The session begins as tentatively as a first date. Teresa Fort stands expectantly on a small platform, dressed in a long, gray gown, shoulders bare. A few steps away, staring at her intently, hand to his chin, David Larned ponders, then asks:
“Do you normally wear your hair up? Or down?”
“When it’s long, it makes my face look long,” Teresa says, and smiles. “But that’s generally how I wear it.” She is just under six feet tall, lean and elegant, and her smile is beautiful. She agrees to pin her hair up, and Larned helps her tighten the dress’s lacing in back. Next, she drapes a fur stole around her shoulders. After some adjustments, they decide to leave it open, hanging freely from her shoulders. Decisions on jewelry and makeup can wait until later.
Larned next works with Teresa’s footing, finalizing her marks with small pieces of tape stuck to the platform, where they join several similar markings for other subjects. Next, they move to her hands, covering or clasping one with the other.
“I think I like right over left better,” Larned says. “Let’s go with that.”
The whole process takes perhaps 15 minutes, but in those bare 15 minutes, the two have decided how Teresa Fort—31 years old, engaged to be married, studying for her doctorate in economics at the University of Maryland and an employee at the U.S. Census Bureau—will be remembered for the rest of her life and most likely beyond.
Fort is the sitter, Larned is her painter, and she is being frozen in time.
For the first time, Larned takes up a brush, his palate resting immobile on a multilevel cabinet of drawers to his left. A few feet in front of him, and perhaps a foot to Fort’s left and another foot in front of her, is a life-sized canvas, tilting slightly forward on its giant easel. “I make all my observations from 15 feet,” he says, “at full-life scale.”
The classical music of William Byrd plays softly in the background. Outside, it is a humid, overcast September day. “It’s perfect lighting for painting,” the New York-born Larned said earlier as we looked up at the skylights of the artist’s studio a few miles north of Embreeville. Next door is his wife’s studio—Sarah Lamb is herself an internationally known still-life and landscape artist—but she is not painting this morning.
Larned, who has degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, the Florence Academy of Art in Italy, and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, is 32 years old and has been painting portraits—his work of choice—for 10 years. “I finish about two portraits a month,” he says, and we do the math—lots of faces and figures. “Maybe I”m a one-trick pony, but I love it,” he laughs. He is a very successful one-trick pony.
Tall and angular, Larned is today dressed in a black smock over a green-and-white checked shirt, tan pants, and brown shoes. Atop the shock of black hair that laps his collar is a blue baseball cap that reads “Victory.” He has recently taken to wearing glasses while he paints, he says. In ways, Larned’s movements, as he stands 15 feet away from Fort, are like an athlete”s. He leans back slightly, eyes darting from the standing sitter to the canvas and back, like a pitcher checking first and preparing to deliver a pitch.
“Are you ready?”
“All you have to do is stand there.” They both grin.
He takes up a dab of paint, quickly strides forward—brush in right hand—and makes a short horizontal brown mark about one-third of the way up the canvas. A pause, then he makes a similar mark, four inches lower.
“Don’t you start with a pencil?” Fort asks. Larned explains his brush forms that function, later explaining to me, “You break everything down into abstract shapes. You have to divorce what you know from what you see. It’s not Teresa’s nose, it’s a shape.”
He continues making strokes, occasionally erasing or smudging one with a rag. From time to time, he puts a small mirror next to his nose to for a “fresh view.” After another 15 minutes, he calls a break. Today’s sessions are all about sketching out the form—”putting in the anchors”—and will last three hours each with a break for lunch.