Noralyn Curl a former employee of Fine Art Connoisseur and a friend of Nelson Shanks had always told me stories about Nelson and suggested that we would get along famously. She insisted that I visit him at his home and studio in Philadephia, however I could not make the schedule work due to conflicting schedules.
In Spring 2009 Nora phoned me and said “Nelson wants to do your portrait,” which of course was unexpected and a great honor. Obviously Nelson is one of the living great’s and it was not something to take lightly. We coordinated a date I was to visit in New York and set up a time, however we had to postpone this due to illness. I think the only person busier than me is Nelson Shanks and we had a difficult time finding a date to connect, however we landed on December 9 and 10, 2009. I was to sit for a half day each morning.
Little did I know the surprise awaiting me was that Nelson’s New York studio was the former Henry Henche studio off of Gramercy Park a few doors down from the National Arts Club, which I am a member. I climbed five flights of stairs to the studio, which occupies the entire top floor of the building. I was greeted by a giant window about 20 feet wide and 30 feet tall. What a magnificent studio.
Nelson introduced himself and showed me around the studio. Because he was working on deadline to finish a number of paintings for a show in St. Petersburg, Russia there were unfinished paintings everywhere, and a smattering of completed pieces. Every painting was already a masterpiece, even though unfinished in his eyes. Even the simple oil sketches were beyond the quality of most oil sketches I normally see.
Nelson and I had an instant chemistry and I found him to be absolutely delightful. I already held him in high regard but after spending time with him my respect level increased significantly. Of course we had a great deal in common because of our passion of painting technique and paintings. Nelson was kind enough to talk me though some of his techniques and his palette. (Some day when I find the time I'll post my notes.) Of course every painter is different about interaction with the model and whether or not talking is permitted. Nelson was able to carry on fluid uninterrupted conversation without disrupting his concentration and only on a few occasions did he suggest stillness or silence while working in the area of the eyes. “I prefer that you move a little,” he said, “I think it helps the model appear less stiff and I can better reflect a real live person.” Though there were moments when he requested silence and no movement when concentrating on something specific like the eyes.
Of course Nelson was a wonderful storyteller and I got to hear stories of others who had sat in the very chair I was sitting in to be painted. Pavarotti, Princess Dianna and hundreds of other celebrities. It was quite an honor.
Nelson and I talked for a few minutes before he posed me. I had sat with my winter coat on just for a preliminary view and while we talked he shouted out "Freeze that pose." I stopped. I was leaning back at an odd angle and he loved the attitude. Of course we ran out of time with two half day sessions and we opted to spend another half day, which was just another opportunity to spend time with this very interesting man.