Meet the Fine Arts Portrait Artist Reinventing a Lost Tradition

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August fifth, 2019, Pearson Worldwide airport. I used to be ready impatiently to lastly board my twice-delayed flight to New York when my telephone started to ring. On the opposite finish was a quiet lady who spoke shortly as she fumbled her technique to her provide of employment. Apparently, she was the “ambassador” for a really uncommon American grasp portrait artist. I used to be really helpful by way of a sequence of mutual associates. She needed me to drop every little thing I used to be doing and be part of her for a couple of days in order that I may doc what she was calling “the expertise of a lifetime.” I used to be intrigued.

This mysterious caller—higher often called Rebecca Ethan as I might come to search out out—didn’t give me a lot info on the job or what I might really be documenting. Nor did she give me any time to react earlier than she provided me triple my common fee and a contract was ready if I accepted. How may I say no? I didn’t understand it then, however that job would develop into one of the illuminating experiences of my life.  I used to be to fulfill an eccentric, gifted portrait artist who pulled again the veil on fashionable excessive society and what it meant to be actually effectively linked. 

Kevin G Saunders, photographer
Kevin G Saunders

Rebecca had a contract ready for me in my e-mail the next day, which included a non-disclosure settlement in addition to a set of directions on the way to board the non-public jet that may be ready at Buttonville Municipal Airport to fly us all the way down to San Antonio. I had by no means been to Texas, however when Rebecca met me she let me know we wouldn’t be in Texas for very lengthy. We have been flying down to fulfill master portrait artist Kevin Saunders and have his studio gear and cellular showroom loaded onto the airplane. Then we’d be making a fast return flight to Toronto that night in order that they may arrange for one thing they have been colloquially referred to as “The Grand Ol’ Portrait Social gathering.” 

After I boarded the Bombardier Global jet, I used the time with Rebecca to concentrate on asking her extra about herself and the approaching week. It turned out that Rebecca was the daughter of a rich Quebec actual property agent who was steeped in artwork historical past and gathered a bunch of rich, well-connected Torontonians collectively to guide a portrait artist for 4 days of limitless portrait periods. Why? As a result of she had a cousin who lived in San Antonio that had been telling her about this up-and-coming artist, Kevin Saunders, who was going to take the world by storm. Kevin was, in line with her, a kind of uncommon skills that solely comes round each few centuries — and she or he wasn’t unsuitable. Canadians had seen Yousuf Karsh, in spite of everything, so that they knew what they noticed in Kevin.

Karim White Wall portrait by Kevin Saunders

The very definition of a contemporary Renaissance man, Kevin dropped out of highschool to drive transport vehicles cross nation, then studied anatomy in school—aspiring to turn into a physician—earlier than abandoning that purpose to turn into an Olympic crusing hopeful and later orchestral musician. Kevin had transitioned into portrait pictures later in life after designing and promoting an airplane elevator idea to Boeing for 1.5 million and constructing a customized luxurious bicycle model. Bored along with his enterprise pursuits, he turned his focus in direction of his lifelong love of portrait artistry and set a purpose for himself to turn into this century’s, Yousef Karsh. He spent a few years honing his craft. 

Kevin shortly rose to prominence within the southern United States at first of the pandemic and produced quite a few grand-scale wonderful arts portraits for bigger than life American enterprise personalities like Henry Cisneros, Paula Gold-Williams, David Bohne, Gordon Hartman, Ben Peavy, and even former congressman’s Will Hurd and Charlie Gonzalez. That got here after this journey and Rebecca and her cousin knew one thing I didn’t. I needed to find why. Not less than that’s what I discovered myself questioning as Kevin boarded the airplane. 

Richards Family portrait by Kevin Saunders

An older, but strong-looking man of sixty-four, Kevin had the standard white hair of a person his age however the eyes of somebody a lot youthful. I’ll always remember that piercing first look he shot my method as if he already knew me. When he reached out to shake my hand I immediately knew I had met a singular individual.

