Portraiture a Growing Business in America

Carrie Antlfinger - Associated Press

WHITEWATER, Wis. -- Ben McCready was living with his parents and working out of their basement when he painted Robert Redford's portrait.
     So no one believed McCready when he told them the actor actually wanted him to paint the portrait.
     ''It's like 1984 and I just started. ... They said, 'Well we know you painted it but does he know you painted it?''' McCready said.
     McCready called Redford's assistant in New York City and asked for a picture of Redford with the painting. He could hear Redford in the background. ''I heard him ask why and he started laughing. He said, 'Nobody believes him!''' McCready said.
     The photograph of Redford with McCready's painting of the actor hangs on the wall in the artist's studio. And the Redford painting is one of more than 600 portraits McCready has made over the years.
     His success reflects a growing interest in portraitures. People are increasingly choosing paintings over photographs because paintings last longer, said Jennifer Williams, director of the American Society of Portrait Artists. ''People are trying to get back to family and family oriented things,'' she said.
     American portraiture dates to the 17th century, according to Carolyn Kinder Carr, deputy director and chief curator at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
     Historically, religious organizations commissioned much of the portraiture art and, over time, wealth and power made the transition into the private sector, said Kathryn Evans, a curatorial assistant at the Smithsonian gallery. ''In contemporary society it is much more common for an athlete or the CEO of a company to commission a portrait than it is for a church figure,'' she said.
     McCready, who has painted former Presidents Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush, and hockey star Wayne Gretzky, said the portraiture business has grown partly because people have developed a sense of their own mortality. He estimated there are several thousand people who paint portraits but only several hundred who do it full time.
     He paints 20-25 portraits a year, mostly from photographs.
     ''To have them sit would require four to six days set aside of two hours at a time each time and they don't have the time and quite frankly I wouldn't want to do it,'' McCready said.
     Depending on the size, portraits take anywhere from 15 to 60 hours to create. McCready first pencils a sketch on canvas and then uses oil paints. He later sends photos of the work to his client.
     ''I don't think I've ever had a client ever ask for more than a few minor changes, certainly not in the last 10 to 12 years,'' McCready said...
     The cost depends on size, time and materials and varies wildly, Evans said, adding the more demand for the work the more artists charge.
     McCready always tries to please his clients, even removing an extra chin or a facial line if the client asks.
     ''Do I flatter people? You bet,'' he said. ''I'm not going to change them but I am going to make them look their best.''
     McCready said he thinks people are happy with the way he sees them.
     ''I tend to see people in a really nice light,'' McCready said. ''When I painted Redford, someone asked me if I painted all the moles and I said I didn't see all the moles.''