Feeling, imagination, and the means to communicate them. These are the personal attributes that Everett Raymond Kinstler values and what he brings to each work of art he creates. “That’s my yardstick. I can’t really separate the three, but if I had to, I’d probably place feeling at the top. Feeling is everything,” he said, by way of explaining what differentiates a great artist from the rest. Whether it’s via the arc of Sinatra’s song styling, the lyricism of W. Somerset Maugham’s prose, or the glowing vibrancy of his own watercolors and oils, Kinstler says it’s the artist’s job to convey emotion.
Kinstler’s career spans more than sixty years. He’s renowned for his portraits of presidents, movie stars and other colorful people, he’s a success in the world of comic and book illustration, and he paints landscapes and scenes from his life. His work hangs in the White House, museums, and private collections around the world. (Read his bio here.) Mason’s Road is honored to partner with Fairfield University’s Bellarmine Museum in featuring his art here, in our issue on characterization.
He sat down in his Easton, Connecticut studio with Mason’s Road editor-in-chief Sarah Z. Sleeper and founding editor Lisa Calderone to talk about his approach to life and to art, and about how he captures character on canvas.
Everett Raymond Kinstler:
Pulps to Portraits
Fairfield University’s Bellarmine Museum
June 14 – September 28, 2012
Q: We’d like to ask you a few questions…
A: The questions I always get are, ‘What happens if a person doesn’t like their portrait?’ ‘What happens if you paint someone you don’t like?’ And, ‘Who would you paint if you could pick someone?’ The truth is I’m painting the very people I should be painting. If you ask me about the recent portraits I’ve painted, they’ve all got stories to tell. I see myself like an actor. A good actor. Certainly a dedicated actor. I asked Miss Katharine Hepburn once, ‘What happens if you have a part to play and you don’t relate to it?’ She said, ‘You know, you do the best you can and you get on with it.’ That’s what I do.
ekphrasis ii: sarah z. sleeper (mfa ’12) ek•phra•sis. n.’ek-frə-səs. A literary description of or commentary on a visual work of art.
Mason’s Road editor-in-chief Sarah Z. Sleeper responds in prose to four works by Everett Raymond Kinstler, four works on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and one piece in the museum’s permanent collection.
Fairfield University’s Bellarmine Museum
Q: So, is it safe to say that you aren’t intrigued by everyone you paint?
A: There are certain people I have to paint who I don’t find very colorful or very interesting. Now you might say, ‘You think you are interesting?’ No I’m probably not. But it’s not a criticism; it’s an observation to say someone is colorful. Take someone like Tom Wolfe. He wears white suits and he’s a bit of a dandy. And someone else might be quite conservative. That doesn’t make them bad. Some people are just made to order for a portrait because they are so colorful and bigger than life.
Q: How do writing and painting differ, in your view?
A: It’s got to be the same for a writer…. When I asked Tom Wolfe at some point, ‘I never really read Dickens. Which book should I start with?’ And he said Great Expectations, which was a wonderful novel. When they talk about characters being Dickensian, they’re characters that are wonderful and dimensional. They’re just made for an illustrator. You want to bring them to life. As well, writers have an advantage over painters. You write a chapter and you have a couple of paragraphs that don’t flow, they don’t connect with what the first part of the chapter is about. You can rewrite those pages. If I paint a picture that has no life in it, I can’t go back and repaint it. It doesn’t work that way. It’s a totally different idiom.
Q: Is there a trick to capturing a person’s character on canvas?
A: As John Singer Sargent said, ‘Every portrait should have the element of a caricature. Not a cartoon. But something that makes you say, ‘That’s the person.’
Q: Is portrait painting different than other work you’ve done?
A: If you’re working as an illustrator or on a portrait, you are working on assignment. That’s very different than painting a landscape, which I do, and which are personal. Look at Sargent’s watercolors—that’s where his soul was. He painted them for himself. Artists don’t always have that option [because they must earn a living]. But feeling, passion, fire in the belly, I always have that, whatever type of work I’m doing. You can’t teach that. You’re either an artist and you have the means to express yourself well, or you don’t.
Q: What can you share about your technique?
A: It’s all about connecting. Connecting with the subject. Take my portrait of John Wayne. I had a particular feeling about how he should be interpreted. And John Wayne’s son Michael told me that my portrait is the quintessential picture of John Wayne. I don’t think it’s my role to be a judge. It’s my role to chronicle, to the best of my ability. Technique is only important in how it expresses what you feel. I think that art is a reflection of the personality of the artist. As we get older—unlike an athlete who at a certain age just can’t hit a ball that hard, or whose coordination is off—there’s no reason why a writer, or a musician, or a painter cannot continue to grow if his mind and heart are functioning.
Q: Can you share another example?
A: Helen Keller was totally deaf and totally blind. She made sounds but she never learned to speak. She learned several languages. I marvel still at what that woman did. In one sentence I say to you, ‘She was blind and she was deaf.’ You understand that. Tell me, how do I, as a painter, express this? I’ve read her autobiography. I’ve read books about her. I went to the Institute for the Blind in New York, because they had an oil painting of her, painted by someone here in Connecticut when she was about forty. I looked at photographs of her. The early photographs were all in profile. Most of them were in black and white. I can read a black and white. I can tell if the person has grey eyes or blue eyes. Helen Keller was about five-feet, nine-inches. She was full-bosomed and had light hair. She could smell, she could touch, and she could feel. She could feel sunlight. She couldn’t hear the birds, but she could feel the temperature. She loved to read. She loved animals. She rode horseback. My portrait of her, which hangs in the Harvard Club, is of a young woman, very pretty, sitting on a porch, sunlight going across her hands where she holds a book that she’s reading. She’s looking off into the distance. I wanted someone to say, ‘Who is that pretty woman? What’s she looking at? What’s she listening to?’ The waiters at the club would tell people that the portrait was Helen Keller. But unless you put a sign there you can’t tell it’s her. It’s not my role to judge; it’s my role to chronicle.
Q: Your exhibition at the Bellarmine Museum, “Pulps to Portraits,” travels through your whole career. What would you like people to take away from this show?
A: What I’d like to hear someone say is, ‘Look at the range in which he attempted his pictures. He is unpredictable.’ That’s the word Tony Bennett used about me. ‘This guy is unpredictable.’ It was meant as a compliment. I’d also like people to know that I worked hard and I was honest. I’d love to think my paintings have energy that people can feel. I hope they are well painted. And I’d love to have the approbation and applause of my fellow painters.
Q: What part of your career has been your favorite?
A: I have liked every phase: comic books, magazine illustrations, covers, portraits. Someone once asked me what was my inspiration, and I said, for years it was the telephone—someone calling with a job. I’ve worked in every kind of medium and technique. There’s pen and ink. There’s pastel. There’s watercolor. There’s everything from a pretty girl to a landscape. I’ve just been totally turned on by life and visual imagery.
Q: Any final thoughts you’d like to share?
A: Benjamin West, the only American painter who was president of the Royal Academy of London, said, ‘Whatever you are painting, keep in mind its essential character rather than its accidental appearance.’ That’s another yardstick for me. Character is what matters. Likeness is ephemeral.