Oil painter John Howard Sanden takes a look back at his work and his process through the years in a Q&A with The Artist’s Magazine.
What has changed for you over the course of your career?
Everything in my long life and long career is dated either before 1969 or after 1969. That was the year I moved from the Midwest to New York, began to study painting at the Art Students League with Samuel Edmund Oppenheim, and began to realize — for the first time — what painting is all about. I was 35 years old.
I was an illustration major at the Minneapolis School of Art (Class of 1956), and for thirteen years I worked hard at the illustration business (mostly for clients in religious publishing and church-related endeavors), producing carefully manufactured pictures that filled a particular need. My favorite client was the Reverend Billy Graham, for whom I worked exclusively for nine years. In 1967 I began to expand my reach, with clients such as Reader’s Digest magazine and Brown & Bigelow (the calendar publishers).
How has your technique evolved?
Oppenheim taught direct painting (“premier coup”, he called it) — working directly on a white canvas and drawing with the brush. His two fundamental dictums were (1) “Everything based on observation, and observation alone,” and (2) “The success of the painting is determined by the conception.” The first of these was easy: paint the subject as you see it — now — “not as you have seen it elsewhere or as you know it to be.” The second principle was more demanding. Your reaction to the subject matter — what it means to you and what you intend to say about it — is what will ultimately result in a meaningful painting. Oppenheim stressed economy of brushstrokes, flowing edges and an intense study of values. “Paint it all in one sitting!” he said.
Under the influence of Oppenheim, I worked in a “bravura” style — large, broad brushstrokes, with the subject “swimming in the atmosphere” achieved by colors and tones flowing one into another. My illustration clients began to object. Brown & Bigelow, for whom I painted an annual Cub Scout calendar, was annoyed by my new “soft touch” style (as they called it), and gave the series to an artist who worked in the style of Norman Rockwell. But when I began to paint portraits professionally in New York (1970), my portrait clients were — for the most part — pleased. I was able to produce a somewhat “Sargentesque” product which was appropriate to most portrait projects.
Over the four decades since 1970, my technique has become more conservative. This is the result of three reasons. (1) My per-portrait price has moved ever higher, requiring, it has seemed, a more thorough and complete product. A “sketch-style” painting , however charming its bravura brushwork, cannot command the price of a dignified, finished portrait. (2) My clients are now the very top people in their fields. The president of a major university, in his robes, calls for (it seems to me) a finished and traditional style. (3) My desire as an artist is to go ever deeper in the psychological depth of my portraits. My desire is to present the very most complete “capture” of my subject that I can achieve. In other words, I work longer and harder on each painting. My object — to really nail down the essence of my subject — is now paramount. This requires, it seems to me, a more thorough technique.
In what ways has technology advanced or hindered the artistic process?
The advent of the “digital age” has transformed — at least for me — the work of the busy professional portrait painter. Let me cite three significant ways:
(1) At the initial sittings with my subject, everything is recorded in digital photography. This allows me to go to work on compositional “sketches” immediately on returning to the studio, when impressions are freshest.
(2) After the sittings, I prepare these designs for the portrait on the computer, working in the great freedom and adeptness of Photoshop. The ease and flexibility of this software allows me to experiment with different poses, parts of poses, backgrounds, tonal schemes. Working in this way permits maximum creative freedom. For years I slaved over painted preliminaries which required days of labor. Once finished, I was reluctant to change them or try something else. With Photoshop, many alternatives can be tried, quickly and relatively easily.
(3) As the painting begins to reach completion, a digital copy is made, printed out at a large size (19 by 13 inches), mounted, and sent overnight to the client. The client responds by telephone or email. Changes are made, if necessary, and new digital images go out again. This process continues until everyone involved is completely satisfied and pleased.
Before the digital era, the completed portrait was framed, crated and shipped to the subject’s location. I followed by air, with a folding easel and my painting equipment. The final sitting — a very high pressure event — took place in the inconvenience of the sitter’s living room. For the past ten years, however, I have not had to leave my studio, but have used instead the process described here. In so doing, I make the necessary changes in the ideal convenience of my studio, and in doing so save the client several thousand dollars in travel expenses. Another plus for this procedure is that the completed painting — including the changes — can be digitally recorded, for archival purposes, in the ideal light of the studio. Many of my early portraits, completed on location, were never photographed.
When you look back on your career, what memory stands out the most to you?
Nothing will ever compare with the electrifying experience of May 31, 2012, when my family and I were invited to the White House by President Barack Obama to witness the unveiling of my portraits of President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush. I was 77 years old at that time.
What do you think of when you look back at your earlier work?
Two causes for regret. First, I regret that I did not decide sooner to move to New York. The thrill of living in the art capital of the world, combined with (for the first time) a serious study of painting at the Art Students League under Samuel Oppenheim — these were totally life-changing experiences. Second, I regret that I did not find a way to combine my exciting adventure with bravura, direct painting — to combine this with a determination to achieve more psychological depth in my portraits. Others achieved this, men such as John S. Sargent, William Orpen and Augustus John. Alas, I do not share their greatness.
What was your expectation for your art career when you were just starting out and how did that change or stay the same?
As a young person, prior to going to art school in Minneapolis, my ambition was to be an illustrator. I did not even know that the profession of portrait painting existed. In four years of art school, I never met a professional portrait painter, or heard the subject discussed. I went to New York in 1969 to further my illustration career. Immediately on arrival in New York, I discovered professional portraiture (it was everywhere), and discovered that it paid far more than illustration. In a single, brief visit to a portrait gallery in Manhattan — where I showed some of my Readers Digest portraits — I learned that I could be paid three times my Digest price for the same job. My career as a portrait painter had begun.
What are you currently working on?
I have four projects in the studio right now: (1) the Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, (2) the Archbishop of Baltimore, (3) the retiring CEO of the Erie Insurance Company in Erie, Pennsylvania, and — on a large (64 by 72) canvas, the three children of a South Carolina businessman — who I had painted when he was a child himself.
What are your future artistic goals?
I have written five books on portrait painting. The very first was the biggest success. That book was entitled Painting the Head in Oil, and it was based largely on what I had learned at the Art Students League under Oppenheim. I am revising that book, and plan to publish it under a new title: The Single-Sitting Portrait. Robert Henri said of the single-sitting portrait: “This is the most demanding and inherently valuable exercise for the painter in oils.”