My Time with Portrait Artist Don Bachardy
When asked how he is able to make these spectacular portraits, Don replied, "It's all concentration, that's all it is."
July 14, 2019
According to Merriam-Webster, exceptional is defined as better than average or superior. To me, 85 year old Don Bachardy fits that definition to a T. He is well renowned and has his artwork in many museums, such as the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I have now spent quite a bit of time with the well known portrait artist: I observed him paint a colleague, I have now sat for him twice, I toured his home, and I plan on stopping by again to hand deliver this article.
Being a Los Angles native, Don grew up in the Atwater district. He and his brother would go down to the gay beach at the time, where his brother had many admirers. One of them was Christopher Isherwood, the famous author who wrote novels such as Goodbye to Berlin which inspired the musical Cabaret, who turned out to be Don's great love affair. When beginning their partnership, Don was 18 and Chris was 48.
Don and Chris chose their home in Santa Monica, which was rundown when they originally viewed it, but Don knew that was the home for them. Don has now lived there for nearly 60 years, since the end of September in 1959.
In 1962, they realized that the best view from their property was on top of the garage roof, as they would lay out there and sunbathe. So, they converted the one story studio to two stories for Don. He claims that it is the perfect studio because there is lovely light and he can offer his sitters, those who sit for a portrait, a beautiful view.
While Don continues to produce artwork, he doesn't paint nearly as much as he'd like. He says because of recent lack of organization, instead of painting seven days a week, he only does a few sittings.
Don's art covers the walls inside the studio. Going up to the second floor, there is paint droplets all over the ground, showing the decades of use the studio has had. There is a bed in the studio so he can sleep there or paint those who are posing on the bed.
Since Don has created portraits in the same space for 60 years, he has a way of doing things. According to him, he's stuck in his habits. When I first met Don, I came to interview him as he created a colleague's portrait. He told me that he never allows another person in the room during a sitting and that I was the exception.
When he started the sitting, it was silent. There was no talking or music in the background, just the sounds of the wind and the cars driving by. This was because when Don works he has the doors to the balcony open for fresh air and natural light. The view overlooks many houses and greenery, while still getting an ocean view.
When asked how he is able to make these spectacular portraits, Don replied, "It's all concentration, that's all it is." He continuously looks at the sitter and back at the paper as it's made clear that he knows exactly what he's doing.
As I watched Don paint my colleague, I thought "My God this man is incredible." The immense amount of detail that he is able to encompass in his work is extraordinary and he is able to mix the paint colors on his tray together flawlessly. Don includes variances of color in all parts of the work so while the hair of the sitter may be brown, he will also include colors like blues and greens.
A portrait may only take Don an hour and a half but it could also range to three hours or so. He explained it to me like this: it depends on the day whether he moves quickly or slowly, or how much detail is included, thus, the process is specific to the day. While he has no set spot to place his sitter, meaning he can work in any place in the studio, there are two set rules. The first is once a sitter leaves, the portrait is finished. The second is that the sitter may not look at the work until Don feels it is finished.
As I stated before, the studio is filled with Don's artwork. In particular, there are countless portraits of Chris and there are even movie posters for Chris & Don: A Love Story, the 2007 documentary. Just glancing around, you can tell that Chris is still a very prevalent force in the house.
Chris was a year older than Don's father. Don explained that while he never got along with his father, after getting involved with Chris, it was like meeting his father for the first time at 18 years old.
When getting a tour of the house, I asked Don if he had any pets. He explained that he grew up with a cat and a dog but he hasn't had a pet since he was 18. Chris was against pets because he felt that pets would cipher off affection meant for the two lovers and now Don feels he is too old to take care of a pet.
The house is filled with artwork and Don told me he is lucky enough to know almost all of the artists. Many of his friends were artists so they would trade work with one another, a benefit of the profession. Now, the walls in his home are almost completely filled with art and there are statues and gadgets all over tables and cabinets.
One artist in particular caught my eye: David Hockney. David was good friends with the couple and in fact, Chris was the first person he contacted when he first came to Los Angeles. Don created a portrait of David in 1963 and takes pride in the fact that he inspired David to start his own portrait work.
As an art lover, I feel very lucky to have been able to spend time with Don. I have now sat for him twice, so I feel that I have a good understanding of his process. He welcomes the sitter, figures out where in the studio he wants to work (he only uses natural light), sets up his paints and stool, and gets to work.
It seems that he starts with the top shape of the head and the eyes, then moves to the nose and mouth. What I found interesting is that Don continues to go back to certain areas while working because he doesn't just do one feature at a time, he seems to do them all at once.
It's obvious that Don loves what he does. He keeps large folders of his work in his studio and he continues to paint because he loves it. During my first sitting, we didn't take a break for an hour and a half and only stopped because of an outside interruption. He thanked me because I gave him an hour and a half of bliss.