethic, and his mother’s strong will. His talent, he feels, can take him only so far: “I have to work harder to keep up,” he says.

Portrait of the Artist's Mother (oil, 26x28) by David Jon Kassan

Portrait of the Artist’s Mother (oil, 26×28) by David Jon Kassan

Until the early 1980s, when the family moved to southern New Jersey, Kassan lived in Europe where his father was an Air Force pilot. As a youngster, finding art more interesting than math or science, Kassan had dreamed of working for Disney. As a teenager, he studied at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia on weekends. In 1999 he graduated with a bachelor of fine arts degree from Syracuse University in New York, went to New York City and began working as a Web designer—although he found being unable to paint full time “heart-wrenching.”

A month after 9/11, Kassan lost his job as a creative director and, committing to either “sink or swim” as a painter, began studying in earnest, spending mornings with mentor Sharon Sprung at the National Academy School of Fine Arts and afternoons at the Art Students League of New York. Working with Gallery Henoch, which took him on shortly after he arrived in the city, the artist has been building success on success.

A Clear Vision

Kassan feels that “painting is about understanding yourself.” He says that the route to discovery is “to paint and draw your life every day.” What goes into his work is the sum of his life experience and his unique way of seeing.

Head Study (oil, 18x14) by David Jon Kassan

Head Study (oil, 18×14) by David Jon Kassan

Of his subject matter, he says, “My favorite part of the painting process is getting to understand my models and working hard to truthfully represent them and their emotions in a painting.” His approach is simple. Accuracy is key. And clarity. As he works, he asks himself question after question: Is this too long or too short? Too light or too dark? “I have the answers right in front of me,” he says, pointing out that it’s all a matter of observing the model. The more accurately he sees things, the more he’s able to capture the subtle nuances of the sitter’s emotion. For him, it’s about much more than the outward appearance.

Model Behavior

Drawing, watching, talking—Kassan does whatever it takes to get to know his subject and uses all the information he gathers over a week or so of modeling sessions to convey his model’s personality. He has no difficulty chatting with the model while working. As he explains, “Everything I do is cumulative. It’s like seeing a person a mile away, completely unknown and out of focus. Then, as that person gets closer (as I spend more time drawing or painting him or her), he or she starts to come into focus (I start to understand the person better) to the point that the two of us are shaking hands (I have a great understanding of who that person really is).”

Balance (oil,60x80) by David Jon Kassan

Balance (oil,60×80) by David Jon Kassan

When painting life-size works, Kassan often poses his subjects standing against a wall. “I don’t want them to be too comfortable. If they’re sitting, their weight pulls on their bodies; they slouch. I tend to have models lower their chins; it makes the eyes bigger.” He’s not a big-brushstroke painter. “It’s not about the painter or the paint,” he says. “It’s about the person and the internal life of that person.”

Drawn and Crosshatched

For Kassan’s preparatory drawing, he positions the model under artificial lighting that best captures interesting contours. He uses the shadows under the nose and upper lip as a guide when repositioning the model after five-minute rests between 20-minute poses. He begins with an area he calls the facial triangle—eyes, nose and mouth—the sitter’s emotional center. With one eye closed, he looks through his Pentax Papilios binoculars (with a near point of 0.6m), which he’ll use throughout the process.

Study of Laura Genne (charcoal,pastel pencil and white chalk pencil, 20x10) by David Jon Kassan

Study of Laura Genne (charcoal,pastel pencil and white chalk pencil, 20×10) by David Jon Kassan

On Daler-Rowney Canford gunmetal gray mounted card stock, he begins blocking in with black PanPastel and a PanPastel Sofft tool (a small, trowel-shaped plastic painting knife covered with foam). After the initial shaping, he refines with a Sanford Tuff Stuff eraser stick (works like a retractable pencil) and very sharp General’s charcoal and white pencils, blending with paper towels followed by soft brushes. He builds layers with hatching strokes across the forms, constantly checking the model.

Kasson’s Oil Painting Techniques and Process

For a painting surface, Kassan uses a Dibond panel, a product used by sign makers and made from an aluminum composite material that doesn’t warp. The smooth surface is essential: “I want my paintings to mimic life, not a painting. A canvas weave, even if the weave is very fine, says ‘painting,’” remarks Kassan. He applies two coats of acrylic gesso primer to the panel, the second layer stroked on at 45 degrees from the first. Then he sands the surface with 600-grit wet-dry sandpaper, and after doing this, he applies a thin coat of Golden N6 neutral gray acrylic paint. Using fine-grade sanding blocks, he wet sands again for maximum smoothness.

After scanning his preparatory drawing into Photoshop, Kassan prints it out life-size, covers the back of the printout with red iron oxide PanPastel and tapes it to the panel. Using a hard pencil, he transfers the image, tracing the edges as lines and hatching in the darks.

