You paint many portraits on commission, what is your method of working?
I only paint with a model, never from a photo. Spending lots of time with the person
for whom I’m painting the portrait is part of my work. Whilst producing the painting
we talk. My models don’t just pose for hours on end like a statue, which would be
far too tiring for them and wouldn’t enable me to capture their expressions.
We often have the impression that painting requires calmness and concentration.
When I was a student, I needed more concentration, and the models were paid
not to move or talk. With time I got used to establishing a conversation and
inviting my models to talk. I observe the animation on their face, although my
portraits are serious, the session can be very joyful. At the end of the day, I just
want my portraits to seem alive, “breathing” as one says. Conversation has now
become obligatory to me.
Do you sometimes go to the person’s house in order to paint their portrait?
I once did it in France, for a retired French businessman. Otherwise all the others
come here to my workshop. Usually people are a little apprehensive before the
posing session; they think it will be long and boring and go on for hours. They
start relaxing fairly quickly once the session has started though. It’s true it’s an
unusual experience. We’re accustomed to seeing ourselves in a mirror – where
the image is inversed - or in photos, but no one grows up in life being portrayed.
For me, the session is above all about human relations. A portrait is something
very specific. Some people paint it from a photo, so as not to bother the person
or in the case of a political figure or an important businessman. Using a small
photo taken in a few seconds is to only focus on the aesthetics, on the contrary
I don’t want to work with snapshots, I want to work with the people on their
portraits, entertain a relationship with them.
How long does it usually take you to paint a portrait?
I demand a total of 15 hours, spread over several days. We therefore must find
a topic for conversation! Now and again it’s easier with some people, the French
businessman I mentioned earlier on, Didier Pineau-Valencienne, is an important
figure who just turned 80 and for whom I did portraits a few years ago. He studied
in the US at a school to which he still gives donations, and the school ordered
the portrait. The gap in age and culture was huge, but we managed to
find common ground and discussed personal tastes and so on. This relationship
is pleasant and feels good: these are simple agreeable moments. It enables me
to know the person sitting in front of me whilst observing his distinctive features
and expressions. 15 hours is long yet very short.
Did you attend Art School?
No, because art schools and other academies or universities have long since
stopped teaching drawing and painting from models. It’s not fashionable anymore.
As I wasn’t desperately searching for a diploma, I studied with painters,
taking private courses and workshops in Italy, France and the United States.
I also spent many hours studying and reproducing the masters’ paintings in
numerous museums throughout Europe and America. In painting, drawing and
sculpting there have been no academic structures for about a hundred years.
It’s totally different to classical music that can still be learnt in music schools.
You must therefore learn by interacting with artwork and other painters. When
we say that “good” painting is a tradition, we are completely wrong, as it is today
the poor relative in the arts, as a result of the government’s poor educational
Why did you go for this picturesque application, this legacy of classical tradition?
Because it has always interested me; I was fascinated. I didn’t grow up with that education
though. As a child I was more used to and familiar with music and reading.
What do you paint apart from portraits?
I paint landscapes that I create only from memory, not in situ, and
I also started painting nudes. I exclusively paint with oils.
How did you originally start to paint portraits? By word of mouth?
When I started my studies, I was in the small school of an American
painter in Florence, along with twenty fellow students. It’s an incredibly
cosmopolitan town, students from all over the world go there, and
yet it’s very provincial. We used to pay models to pose for us, enabling
more specific portraits. It all happened as follows: I was eighteen
and taking a walk in the street when I’d spot an interesting face
and ask the person to pose for me. Or another time, a student asked
me to do her portrait because she wanted to offer a souvenir of her
studies in Florence to her parents. She gave me 150 dollars for the
portrait, at the time I used to pay people 50 dollars to model for me.
I was extremely happy as I thought that I could use this money to
make 3 people model. I was a student then, slightly gullible. A month
later, the same young girl calls me, saying that her parents want me
to paint the portraits of their other children. For me it was just a game,
I found it so amusing that people paid me to do their portraits! I didn’t
realize at the time the extent to which this was a job. Each representation
has its own characteristics and complexity. They are useful to
me because there’s always a reason behind the request. In this way,
it’s a profession that aims to provide a service. Today I take my time
to ensure I deliver the best quality portraits possible, meaning that
I’m, obviously, far more expensive - everyone has to live, I also have
an agent. Nevertheless, although it may be a cliché, the human
aspect appeals most to me. Even if you are opposite someone who
wouldn’t be your friend in daily life, the outcome of an exchange is
Do you most often paint portraits of wealthy family members?
There’s no precise rule, it varies. One usually thinks that requesting a
portrait of oneself indicates a large ego. Look at Facebook however,
isn’t that slightly egocentric too? Moreover, in most cases the person
modeling isn’t responsible for the commission. It’s usually commemorative,
someone retiring, having achieved recognition in a particular
field and so on. A portrait has a much greater impact than basic
photography. Some families order posthumous portraits, based on a
photo but the approach used is different as we enter the sphere of
memory. I talk with the people who knew the deceased; they tell me
about his feelings, his emotions. It helps me fulfill their expectations.
People who ask for portraits aren’t used to seeing themselves on
a canvas; their view of the final product is vague and it becomes more
precise as the process is completed. Some friends have painted
portraits of me and I find them bizarre in a way: we’re not used to
being represented in that manner.
Unless they are using hyperrealism, the artist’s style leaves its mark
on the portrait. There can be a difference between the way a person
perceives him or herself in photos or in the mirror and in his or her
Yes indeed, I believe that’s what distinguishes a good portrait. Such
a painting isn’t a simple image; it’s a great work, in terms of interpretation
and technical aspects. Portraits are peculiar works to produce.
It’s also why it seems evident to me to talk with the people while I’m
painting; it’s as though I’m writing the person’s biography.
Besides portraits, when you ask models to pose, how do you arrange
the paintings and compositions?
I don’t necessarily draw a sketch beforehand. Sometimes I start to
paint directly. I often begin with an idea that changes in the course of
the project. If you look at the painting behind us, a torso on a blue
background, the canvas’ size was originally far bigger. The model and
I had worked for three months, but the final product didn’t satisfy me.
So I cut it.
How do you choose your models? Do you choose according to your
original idea, or does the model inspire the painting?
It depends. For some of my paintings I ask my models to maintain
a pose that they can’t hold for a long time, so I have to memorize it.
However, as I said, I can undertake many changes throughout the
project. For the canvases it’s different: I can make very stylized things,
If way we pay close attention to this other painting behind us,
picturing a female nude, the foot shown is also very stylized.
People think that classical painting aims to copy nature but that’s not
true. ‘Design’ in English means both drawing and composition,
yet it’s not the same thing. A painting’s composition is always very
important, it’s the chosen axis. Copying nature is impossible; it’s in
perpetual movement. The perception one has of a landscape or of a
man changes constantly. Although there’s a hint of reality, the artist
must convey his vision. I frequently give lessons to students; they
have a tendency to follow the changes that they see: the drawing
becomes inconsistent. It’s better to find a rhythm in what you are
doing. That’s what I do when I produce a portrait. The person is
talking yet at the same time I construct my vision of the portrait.
Are you dependent on a gallery?
I used to be. However I seek to develop a direct relationship with my
clients, something that lasts. Portraits are a very different market
though, linked to demand.
Do you exhibit your art works or do they stay in private collections?
I exhibit them, although I haven’t done any exhibitions recently. I’m
going to start again soon. The way I work seems rather anachronistic,
but I believe there is room in art for every different style.