Nelson Shanks: Humanist Realist by Kathryn Manzo

Home / Education / Articles

Nelson Shanks: Humanist Realist

by Kathryn Manzo

"Dramatic use of color, harmonious design, the interplay of light and shadow across a variety of textures, the portrayal of the figure and other subject matter that reflects the sophistication and beauty I find in nature - all presented from a unique point of view - can only be successfully achieved with a sound command of the painter's craft. Each painting I paint represents my attempt to achieve these lofty goals - history will determine how successful I have been.

( Nelson Shanks )

LAST OCTOBER I HAD the opportunity to spend an afternoon with realist painter Nelson Shanks at his studio in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Before our interview I was less familiar with his individual paintings than I was with the reputation he had garnered over the years, due in large part to the notable commissioned portraits he has completed of many of the world's prominent figures. This was soon to change as I sought to separate his artistic truth from his public myth.

When I drove up the wooded private road, I first came upon an old carriage house, and then continued on to a large stone house that sat on the banks of the Delaware River. Shanks met me in the lot, and we walked over to his carriage house studio. As I first entered the dimly lit space, I noticed an unfinished painting in a square, gilded frame. It depicted a young woman playing a guitar. She sat on a brocaded couch with her head tilted back and her lips slightly pursed open as if she were singing. In the background behind the couch sat two potted plants and the edge of the artist's easel; a composition created with a unique point of view.

Rather than place the musician smack in the middle of the picture plane, Shanks chose to position her on the lower half of the canvas, allowing the background to occupy an equal percentage of space as the young woman. The reference to her instrument is minimal at best, as only the neck of the guitar and her left hand can be seen tipping in from the lower right-hand corner of the painting. When I asked Shanks to tell me about the piece, he said that it was "not unlike the way I like to present things. I think of music a lot when I paint. The theme of it to a degree is music. So instead of literally putting in music or literally putting in a musical instrument, I use only a hint of the instrument, but the brocaded pattern is like a line of Bach because of its order and the leaves going up are like passages from Vivaldi, and the emphasis on drapery is where the sound comes [in] ... and so I try to do it that way rather than literalness, which is what a lot of realists use in their subjects, which I do not like. It is very amateurish ... This is what really turns me on, content that is beyond the obvious. To present things in a way that has a more artistic meaning, a more aesthetic meaning."

Shank's figurative oeuvre includes portraits, as well as original compositions. I inquired if his heart was mostly with his portrait work, or with the figurative paintings he did for himself. He replied in a forthright fashion, "It's all around. I love painting portraits. I would prefer, perhaps, painting them more for myself with less constraints from the subject." Then, slightly reticent, he said, "But generally I don't have much constraint from subjects."

Clearly any portrait painter would be thrilled to receive a minimum of directives and requests from his/her client. Additionally, few portrait painters are lucky enough to get a subject to pose at length for a portrait. And even fewer can get the prominent to do so. Speaking a bit about his recent portrait commission of Diana, Princess of Wales, Nelson was lucky enough to have Diana pose for almost 48 hours - a notable amount of time for any subject to pose in this hurried day and age. Shanks talked a bit more about his portraiture. While in England, he had completed a portrait of Margaret Thatcher as well, and spoke of the 18 commissions he had yet to complete. When I asked how he garnered commissions, he said he obtained them by "word of mouth; very few agents involved." As a rule, Shanks works from life, be it with his sitter or with a mannequin adorned in his subject's apparel. "Mannequins are wonderful." I inquired as to whether or not he used reference photography when working. For him photography remains only a last resort. "Usually I don't photograph a sitter. Once in a while I do. Like Elaine ... I did this painting more or less in New York, but I didn't have a chance to finish the hands so I took a bunch of photos of her hands." Affording all the elements in his portraits a similar level of painting detail, Nelson declared, "I don't like these things where someone does a head and then tries to dash off the rest of the painting. It's such a fraud. There's an aesthetic balance that's important to the truth of vision and all that ... that's very exciting."

We briefly discussed the realist protest that was held in New York outside The Whitney Museum of American Art last September. Nelson said that he had heard about it, but was unable to attend. Nonetheless, his outspoken sentiment about the subject of the Biennial is shared by many realists, "I think those people ought to be brought to their knees. They are tastemakers who know very little about art. They just know what sort of dazzles their minimal mentalities. Most of it is pseudo-psychiatric. It's all a bunch of nonsense for the great part. But I have to tell you that I really do feel that part of the problem at the moment that's causing much exclusion of realism, is the lack of quality in realism. Let's face it, it's a fact. If there were people around who painted like Boldini and Sargent and Vermeer would be seen and it would be spoken about and it would be exhibited.But the fact of the matter is that "much of the realism that is exhibited is of lesser quality.But when it's realism it has to be such high quality, you can't fake it.It's all hanging out there like the laundry."

