THE BEST MAN on Broadway

JULY 10, 2012

It was in June 2010 that I wrote a post celebrating my collaborations with the great Broadway producer, friend, and patron, Mort Swinsky, only to have the joy of that posting undercut by the news of his tragic passing a couple weeks later.   As time moved on I would often think of that fertile creative relationship and looked forward to another opportunity to challenge myself outside my realm of comfort and familiarity.  There was a bite along the way but that never materialized beyond the single commission.  I remained optimistic.


Earlier this year in a sort of improve I direct mailed to a short selection of producers who at some point in their own work had partnered with Mort.  I knew that Mort would have prints made of the original artwork that he shared with cast and fellow producers on whatever production he was involved with at the time. I focused on those connections in my overtures. 


Not long after that mailing I received a call from Will Trice, associate producer at Jeffrey Richards Associates, the powerhouse production company with a long history of smash hits.  He started off the conversation by informing me that they had a couple of my prints already hanging on the walls of their office and they were interested in possible work somewhere down the line.  We talked a bit, I went into some details about not only my work, but how I approached the images, etc.. I gave estimates on the costs of scanning and printing, and we ended the conversation on a very amicable note.  All seemed positive and I planned on remaining in touch in the months ahead. 


That ‘months ahead’ time frame for me never had to happen as I soon received a follow up call about a production that was to open shortly- Gore Vidal’s classic, THE BEST MAN.  A time appropriate play about ruthless politics and the race for the presidency. Killer cast of actors, great writing, what more could you ask for?  Will explained what they were hoping to put into the image.  I explained what I needed – especially in terms of reference, to pull the painting off.  My wife, Terri, and I also went to see the production once it opened, as it is so crucial to get a visceral sense of a performance, and were blown away by the stage design, atmosphere, writing, and especially, the acting.  I had read only one review of the play, a somewhat qualified positive assessment by Ben Brantley in the NEW YORK TIMES, and found myself wondering that night in the audience what production had he seen, since everything looked quite strong to me up there on the stage.  As was to be expected, Vidal’s wicked sense of humor popped up in even the tensest of scenes. I knew leaving the theater that this was going to be a fun assignment and went to work right away.


Will provided some good reference material from the production that laid the groundwork for a good overview of the play and I did further Googling for head shots of the cast members from as many different angles as possible.  The more ways you can understand how the face and body turns the better command you have over the portrait/caricature.  Originally my intentions were to approach the portrayals as more caricature than portrait.  But this was my first commission from Jeffrey Richards and, considering the stature of some of the cast members, I picked up on a vibe to be easy on the stars.  That was fine by me.  A challenge of a different sort. 


Factoring in interruptions from other deadlines and commitments as well as the rest of that thing called life, the painting took about the time I expected it to.  I blew up my approved sketch to the size of the Bristol board I would be working on, gessoed nice and thick, and transferred the cartoon.  The Strathmore 500 Series illustration board has become my new favorite surface to paint on.  It can be gessoed heavily, doesn’t buckle or warp, and has that smooth surface that just invites brushes to slide all over it.  The transfer was strictly for positioning purposes.  I knew I would still need to re-draw the picture with the brushes and pencils ever rethinking the approved drawing, always seeking to tweak something else out.


Richards is a new client and not Mort Swinsky.  Mort was laid back, uncommonly laid back and patient- at least with me- and never made demands on deadlines.  I could never assume that from anyone else, certainly not a new client, and therefore couldn't presume taking such liberty with time.   It took a few days of searching and experimenting with color mixing and technique before I got a handle on the direction I wanted to take and after that it was just time that remained my greatest obstacle. 


Everyone at Jeffrey Richards Associates was greatly pleased.  A scan and prints via my favorite places upstate were arranged and the project was delivered not much past the deadline I had internally set for myself.  It has revived my hopes of continuing this very enjoyable and learning (because you’re always learning with every new painting) aspect of my career.  Thanks to Jeffrey Richards and Will Trice for making the contact. Looking forward to the next opportunity.  This job was great fun, the kind of fun where the sense of play and curiosity remains high even during moments of feeling lost. Where there's always a new discovery about a brushstroke or color combination around the corner. 


If you haven’t seen this production consider it seriously.  Well worth the price of admission.  It is always a joy to watch performers at the top of their art command the stage.  The production has been extended again through September 9th at  the Schoenfeld Theater.   The original cast has changed since I started the painting.  Tonight, July 10th, Cybill Shepherd, John Stamos and Kristin Davis will replace Candice Bergen, Eric McCormack, and Kerry Butler.  Mark Blum filled in for an injured Michael McKeon in late May.  You still have till July 23rd to catch Angela Landsbury, and then Elizabeth Ashley takes her spot. James Earl Jones, John Larroquette, Jefferson Mays remain, and it doesn’t get any better than that. 

The initial large sketch had some strong points and then some unresolved matters, like how to position James Earl Jones and Eric McCormack. Unintentionally my John Larroquette wound up looking uncomfortably like Dick Armey.

Some not very successful shifts, a great sketch of Landsbury that couldn't mitigate the fact that she was also still a background character in the image instead of one of the stars.

JRA wanted James Earl Jones front and center. This resolved the positioning issue and allowed me to recalibrate Eric McCormack. There were also concerns about the drawings of Candice Bergen and the repositioned Angela Landsbury who, on the plus side is now entering the image and playing more of an active role.

Fishing around with colors and brushwork trying to reconcile various photo reference of differing quality in detail and lighting. Something good was happening with the initial brushstrokes on Landsbury which I noted to self.

My 'Ah Hah' moment came with John Larroquette. The brushstrokes and colors felt spot on and I was very happy with what was in front of me. The next realization was that I now had at least two different paintings happening on the same board. Serious revises needed to be made to the faces already painted to establish some sense of uniformity. Lots of whiting out with gesso and starting from scratch. In some perverse way this is when things really start getting interesting.

First to be gessoed out and restarted- Candice Bergen. Next up- Eric McCormack. It's liberating to admit when you are off course and need to start from scratch rather than continue pressing on in a wrong direction.

The beginnings of the background details all the while thinking and rethinking the people in front. McCormack is better but still a little bright eyed. I decided Landsbury needed a slight toning down in features as these had become more portraits than caricatures.