Kevin needed to start our dialog by asking me about myself and my physique of labor earlier than he transitioned into his personal artistry and philosophy on how he captures an incredible portrait. “If I’m that one who is trusted to inform your story in a portrait so it lives on for generations,” he informed me, “ then I have to be capable to create a film with one body. My portraits are extra than simply artwork to adore one’s ancestral dwelling. If a household is important sufficient to have a narrative to stay on in a legacy—and also you and I do know most don’t—then who goes into that story turns into a part of an intergenerational story.” That was the principle thought behind this journey, and the rationale why so many rich households and people took Rebecca at her phrase when she mentioned, “Belief me, this man goes locations”.

Portrait by Kevin Saunders

I noticed Kevin two days later when he confirmed me round his cellular portrait studio. Although it was simply arrange in a quiet rented area in North York, the place had a heat and tranquility that was uncommon for portrait studios. It additionally had this vibrant power that made me smile. Kevin informed me that folks can really feel the power in a spot and he used that to his benefit, ensuring to set the tone of a session earlier than his shoppers walked by way of his door.

The gear was astonishingly skilled, past something I believed would have been mandatory for a portrait shoot. There have been classic film lights like one would see from the ’40s and ‘50s in addition to a giant “view digicam” that appeared like one thing out of Star Trek. Every part appeared difficult, however when Kevin confirmed me the way it labored, it was extremely easy. “It’s the similar in apply as the large wood cameras 100 years in the past,” Kevin mentioned, “but it surely has a 150-megapixel sensor as an alternative of an 11 x 14-inch piece of movie.” I’d by no means seen something prefer it.

Family in library masterpiece portrait by Kevin Saunders

I’ve sat in on many “photoshoots” and what I noticed Kevin do in a portrait session was not like something I had ever seen earlier than. Kevin was trying on the topics from numerous angles whereas the topics have been finding out the portraits they usually have been carrying on a dialog. This went on for a half-hour or 45 minutes, after which there gave the impression to be a “good time” when the topics appeared able to step in entrance of the digicam.

I feel that is what actually made him the most effective. The whole means of capturing portraits was actually superb to observe unfold. I used to be used to seeing photographers take lots of of pictures in a photoshoot and whereas Kevin used a digicam, it was merely the device he used to seize the data he gleaned from finding out his shoppers beforehand. He in some way was composing his portraits upfront and guiding the topics to offer him the feelings he wanted to challenge a likeness onto a portrait print.

After I left the portrait shoot, I didn’t see Kevin once more till I used to be flying again to Texas two months later with Rebecca to select up the portraits. After I lastly received to Kevin’s studio, I had the chance to see what he did along with his off-site artistry. Whereas it took a really small period of time to create the unique images again in Toronto, Kevin spent days—and in some instances—weeks doing extremely detailed and exact artistry to supply a portrait that was actually gorgeous.

Felicia On Wall portrait by Kevin Saunders

Kevin confirmed me a couple of of his commerce secrets and techniques, and I can see why he talked about his examine of anatomy. Kevin took the imperfections that shoppers needed to have fastened and carried out a form of digital alchemy that was unimaginable. I received to see the “earlier than” and “after” and once I noticed the completed product for Rebecca, my jaw dropped. Kevin mentioned, “If I have been to color you, I wouldn’t put these particulars into the portray, so if I’m portray with mild, I’ll use the identical interpretation and also you get to decide on the best way you want to be remembered.” What struck me was the truth that the ultimate photos didn’t look “photoshopped” however simply regarded “proper.” 

That could be his best-kept commerce secret. He makes use of his expertise and former life expertise getting ready to turn into a physician to change his portraits in such a method that the figures portrayed come to life. This was once I realized he was reviving a human custom that has fallen away as we’ve modernized — the wonderful arts portrait.

Kevin’s work is seen at the place you may view his whole portfolio.

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