When Lou Guarnaccia visited the former Soviet Union in the 1980s at the height of the Cold War, he was struck by the level of poverty in the country. After asking people in two long lines what they were waiting for, their dismal responses – toilet paper and disposable razor blades – prompted the artist to paint two portraits, one of a smiling school girl with a tattered uniform and the other of then- Premier Mikael Gorbachev which currently hangs in the Kremlin.
Now that Guarnaccia has set up shop on Nantucket painting commissioned portraits and marine landscapes exhibited at the Cavalier Galleries, he often looks up at the Russian girl’s portrait on his wall and remembers what it means to capture the essence of someone’s life. “A photograph has its place but the painted portrait will keep giving and giving,” he said.
Other portrait painters on Nantucket have taken different paths to firmly entrench themselves in the field of painting people.
Marion Potter Sharpe said she can hardly keep up with the amount of commissions of family and children’s portraits she receives each year. After starting out painting portraits of chairmen of the New York Stock Exchange to hang in board rooms, Sharpe said she now spends the majority of time with children.
Diane Dicker found herself painting some of the most well-known celebrities in Paris when she lived there full-time. After two years studying the old masters at L’Atelier St. Luc, Dicker went to work building a catalogue of portraits that included Kristin Scott Thomas of “The English Patient,” the grande dame of film and theater in France Charlotte Rampling and the Chamberlain Baron de Bertouch-Lehn of Denmark. Arriving at an end result that both the artist and the subject are happy with isn’t easy, the artists say.
Guarnaccia said deciding where the portrait will hang is one of the most important decisions people make before the painting process begins. “Where it will hang dictates the mood, size and clothes,” he said.
Some of the more prominent bond traders and investors he paints want something formal to hang in the office boardroom – or less formal if the portrait is to hang in a beach home.
“The people who I paint are very accomplished. They have the money to invest in a portrait,” he said.
For his father’s portrait, Walter Beinecke’s son wanted the prominent figure in Nantucket’s recent history to look powerful. Beinecke’s angled face in the painting emits a certain stature as he appears to be assessing whether or not to enter a business transaction.
Guarnaccia has also built up a prestigious repertoire of island portraits of such well known figures as the Reverend Ted Anderson and sea captain Alex Haughout.
Testament to his skill is the fact that none of Guarnaccia’s portraits look the same. Anderson is standing behind a large book, seemingly listening and watching, and Haughout is an old salty dog with a weathered, happy face and a white and gold sea captain’s hat.
Guarnaccia said he learned to draw at the Paier College of Art in Hamden, Conn. Getting the anatomy of a figure right meant drawing the skull and sitting for countless hours in life-drawing classes.
“To draw the human figure is the hardest thing to draw.”
Combine this fact with portrait painting, and it’s easy to see why there aren’t that many portrait painters.
Using a three-step process, Guarnaccia first gets to know his subject through walks or dinner, then takes photographs and sketches out a draft. He then constructs a miniature painting for the person to see and finally completes the finished product.
“It’s a very hard business portrait-painting. It’s got to feel like them. They’ve got to love it and live with it for the rest of their lives and their children’s’ lives,” he said.
Sharpe said she likes to work from life.
“It makes for better likenesses and color. It’s more lively. I think it’s true to the subject,” she said of bringing subjects into her Candle Street studio to sit for her.
One of her first projects with the McKechnie family children set her on the path to doing more children.
“They were funny because one boy didn’t like sitting very well and he kept an eye on his watch. When it came five minutes to the end he would look at his watch and say, ‘OK Mrs. Sharpe, you have five minutes.’ From then on, I have been inundated with portraits of children,” she said.
Most people don’t ask to change a portrait, Sharpe said.
“When they hire me they say what you see is what you get. They really are ready to accept me and my style so they don’t generally make any requests.”
Dicker found that some of her subjects were just as interested in painting as she was. “From my experience, a lot of actors and actresses are fascinated with painting,” she said.
Unlike Guarnaccia, Dicker said she never shows her studies or work before it is finished. She’s also never had someone not like a finished piece.
“The secret is to spend enough time with someone. With Kristin (Scott Thomas), I spend the weekend with her and her kids in her country place. I also spent time with her in her Paris home,” she said.
Deciding whether or not to show background in a portrait is always a major decision, Dicker said. With her portrait of antique dealers Tony Giampietro and Ron Hoffman of Hoffman Giampietro Antiques of New York and Nantucket-the pair are setting up a store on Easy Street- Dicker showed the two gentlemen in their New York apartment surrounded by their antique treasures in front of a roaring fire.
Dicker takes her own photos of subjects to serve as a working journal. “Sometimes a photo shoot is an excuse to get to know people better. I watch their reaction to the pictures,” she said. “I get an idea of how they see themselves. I am not interested in embellishing.”
Text and image by The Inquirer and Mirror, USA