The Artful Collector: Achieving Immortality Through Fantasy Art

Clyde Caldwell "Frank Family Portrait" 1978.  Acrylic, 30" x 24"
Clyde Caldwell “Frank Family Portrait” 1978. Acrylic, 30″ x 24″

OK, so I don’t really mean “immortality.”  Would you settle for memorability instead? Because THAT I can guarantee you can get, and it’s by getting your portrait painted.

I’m not sure how the idea came to Howard that the ‘perfect’ gift from him to his family would be a family portrait created by Clyde Caldwell—and depicting us as a group of good-looking fantasy barbarians in high REH/D&D™ tradition—but in 1978 that was our Chanukah/Christmas surprise. Howard had managed to surreptitiously send Clyde photos of everyone, including our dog “Flash” (a collie) and when the painting arrived—we were all properly flabbergasted.

Turned out, Clyde had done his job TOO WELL and everyone (excepting Howard and Flash) were outraged by the results. Our youngest daughter complained she looked like a ‘baby’…my daughter (7) and son (11) were horrified at being depicted “nakid’ from the waist up, and all three couldn’t stand the thought of having their mother, well, being shown the same. The shock was just too great (and frankly, I felt the same way, even though Clyde gave me great boobs). Howard was happy looking impressively muscular, without his glasses, and Flash—well—let’s just say he wasn’t complaining about looking more like a wolf than a collie. But the painting had to go back, and when it returned, with us all properly veiled and armored, we could finally sigh with relief. Today, our children STILL don’t get why this was a fun idea, nor why we persist in striving for memorability this way…but we say, “hell, why not?”

Haven’t you ever wondered what you’d look like holding a pet dragon?

Carol Heyer "Jane and the Mad Hatter" Christmas, 1999. Acrylic, 24" x 18"
Carol Heyer “Jane and the Mad Hatter” Christmas, 1999. Acrylic, 24″ x 18″

I know what you’re thinking. “People will think I’m a narcissist”…”big ego”…”cost a fortune”…”I would make a terrible subject”…and you would be dead wrong. Most commissioned portraits aren’t of famous and powerful people, they are of family members, and end up hanging in private homes (to the amusement of friends, and befuddlement of people who aren’t) not corporate offices or museums. Moreover, the “subject” is the least important aspect of this endeavor: What is MOST IMPORTANT is picking the right artist for the job.

Can you really be 20 pounds thinner?

Portraits CAN be very tricky. If you’re commissioning a portrait of someone important, at the end of their career, well—sure—they probably will end up looking younger and fitter. And rare would be the woman or man of middle age who would insist on every wart and wild hair be depicted with fidelity. 🙂 But why go through the agony of such a project if, at the end of the day, no one knows it’s YOU? Things also can go bad, if the artist’s desire to please you overwhelms their need to stay ‘true’ to their subject and their style of expression. Remember, you are picking them precisely because you know pretty much what they can, and will do, with the “subject matter” here, and not in spite of it!

Some artists just naturally don’t make good choices for the job…if they weren’t ever good at likenesses, or figure work, they aren’t going to suddenly become masters of the art simply because you hired them for the job. At the same time, and for the same reason, you definitely WANT to choose an artist because no matter what they do, whether they work in a style that’s ‘realistic,’ ‘surrealistic’ or ‘impressionistic’…they won’t be able to escape painting in that style, and portraiture is a great way to exploit that! Which is why I chose Jael to create fantasy portraits of two of our grandaughters. I wanted realism, and fantasy, but with a “light touch”—and an artist who had spent years, early in her career, as a portrait artist.

Jael "Portrait of Evie at Three" 2005
Jael “Portrait of Evie at Three” 2005

I know, I could have just taken a good photograph of these children, “for posterity”—but to me, it’s not the same thing.  Photos are easy to come by, and of course have their place…but having a PAINTED portrait of your child—that hangs in their room and captures something about them that no photograph can…is something else entirely, and very special, for both the child and the parent.  In each case, I talked to the Grandchild, privately, and told them of my plans. Even at three, Eve was able to come up with the idea of how she loved to dance in her “fairy wings” costume and visit the Butterfly Pavillion at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.  Sarah wanted her cat in the picture, and insisted on being shown in her favorite blue dress. When you commission a painted portrait you are not expecting to be presented with a literal likeness; it is a success—and considered well-executed—when they bring out something of the inner essence of the subject. I wanted an artist who would be sensitive to that, in children. Jael was that artist, for me. I was not interested in photographic realism.  But there are artists, for that…if that is what you want.