Knowing that much of the Journal's audience are artists and art educators, I made a special point of asking about his materials and techniques. Like most accomplished realists, Nelson is particular about his materials. We discussed his preferred canvas ground-lead with a "minor amount of absorbency." One upon which "the paint flows gracefully." He does not stretch his own canvases, but rather has them made by outside vendors to his specifications. To insure a durable bond between the ground and his painting, he usually has an additional coat of lead applied to the canvas before beginning to paint. Referring to an unfavorable surface he had encountered on a canvas, he speaks repugnantly about a rubbery ground which made him "literally labor over every inch of that painting. (I do) not like to paint on a stark white canvas, so I always tone the surface down a bit so that my highlights and lights do show when I paint them." My eyes roamed around the studio to see what tone he had applied. All the unfinished paintings had areas of a medium grey imprimatura peeping through.

His paint taboret is chock full of Winsor Newton paint. I inquired why he chose that brand. "I think it's better paint than most of the others." He purchases the purest, most intense version of any particular hue, and prefers to do all the mixing himself, rather than buy any tubed mixtures of paint whose chromatic intensity is compromised by the creation of a composite.

We began to discuss painting mediums. In the early, leaner stages of a painting, Shanks uses very little additional medium. If he does incorporate some, he uses a mixture of stand oil, cold-pressed linseed, "maybe a small amount of damar varnish in maybe fifteen parts turpentine." Because the degree of ground absorption can vary from canvas to canvas, Nelson noted that a very absorptive ground may require an additional amount of oil, "to sort of seal as I go. But the way I paint with lead ... I can sometimes put leaner over fat ... carefully. I've never had a crack. Never ... You can't do this with impunity and be cavalier about it, but you can run a lean glaze, or the slightest little turpentine stain over something and basically what it does is combine with the oil in the preceding layer." He mentioned that one of his former teachers, John Koch, had used Maroger medium which Shanks adamantly "takes great exception" because of its inherent impermanent qualities. "It is totally impermanent."

As for his brushes, Shanks prefers to use filberts and flats. He rarely uses rounds, but will "every once in a while for fun," if they're available. He usually starts a painting with bristles, and often completes it with sables. Instead of finishing a painting with a small sized sable, he often chooses to use a brush that has acquired its pointed profile naturally, simply by having been worn down considerably on one side. However, if he is starting a small painting, he will often incorporate a worn sable brush from the start. With a chuckle, he admitted, "if I am using a sable, it may start off as an eight or seven, but it's a double aught by the time I'm done. I hate brights ... they have no use. You might as well buy a filbert and take the scissors and cut off half of what you paid for."

We then talked a bit about his painting technique. Upon viewing a work in progress, I noticed that no remnant of a drawing could be seen on the canvas. I mentioned this to shanks and he said that "there isn't any ... I'm drawing in my head pretty much." Instead, he almost immediately places "colored shapes" on his canvas and tries to "plot out where the colors are." He refers to this as "color composing" and simply, "color painting." "I try to think and design in color." Indeed, from a technical standpoint, working in this manner presents an extraordinarily high level of difficulty to the artist, as he must tackle the drafting, compositional, and tonal elements in one fell swoop. "My interest is in, first of all, seeing and understanding form and doing a 'sculpture of drawing' immediately. Secondly then, the sensitivity of the line and the edge and all that is extremely important, as well. But that's all part of form. So really what I am trying to do is create and understand form. But then too, color enters into it because a lot of things are color changes without a value change, which wouldn't show up if you were just using a non-color medium." After he gets his initial colored shapes on the canvas, he continues to work the whole painting as long as he can. "The reason being is that it's the whole that counts; not one part ... I seldom, if ever, start a painting and wind up the way it started. They're always changed, always." When asked if he always built up his paint thicker in the lights he replied, "Probably. Why not? Yea, I like that. The one thing I don't want to do is stay even anywhere. To me that's the biggest bore in the world." The tonal range of his paintings is established early on in the painting process. Pointing to an object in one of his works in progress, Shanks stated that even though he had not completed the painting of the element, he said that the [tonal] note for it had been established on the first day.

