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The Art of Sir William Orpen

The dazzling Irish painter created portraits with an amazing force of precision.

ne of my favorite artists has always been the great Irish painter Sir William Orpen (1878 - 1931). His masterful portraits are extraordinarily vivid, the combined product of superb draftsmanship, rich color, and an unerring control of tonal values. He was first and foremost a painter—the strong, decisive brushstrokes are placed with athletic vigor and uncanny accuracy. There never seems to be an ounce of hesitancy or indecision—every stroke registers like a clear, precise note of music. I offer four examples for you to study:

4. The Most Reverend Cosmo Gordon Lang, Archbishop of Canterbury

In the portrait of the Archbishop of Canterbury (we could not find a color reproduction of this very striking portrait) the artist again selects a most difficult and demanding light and shade pattern. Notice that, again, there are two sources of light on the head. The very subtle shadow tones occur down the centre axis of the face. If you don't think this is difficult to paint, try it! The treatment of the fabrics is noteworthy.

Oil on canvas

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