Aurora (oil, 48x60) by David Jon Kassan

Aurora (oil, 48×60) by David Jon Kassan

He begins each day’s work by applying a thin layer of Liquin to the painting surface to make it slightly wet and to bring the darks up to where they were the day before. On the palette he mixes small quantities of colors in what he calls puddles. As he adds pigment, he pulls adjacent puddles out from a center point—one lighter or darker, one warmer or cooler and so on. After adding medium to the mix, he wipes his brush on a paper towel. Working dark to light, he loads only the tip of his brush, which he then draws very lightly on the slightly tacky surface in a series of hatches that follow the form. Constantly making adjustments to the color mix, he avoids blocking large areas uniformly. By pulling soft brushes lightly along or across the hatch direction, he very gently blends some areas. To achieve vibrancy, he builds interweaving layers or lattices. Using his binoculars, Kassan checks color relationships against the model, matching hues and values with ever-increasing accuracy.

He develops the figure and background together, which allows him to work out the different edge conditions between the two as the atmosphere of the painting evolves. For the background impasto, he uses Winsor & Newton Liquin Oleopasto and Natural Pigments Oleoresgel mixed with a greenish foundation along with a new medium he’s developing. This he applies with a palette knife, after which he paints and works over the impasto until he achieves the desired texture.

In later stages, he adds small quantities of stand oil to the paint, which makes the surface level, for an enameled or glazed effect. To the figure’s surface in the lights, Kassan adds small amounts of the impasto mediums to achieve textures that follow the subject’s form.

Oil Painting Tip: Use a Vertical Palette

Jon David Kassan paints with a vertical palette

David Jon Kassan’s vertical palette allows him to paint without stressing his back.

After suffering from repetitive stress disorder in his back as a result of leaning over a taboret for eight hours a day in studio classes, Kassan developed his vertical palette. A commonsense solution, this palette leaves his hands free and, more important, frees him from having to bend down to mix colors. Being upright, the palette is in the same light as the painting, which allows Kassan to make judgments quickly.  This in turn reduces the visual static or disconnect between the moments of seeing the color and applying the paint.

Kassan’s palette sits on an adjacent easel and is fabricated from a Dibond panel with a recess cut to match a 2-milimeter-thick glass panel insert. He mounted the panel with dabs of clear silicone bath sealant at the corners. At the bottom, two plastic soda-bottle tops, affixed by elastic bands passed through pairs of drilled holes, hold painting mediums. Kassan is amused when asked how he gets his paint to stick to the palette. “It just sticks,” he says. “I’m not using huge globs! Every now and then, there will be a drip, but it’s no big deal.”

Color Intuition

For Kassan, painting is intuitive. Not having to think about color himself, he finds verbalizing about the process to his students to be challenging—though he works hard to do it well. “I think of color in tiers,” he says. “I see a color note that’s kind of a red and I ask, ‘Is that a cool red or a warm red?’ If it’s an orange-red, then I go more toward cadmium and oranges.” He likens this questioning process to the splitting of a family tree, and he’s quick to say that sometimes the answer he gets is wrong because he’s working with estimates: “The bigger the mistake, the better; it means I can see the color more easily. The mistakes lead you to the right answers. Kind of like life!”

Graffiti Artist

Grace in Prolfile (oil, 21x26) by David Jon Kassan
Grace in Prolfile (oil, 21×26) by David Jon Kassan

Kassan emphasizes the dimensionality of his figures by juxtaposing them against the abstract formalism of his urban abstract and graffiti-inspired backgrounds. As a former graphic designer, he likes combining the broken typography of graffiti and street advertisements with the naturally occurring, found abstractions and designs he observes all over the city. He’s compiled a resource library of thousands of sketches and photo images, which he “photo-edits, samples and dubs to create new images and bring in texture.” Attended to with the same exactness as he gives his figures, his backgrounds create visual drama and a hint of mystery.

A New Maturity

Now 33, Kassan acknowledges that a level of understanding comes with success. While studying he was impatient: “I wanted everything I have now,” he says, “but I wanted it in a year.” Like many young artists, he was looking for the magic bullet that would make him a better painter. He gained patience by observing some of his more mature students in class. He could see how they were trying to understand things without constantly pushing against the barriers of their limitations. Easing off his own self-imposed pressure meant solutions would come naturally, allowing him to evolve as an artist as well as a painter. “If you relax a little,” he says, “it’s as if your brain is more open—more receptive—you can understand things better.”

David Jon Kassan's self portrait painting
Self Image by David Jon Kassan (oil; detail)

Kassan now realizes that becoming an artist is about years and not days. His advice is to be prepared to fill miles of canvas and, in his words, to “always face your challenges head on and make them your strengths.” (Like this quote? Tweet it!)

The author of this article, Jill Bossert, is an award-winning freelance writer living in Brooklyn, New York.

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