When I wanted to study art seriously it was my extreme good fortune to learn about Nelson Shanks from Nancy Honea. She returned from a workshop to the portrait and figure class she taught in Atlanta and turned it upside down with the excitement and energy she experienced.
I did not have to wait long before I too could study with the dynamic master.
When Nelson‘s voice boomed out the crowd at the Armory Art Center jumped.
With spare words he commanded us to begin not merely to look, but to see.
To see the model as a whole.
To see the main direction of a pose.
To see a pose as lines and angles.
Our arms wearied as we worked to see and to show what we saw in a series of 30 second poses that lasted for hours.
Ever at our backs we heard his voice urging us to see, and to feel.
To feel the pose.
To feel it down to our toes, out through our fingers.
The hours became days and still he pushed us on.
You have to be strong before you can be subtle!
Furiously we painted and wiped out and painted. At random moments he might appear to commend or to correct—no hesitation, no mincing of words, just direct and clear admonition.
As fast as we worked, there was little time to rejoice or regret whatever he said. I did begin to look out the corner of my eye to prepare for his intervention. The glimpse of any blue sleeve made me work harder and harder.
The experience was so intense that today, some fourteen years later, the lessons are still clear, and the work I do today still draws on these basic points.
To see the figure as a whole is not just a workshop challenge, it is the challenge the painter faces every moment of every day.
To see, though, is not enough; it is equally important to feel the pose, to feel the mood, in order to paint not just an anatomically correct figure, but a living feeling human being.
I left that first workshop convinced of these basic lessons and eager to learn more. I knew then that Nelson could teach me what I needed to become a professional painter. I had no way of knowing then how little that meant learning technique and how much it required of mastering my self and my learning process.
Nelson forged a career as a realist painter in an era when the world little cared nor long remembered what it means to be able to see and feel with perception and sensitivity.
While he takes pains to acknowledge every one of his teachers by name, it is clear that he became his own best teacher.
He gained his expertise, knowledge and skill through his own unrelenting hard work and honesty.
He discovered that teaching is the best learning tool ever invented through fifty years of teaching others what he himself had learned.
Studio Incamminati offered me the opportunity to immerse myself in the program he devised to replicate his best lessons.
I learned there that the growth of perception is a gradual process.
I see so much more than I could before, and yet I must continue to see the simple whole.
I learned not to let my feelings overtake my own process, to tolerate frustration, to welcome honest feedback.
I learned to rely on myself to set a task, to measure my progress, to decide what matters.
I learned from the example set before me that I must keep my eye on the big picture and let the details fall into their lesser place.
I taught high school students, college teachers, business professionals and other Incamminati students in a wealth of opportunities to hone my abilities to explain what I know.
In this I began to become my own teacher. My own student!
All in all, I learned as Nelson had before me, that the best way to learn how to paint is to paint.
More importantly, I came away with the conviction that the serious artist performs a service that is essential to the functioning of society.
The task of the artist is to understand nature as it burgeons from the inside out, not to copy from an outline in. It is my vital obligation to help others take a deeper look, and not just to look, but to see what really matters.
I hear Nelson describing his own process:
“Striving always to do better.
“We may not get there, but there is
“Meaning in the struggle.”
And I take these thoughts to heart.
The world is not only what we make of it. We make the world. Let it be filled with love and meaning.
Above: Larry and I traveled with Nelson to visit Luciano Pavarotti at his summer home in Pesaro. He was telling the photographer what he wanted for his album cover. He was however unable to dictate his preferences for the portrait of him that Nelson painted for the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Long time friends, Nelson painted Luciano in the way he saw him, in a costume from Un Ballo en Maschera. Rather than photographs, he worked from previous studies from life, his powerful memory for visual images, and finely honed artistic sensitivity.