Your own brush with fame: how to get your own painted portrait

Ever pictured having a portrait all your own? Well, here's how to get one.

Entering the apartment of Linda Kooluris Dobbs in Toronto's Forest Hill neighbourhood is a bit like stumbling into an exclusive cocktail party, albeit one in which you and Dobbs do all the chatting while a selected who's who of Canadian society silently stare you down. There's Mavis Gallant, looking suitably writerly and sitting in the living room, her head crooked in her hand. Just down the hall, former mandarin Bernard Ostry, sporting a five o'clock shadow, leans against a wall. Across from him is Vern Krishna, one-time treasurer of the Law Society of Upper Canada, seated under the glare of no fewer than five separate lamps. As you talk, Kooluris Dobbs gingerly approaches him, tracing with her hand a six-inch circle of the black-robed dignitary's ornate official chair. “This,” she says, “would take me a day to do. And the whole thing, three to four months.”

“The whole thing,” you've no doubt guessed, is not Krishna himself, but his portrait: a life-sized likeness in rich, vibrant acrylics, which was officially unveiled Feb. 9. When I visited Kooluris Dobbs in late November, Krishna was only partly on his way to completion. Perched on an easel beside a desk of squished-up paint tubes, his vest and one shoulder were so far merely “underpainted” in what looked like black and grey brush strokes, but was in fact a combination of cadmium red, magenta, yellow, ultramarine and phthalo-blue paints. On top of that layer–which is where Kooluris Dobbs works out her sitter's “lights and darks, and general sense of contrasts”–the artist had, across the balance of the portrait, meticulously added her final coat to make a remarkably lifelike rendering, for which the Law Society shelled out $30,000.

Such is the price of immortality. That, and a bit of patience and co-operation. “It has to be participatory,” says Kooluris Dobbs, who in her 33-year career has brushed up everyone from dancer Karen Kain and singer Bruce Cockburn to philanthropist Anne Tannenbaum and former Ontario premier David Peterson. In the case of Krishna, she first met in Toronto with the treasurer (effectively, the Law Society's commander-in-chief) before flying to Ottawa to have dinner with him and his wife, Linda, at which point the artist took several preliminary photos. (When time permits, she does sketches, but time, this time, did not.)

Kooluris Dobbs then set out to find a proper setting for her portrait. “I'd learned in our visits that Vern has a great respect for tradition,” recalls the painter, “so I wanted this portrait to feel timeless, not modern.” Taking a tour of the Law Society, she was taken with the “old-world, John Singer Sargent feel” of the bencher's dining room. Returning later with her husband, she spent hours photographing him there. Armed with several poses, she then invited Krishna to try them out for himself, with one difference: she had the treasurer's chair of office moved into the dining room, and sat him in that. Winnowing the dozens of resulting shots to a short list of five, she let Krishna choose a finalist. Fours months of studio time later, the man who headed the Law Society was ready, as it were, for hanging.

Although, of necessity, any portrait reduces its subject by a full dimension, those commissioning one are advised to keep in mind that most artists like to reveal at least some of the person behind the paint. In her rendering of Ostry, for instance, Kooluris Dobbs–whose price declines to $25,000 for a slightly smaller, 71-by-91-centimetre portrait, better suited for display in a private home–posed him with his back to a mirror, a quiet reference to what she describes as his “somewhat secretive” nature. Other times, artists work in open cahoots with their subjects. When painting former Ontario lieutenant-governor Hal Jackman for the University of Toronto, where he was chancellor, acclaimed artist Joanne Tod, who charges up to $40,000 for her portraits, painted the arch-conservative reading the rabble-rousing Varsity student newspaper. Included on the paper's fanciful front and back pages were the words “equity,” “diversity” and “transgendered.”

It's also not uncommon for a sitter to have his closets raided–literally–as well. After veteran portrait artist Istvan Nyikos's four face-to-face sessions at Peter Lougheed's Calgary law office, during which he did pencil sketches and painted a preliminary head-and-shoulders study on small boards, he flew back to his Collingwood, Ont., studio with the “huge, big, billowing” gown that the former Alberta premier wore in his capacity as chancellor of Queen's University. He later hung it on a mannequin as he set about the process of turning paint into erstwhile politician.

And in the hands of Nyikos, what a process it is. Sometimes eschewing oil (governments, he notes, often insist on it), Nyikos also paints in a medium known as tempera grassa, once favoured by such European masters as Albrecht Dürer and Hans Holbein. On Masonite panels that he primes with several coats of traditional Italian gesso–a mixture of animal glue, calcium carbonate and zinc white–Nyikos first sketches his sitter using an ultra-hard 10H pencil, which applied to plain old paper would cut like an exacto knife. Shading, hatching and cross-hatching, he eventually switches to softer pencils, and then Indian or Chinese black ink, creating in the process a black-and-white portrait over the course of roughly two weeks' work.

Then, using “regular eggs, hopefully fresh ones,” Nyikos mixes their yolks with a splash of white wine or vinegar. On his palette, he combines that solution with powdered paint, applying the entire mixture with sable-hair brushes to make his final portraits, which have included late TV baron John Bassett and R. Fraser Elliott, the late founder of law firm Stikeman Elliott, as well as former Royal Bank chief John Cleghorn. He charges between $18,000 (for rare, half-size portraits) and $30,000.

Of course, there are other ways than paint to secure a niche in the halls of history. Lilly Koltun, director of the Portrait Gallery of Canada, where an entire room will be devoted to master photographer Yousuf Karsh when it opens its doors in Ottawa in 2007, points to V. Tony Hauser of Toronto as an artist who has taken “the heritage of Karsh and created a new style which is nevertheless in the same kind of grand manner.”

Working mostly in black and white, and preferring simple settings to elaborate ones, Hauser has shot Gov. Gen. Adrienne Clarkson in a wool dress designed by Issey Miyake on the vice-regal stairway of Rideau Hall. His portrait of Guujaaw has the president of the West Coast Haida Nation leaning informally over a half-carved totem pole. Using a large-format camera, and charging $1,500 for the actual sitting, Hauser creates either silver prints, which can be as large as 30 inches by 40 inches, for up to $3,000, or platinum ones–“the most permanent, fantastic image you get in photography”–up to 14 inches by 17 inches for $5,000.

For those who might like something approaching a totem of their own, yet another option is the classic bronze bust, which sculptor Gise Trauttmansdorff, of Jerseyville, Ont., west of Hamilton, notes “cannot burn in a fire, and will easily survive being dropped on the floor–although your toe might not.” Trauttmansdorff creates either Plasticene or clay likenesses, which become the basis for a life-sized bust that is foundry-cast, at 1,277¡C, and can be mounted on a stone base–all for between $7,500 to $10,000. And while the artist will destroy the mould on request, she's also happy to store it indefinitely for all those survivors who will no doubt want to make multiple copies upon your more fleshy demise.

If the above options seem a bit more than you're worth–or, conversely, if your time is just too precious for sitting–consider the services of Calgary's Jeff Lyons. With Lyons, you simply e-mail him a photo of your own, and he sends you back a pencil sketch for vetting. With your approval, he then paints, in oil on canvas, “a playful, fun, pop portrait”–you can check out his style at Two to four weeks later, and for a mere $550 plus courier, it's sent to your door.

Still too much like work? The truly deserving need not fear. In 2002, painter Tod was commissioned by the feds to complete a portrait of former prime minister and Catholic-baiter Mackenzie Bowell. Now, thousands of visitors to Parliament gaze upon him each year, most of them no doubt unaware that the only PM ousted from office by his own cabinet took more than a century to find a place in the parliamentary pantheon–preserved for posterity, without the petty details.