We discussed the difficulty one incurs when painting an object in flat lighting-an object whose main light source comes from the same direction as the point of view of the artist. Such situations make modeling the form "exponentially" more difficult, because the painter no longer has many shadows to depend on to build form. One must be able to see and recreate subtle color changes, as opposed to value changes, to turn the form. "If you can see it, and if you know your color, you can paint it." In these situations Shanks remarked that the value painter leans over and falls because he doesn't have the value crutch to lean on.

I queried Shanks about remembering the point in his life when he realized he could make a living as a painter. He frankly replied that "nothing else really ever occurred to me ... I started painting when I was five ... by the time I was 12, I was painting every weekend. I just grew up drawing from the time I must have been two or three." His parents had expected him to go to engineering school, so he pursued architecture studies in college. "I found it [to be] unbelievably boring and restrictive, so I dropped out after five semesters." At 19 he began his studies at The Art Students League of New York, and received a grant which later financed his studies in Italy with Annigoni and the l'Accademia d'Belle Arte. Shanks speaks ambivalently about his approximately seven months of study with Annigoni: "He was of the 'work should be labor and not fun school,' where you sharpen a pencil and ... you know, put on your microscope and try to noodle out a copy of something, and it was nonsense. That's not the way you learn to draw ... As much as I respected him ... and a lot of his work, I didn't think highly of him as a teacher [but he was a] very interesting character." Additionally, Shanks studied with Henry Hensche, Edwin Dickinson, Robert Brackman ("Brackman's teaching was basically not a color approach; it was a color formula ... "), Ivan Olinsky and John Koch , the latter of which he considers to have had a big influence on him. But when I asked Shanks which of his teachers had the most influence on him, he felt that they all were part of his educational equation, as were the old masters, and that the absence of any one would throw his academic foundation off balance. "I remember back when I was 12 - in tears over Renoir . And I can remember when I was 18 - in tears over Rembrandt .

Shanks spoke of the great need for art students to go back to the roots, to obtain a core education with a strong foundation. Indeed the students at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts are "sorely aware" of this need, for during the last two years they have gathered over 300 signatures on petitions to have him teach his craft at their institution. He lamented about how art schools all over the world are filled with students seeking to learn the techniques of realism, yet artists who have mastered these techniques are often prevented from teaching at such institutions. "We got interested in aesthetics, and then at the end of all of it we fell off the precipice. It's almost like crawling back because so many techniques are lost, and so we're going to have a [small] reserve of teachers who can teach the vast number of interested students. We have these poor, hungry, starving people who want to learn something and no place to get it. It's a tragedy."

As our discussion about education was winding down, Shanks passed on a message to the serious student of painting: "Go to museums. Live in museums. Take your sketchpad ... and live in museums. Look at a great variety of work ... If you really want to seriously think about life, and therefore take painting very seriously ... and take seriously the joys that it can bring to one, then you want to go to museums. You want to study the great of the past ... And the second thing is, if you find yourself with a weakness, attack it ... don't develop a technique that avoids your weaknesses.

I admitted to not liking labels myself, but I did ask Shanks by what term he might best be referred to. After fumbling around a bit for an answer, he replied, "humanist realist ... If there's anything I'd rather be known as ... it's that." Notwithstanding his technical virtuosity, what is most important to him is that he produce works that exhibit humanist qualities "at least in this day and age of nice paintings that mean nothing."

Then I posed a question that would summarize his life's labors. What was the ultimate goal he wanted to achieve with his art? He thoughtfully replied, "To make a measure; a major change in our time ... not only with my own work but by influencing other painters sufficiently and the public sufficiently that they realize there is ... a lot more to realism than they've been aware of. It's not just a boring exercise in pushing oil paint around a canvas. It's a way of opening a threshold to an exciting new world of vision. That's what I'm trying to do with my painting, exactly. I'm not trying to paint a slick egg with a highlight on it; I'm trying to paint stuff that matters, that really has a lot of feeling and meaning.

Nelson Shanks need not worry that his quest remains unsatisfied. He is indeed one of the few individuals who are lucky enough to realize an "ultimate goal" during his own lifetime. Since his realist works are recognized as remaining uncompromisingly masterful, he has already made his measure in our time.


Nelson Shanks Humanist Realist, by Kathryn Manzo, Copyright by the Classical Realism Journal. Reproduced courtesy of the Classical Realism Journal and the American Society of Classical Realism.