A! Magazine for the Arts

Tom Root painting a portrait (one of the models can be seen in the background). (Photo by Stephen Pyle)

Tom Root painting a portrait (one of the models can be seen in the background). (Photo by Stephen Pyle)

Tom Root works primarily with live models

February 24, 2014

Tom Root, Johnson City, Tenn., has been a full-time artist for almost 30 years. He is primarily a figure and portrait painter, but he also paints landscapes, still lifes and imaginary scenes. Early in his career he did illustration work, mainly for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the St. Petersburg Times. In addition to being a painter, he is a songwriter, musician and writer of children's stories.

"After high school I went to art school (Ringling School of Art and Design in Florida)," Root says. "I really loved working from the live model and felt that I had a natural affinity for it which I wished to develop. Then on a trip to the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, I came across the deeply human portraiture of the Baroque Spanish master, Velasquez, and I was just floored. I had never cared for modern commercial portraiture, but here I realized the potential power of the portrait as fine art.

"Later I went to a second art school (Lyme Academy of Fine Arts in Connecticut), where I spent several years exclusively drawing and painting the live model and studying anatomy. I studied under the painter Aaron Shikler (famous for his White House portraits of the Kennedys) who was a tough teacher, but liked my work and mentored me. Shikler always insisted that a portrait had to be a good painting first."

Unlike many portrait artists, Root works almost exclusively with live models. The only exception is posthumous portraits. He will accept a commission for that type of portrait, if he feels there is sufficient photo reference to do a good job. He says that there is an electricity and excitement working with a live sitter that is comparable to nothing else, which is why he prefers to work that way.

"I work from live sittings which is considerably more difficult than working from photography and therefore more risky. But working from life presents the opportunity to make paintings with more depth and feeling in my view. We experience one another in time; whereas a photo is this thin slice of time. A well-done painting from life better parallels our real experience. I hope that my fellow painters who work from photos (many of them excellent at it) will not begrudge me my feelings on this. The limitations of my procedure from a commercial standpoint are profound."

He describes his style as "a naturalistic, yet somewhat simplified painterly style. I don't glamorize my sitters, but I think that I paint in a naturally sympathetic and appreciative way. I am inspired by the delights and surprises of life and by the history of painting.

"I am the artist, and making a beautiful and compelling painting is my job. If I were not to do what I thought best, I would be shortchanging my clients and my calling. Because I work from live sittings, everyone sees the painting develop, and there are no big surprises. Of course I'm interested in people's reactions, and there have been a few instances over the years where I have started over, but that's been rare, and I've never had a commission rejected. I always try to make paintings that move me and of which I'm proud. Most of the people who commission me are nice folks, and I've had very few unhappy experiences."

Root says that he is constantly painting people. Some of the work is for himself, and some are demonstrations for his students. He teaches basic drawing and painting, still life painting and portrait painting from the live model at his studio in Johnson City, Tenn. His wife, Peggy, teaches landscape workshops several times a year.

To learn more about Root, his classes and commissions, call 423-302-8960, e-mail rootstudioschool@gmail.com or visit www.tomrootartist.com.