I had the pleasure on Wednesday night of attending a figure painting demonstration by Nelson Shanks at Studio Incamminati here in Philadelphia.
Shanks is a well known and highly regarded American artist and teacher, known in particular for his portraits of iconic contemporary figures.
His work has been exhibited in numerous museums and prestigious galleries, and his commissioned portraits include U.S. presidents Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, Princess Diana of England, Queen Silvia of Sweden, Pope John Paul II, Luciano Pavarotti, the Chairman of the Board of the Museum of Modern and of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and many others.
Shanks has been a professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and a visiting professor in Fine Arts at George Washington University in Washington, as well as conducting seminars at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the New York Academy of Art, and teaching at the Art Students League in new York, the National Academy of Design and the Art Institute of Chicago.
His style is academically precise and refined, but vibrates with lively color and a sense of life that artists with a similar approach sometimes lack. Not only does he communicate the personality of his subject, sometimes in quite subtle ways, Shanks’ feeling for the tactile presence of the objects surrounding his subjects often gives his portraits an undercurrent of the appeal of fine still life painting.
He studied at the Art Students League, additionally pursuing independent study with artists like John Koch. His skill and dedication earned him grants that enabled travel in Europe and study at the Accademia di Bell Arti in Florence with Pietro Annigoni.
Shanks’ experience as a painter, his grounding in traditional art training and his experience as a teacher came together in the establishment of Studio Incamminati, an atelier style not for profit school in Philadelphia dedicated to instructing “those who are progressing”, which is the meaning of the name.
The studio was co-founded with his wife, painter Leona Shanks, and grew out of a series of workshops conducted in the late 1990’s that indicated the need for the kind of immersive and dedicated instruction in “humanist realism” this kind of atelier could provide.
Nelson Shanks’s dedication to the studio includes occasional painting demos, in which he does portrait or figure painting in sessions that attract attention and new students to the school.
The session that I attended with filled to capacity with a mix of existing students and paying visitors who, except for breaks, sat in silence, enrapt for the three hour session while shanks worked from the model. Starting with a blank toned canvas, he brought his study to the state shown in the image above, bottom, in what was probably less than two and a half hours of actual painting time.
My snapshot doesn’t do it justice, but the study includes a rich variety of color, particularly in the shadows, and a wonderful economy of brushwork. Watching someone at Shanks’ level paint is like a condensed course of instruction in itself, and I recommend it to anyone who has the opportunity to attend a similar session.
You can get a rough idea of what his demos are like from a brief, time-compressed video on YouTube. In addition, Matthew Inness has an article about a demo at the National Arts Club in 2011, and painter William Secombe gives a description of a similar demo at the Art Student’s League from 2009.
There is also a video available on YouTube, The Portrait as Fine Art, in which Shanks briefly discusses his philosophy of painting and which includes nice close up views of some of his paintings, supplementing the limited selection and somewhat small size of the images on his website.
In 2011 Shanks became only the second American painter for which there was a dedicated exhibition at the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg. The show was later on display at the Russian Academy of Art in Moscow.
While in St. Petersburg, Shanks conducted workshops at the Repin Instutute. There is a video about the exhibition that gives additional brief views of some of his paintings (and offers a glimpse of the artist’s studio in Bucks County).
There are additional videos available on YouTube, with interviews and events that sometimes include scenes from painting demos. I’ve listed what other resources I could find below. There was apparently a collection of his work printed in 1996, but I can’t find much information about the book.
I admire the fact that Nelson Shanks was a staunch defender of the traditions or realist art during periods in which that was quite difficult. He continues to champion the teaching of those traditions and, through both his personal influence and through Studio Incamminati, works to bring the benefit of his experience to a new generation of artists.
See my previous post about Nelson Shanks.