Portraits painted by artist George Palmer decorate boardrooms, family rooms, college libraries and even the lobby of Shea’s Performing Arts Center, where members of the Western New York Hall of Fame are honored.
Palmer started his portrait career in 1956 when he returned to Buffalo after spending seven years in New York. Whether he was painting in oil or pastel on canvas, his distinctive style ushered him through decades of portraits that are striking in their accuracy.
Palmer and his late wife, Gloria, raised a family of five children. Today he teaches portrait art in his Kenmore studio.
People Talk: What do you owe your longevity to as a portrait artist?
George Palmer: Being consistent and able to produce. There are people who can do a good portrait, but can you continually over a length of time put out quality work? Sometimes at Christmas I would have 13 portraits to get out.
PT: How did you break into Buffalo’s art scene?
GP: In the beginning, no one knew me as a portrait artist and it was difficult, so I exhibited at every gallery that would allow me to. I joined the Williamsville Art Society, Fine Arts League, Buffalo Society of Artists. There were very few galleries then. Today you can go to 30. I returned to Buffalo at a very good time.
PT: Do you work from a photo or do your subjects sit for you?
GP: As often as I can, they sit for me. There are times when I’ve done people who have passed away and I use a photo, but I do like to work from life. Today we have so many busy corporate people it’s hard to get them to sit. I just did Judge (William M.) Skretny for the federal courthouse. He sat for me. It takes a while because first I get to know the person a bit. We discuss portrait size, clothing. Sometimes ladies want to wear black. I don’t like black because there is no life in black. They want to wear it because it makes them look slimmer.
PT: How big can you go on portraits?
GP: The one I did of Skretny was 36 by 40. A number of years ago I did a family of seven. I don’t know how many feet that was. It took me most of the summer to complete.
PT: How does a $500 portrait differ from a $7,000 portrait?
GP: Size mostly, though pastels are more reasonable because a pastel will flow much easier, whereas an oil portrait is built slower. You must wait for areas to dry. When I was very young, even without training I worked with pastels, so that was my first love. They’re easy to use. If you can draw well, you can usually handle a pastel. Some people think when you use pastels it’s a drawing, but a pastel is a painting because the crayon is made from dry pigment.
PT: Have you painted a portrait of your wife?
GP: I’ve done many. Most of the time when she was pregnant.
PT: How did you start to teach?
GP: I received a lot of publicity when I returned because I was a little unusual. I had opened a gallery in a carriage house on Bryant Street. My first studio was on Delaware Avenue at Highland above a dentist’s office. Things were pretty tough at that time. I started teaching after a lady saw my work and got a group of people together who wanted to learn portrait art. That’s how it started. After the first class I thought “I can’t do this.” It was so hectic,
PT: Do you work well under pressure?
GP: Yes, but today I don’t have pressure. Prices are higher and I’m not producing that many portraits.
PT: Can anyone learn how to draw well?
GP: Not anyone, no. You have to have some innate talent.
PT: Describe your style.
GP: Because I’m a portrait painter, I have to be realistic, not impressionistic. I get a good likeness and that’s important. There are a lot of other people who do an interesting portrait but they distort. I try to make it a fine painting as well as a portrait that will stand on its own.
PT: Are you a people watcher?
GP: Oh yeah. I see people in a restaurant or drug store, and I think I would love to do their portrait. Just the look. There are some people who are more paintable than others.
PT: Have you painted a self-portrait?
GP: Once and never again. You think you know what you look like, but I just don’t find me interesting.
PT: Have you grown to be a better artist?
GP: I think I have, but I was pretty good when I started.
PT: How do you keep each portrait fresh?
GP: Oh, because I love what I do and every approach to the canvas is exciting. Getting that likeness down is exciting even after all of these years.