Jael "Portrait of Sarah at Five" 2012
Jael “Portrait of Sarah at Five” 2012

Portraits are not just for the Wealthy

Yes, celebrity portraits can end up costing small fortunes, and if you are wanting something in the way of traditional fine portraiture, and consult a major resource such as Portraits, Inc. you can have your pick of 150 artists, at prices averaging $10,000 to $30,000.  But if you—want something a bit more fanciful and imaginative than a depiction of yourself in business attire wearing a “slight smile”—then you really should consider hiring a professional SF/F artist who makes their living bringing fantasy themes to life. They will frequently charge a third to a half of what traditional portrait artists will charge, and will not only be able to execute your non-traditional requests, but be comfortable hearing “I want to be shown with my kids flying on a magic carpet,” or “in mortal combat with a white gorilla.” I have arranged for several paintings of this kind—from guys who want to be riding dragons, to families sharing ‘high tea’ with elves.  Husbands have commissioned unusual fantasy scenes featuring their wives (!) and vice-versa. Unusual costumes, hair styles, and of course, environment . . . are typical. Remember, you are hiring an artist who is used to coming up with the unconventional, the unexpected, even the bizarre. This is a private commission where almost anything (given the consent of the artist, of course) is possible.  What is important—I repeat—is picking the right one for the job.

Richard Bober "Lord Howard of Frankland"
Richard Bober “Lord Howard of Frankland” 2002. Oil, c. 16″ x 12″ in the style of Van Dyke

The Days of “Sitting” for your portrait are over (Tips for Choosing the Right Artist)

If what you are after is photorealism, you might consider hiring a commercial photographer, instead (but not one like J.K. Potter, haha).  You will have an exact likeness of yourself, because by definition. . . that is what a camera does. By the same token, if ALL what you want is solely a depiction of your character (through exaggeration!)—and likeness be damned—then get a caricature of yourself! Have fun!

But neither of these will achieve the kind of memorability—even immortality—that accompanies painted portraiture, because although today most work from photographs, they are able to SELECT what is important to depict, and what is not, in order to render an image that doesn’t capture a moment, but rather captures the person in a unique combination of “inside and out.” Some SF/F artists I’ve known are really good at this: if you want recommendations, get in touch with me and I’ll give you some names…there are just too many talented people out there to list them all.

Kelly Freas “Howard the Elf” drawn at a San Diego ComicCon c. 1999, for their annual Holiday greeting card (He did one for Jane, too). Kelly was a master of caricature – no one was better!

You will of course want to establish (in writing) the “deliverables”…size, medium, pose, cost, timeframe. POSE (and number of subjects) determines the basic cost, and can be full length, half length (“torso” or waist up), just head and shoulders (called “a bust” or “head”). You can be depicted full face, profile or three-quarter view.  You can be shown solo or add other humans to the portrait (each at additional cost) and costs also will be affected by your choice of background (simple or complex) and/or objects (props). You are the Art Director here.

You will also want an artist who knows you, or if they don’t, will spend some time getting to know you. If they can’t visit you, or you can’t visit their studio, then getting together at a convention, perhaps, will work. If you are an adult, it’s just too complex a job to do well without a personal interview or meeting—and preferably one which includes the artist taking the photographs they will need, as reference. If that is not possible, they will instruct you on the poses they need.

Through the years we’ve commissioned several artists to create our portraits, and have never been disappointed in the results. If you want to experience the fun of doing that, I would urge you to try it! And if you don’t have the guts to do it, or just want to get your toes wet before going all the way…then start off with a fantasy PET PORTRAIT 🙂 These are lots of fun, and I’ll tell you about them next week!

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