Adding to the drama of the sport

August 10th, 2008

“Pleasing others is not a limitation unless one lacks imagination and personal integrity….”

I was very sorry to hear recently that Tim Allen-Wise has stopped painting portraits. For one thing, he created  one of the most unusual and elegant portraits I’ve seen:

Tim Allen-Wise, Untitled

I had looked forward to seeing more of his work.

In addition, Allen-Wise wrote one of the most intriguing portrait artist’s statements I’ve found (

Before I get to that, though, a few words about his bio. Born in 1962, British Allen-Wise earned a BA in Psychology and Philosophy from the University of Exeter. He is a practicing Buddhist (I wonder whether that has something to do with his unusual artist statement). He studied at the West Surrey College of Art and Design, but considers himself largely self-taught. Among his portrait commissions are Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahearne, Richard Branson, Lady McKearney, Lord Derwent, various Oxford types, and the Amir of Bahrain.

In his artist statement, Allen-Wise addressed a couple of issues that have niggled at me for a while. One is the opinion held by some in the art world that portraits painted by commission aren’t really art. Allen-Wise wrote: “To imagine that working for commissions is necessarily limiting is mistaken. Indeed, the achievements of commissioned artists such as Velazquez and Sargent disprove this misconception.”

Another of my niggly issues is the relationship between painter and client, also addressed with rare wisdom by Allen-Wise, as we’ll see below.

The background against which Allen-Wise wrote his artist statement is the widely-held view that portraitists must be careful to maintain control over artistic decision-making in the creation of a portrait. I’ve heard portraitists say it’s their role to explain to clients that certain standards – e. g. the slack, unsmiling face when the client asks for a smile – are imperative in creating a portrait that will stand the test of time. Some sign paintings with only their initials if they feel they have had to compromise their art to please a client in order to pay their bills via a commission. That way, the reasoning goes, artistic posterity will know that the portraitist did not consider such paintings to be art, only commerce.

This view seems to define art as separate from the client’s wishes.

Allen-Wise, in contrast, turned this perspective inside out. His artist statement defines artistry in a way that doesn’t involve artists’ control:

“The profound and skillful artist can please themselves and others without compromising either. To please oneself in ones painting and simultaneously to please a client is an interesting discipline. It is no limitation – it only adds to the drama of the sport. To do this well is not easy….

“I also disagree with those who say that any interests an artist has beyond pleasing himself are corrupting. Pleasing others is not a limitation unless one lacks imagination and personal integrity….”

In other words, says Allen-Wise, it takes greater artistic profundity, discipline, imagination, and integrity to create a work of art that meets all the client’s wishes along with the artist’s. The creative agility and versatility needed to please both involves far more artistry than does the artist insisting their own training trump the client’s sense of what is meaningful to them.

Allen-Wise’s view reminds me of the idea that poets can find more liberation within the constraints of the sonnet form than when they take complete control over a poem’s structure. The sonnet form’s rigors spur the poet to greater heights of imagination to express what he or she wants to say within the given number of lines and rhyme scheme. In the same way, I believe that the wishes of a client can spur an artist to greater heights of artistry and imagination in order to embrace them.

There are, after all, infinite ways a beautiful portrait can be created, if one has the imagination to envision them. I don’t believe there are formulas that a portrait must always follow. To me, constant adherence to artistic rules is the death of artistry, not the manifestation of it.

I’ve always tended to feel the client may have their own pretty good sense of what will please them in the long run. I think that, if I enter into the clients’ heart and soul, I will find my way toward artistic solutions that will meet a client’s deeply-held wishes.

Allen-Wise has made me think more directly about vague ideas that have been floating through my brain for a while. These days, I’m beginning to wonder whether – at least for me – the work of art might include the web of connection between artist, client, and subject: the human desires of the subject as well as of the artist. As Allen-Wise says, he disagrees with “the many artists and commentators who wish to separate art from the straightforwardness of human feelings.”

So it seems the concept of “artistry” in my mind may be expanding beyond the physical canvas to embrace the relationship between artist and client. What is art? Is it paint on canvas alone? Or might artistry also include the artist’s skill in interweaving and merging the varying strands of human desire that precipitate into a painting?

Perhaps in my own view of what art encompasses, I’m becoming a bit Buddhist myself.



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