John Howard Sanden Pallet Definition

The Most Exciting and Valuable
Approach to portrait painting
By John Howard Sanden


cannot think of anything more difficult, or more fascinating, than attempting to paint an informative impression of a human being, in oils, in one sitting. To accomplish this singular and exacting task requires a considerable amount of energy, intelligence, perception, basic knowledge, sensitivity, and nerve.

There are very few who can really do it with distinction. But an ever increasing army are taking up the attempt as witness the swelling classes in art schools across the country. There are many possible subjects; still life, landscape, imaginative material, even abstraction - they are all challenging in their way. But the Everest of painting will always be - and always has been - the human face. It represents the double problem of rendering the exterior and capturing the personality. Nothing requires more of the painter - more audacity and skill - than to take his position before the blank canvas, with his sitter before him. As his brush touches the canvas, the painter is face to face with the ultimate challenge. This is the "big league" of painting.

The purpose of this website is to recommend a procedure which is called alla prima or premier coup painting. The idea is one of striking at once for an immediate impression, of going directly for a final effect. This is one of the great historic traditions of painting. It is squarely within the framework of impressionism. This website presents my painting methods rather than a how-to-do-it manual. It is based on a series of lectures I gave for twenty-five years at the Art Students League in New York City, and the methods taught in my studio classes at the League.

My classes were a continuation of those conducted by Samuel Edmund Oppenheim, one of the great teachers of painting in America. His classes, conducted for many years in his private studio in New York and at the League, were always filled to capacity. His manner was courtly, gracious, and gentlemanly, but he was a strong, purposeful, and resolute teacher. He taught us the art of seeing - of perceptive observation. "The model is the teacher in this class," he always said, "She says nothing, but she tells you everything." Oppenheim had no patience with esthetics or idle theory. His approach to painting was uncomplicated and direct.

My principal goals and painting are, to sum them up in two words: truthfulness and directness. As far as content is concerned, everything is based on observation. As far as method is concerned, it is premier coup: direct, calculated, and purposeful. You'll find very little of esthetics or philosophy on this website. I'm teaching about something - the art of painting - which seems to me to be mainly an athletic undertaking, involving physical coordination between eye and hand. I will try to be specific and unambiguous.

I've said there is nothing more difficult or demanding than painting. It calls for a state of physical and mental alertness sustained throughout the session. There is no place for sluggishness. Every nerve must tingle. Every sense must be vibrating and sharp. Observe, analyze, respond with paint, all at white hot speed. This is the painting act.

This is not a website on portrait painting. It is a website on painting in which the subject matter just happens to be people. The real subject, after all, is light. What we are really observing and painting is the effect of light as it falls across forms. This is why I consider myself an impressionist.

I hope you will enjoy this website, and more important, I hope you'll enjoy the kind of painting it advocates. For all his sober dedication, Mr. Oppenheim love to say to us, "Don't be so serious about it!" Meaning, I suppose, that after all is said and done, painting must be basically a joyous act. Let the brushstrokes flow, he was saying. Let the colors sing.


Sir William Orpen (1878-1931)
President Woodrow Wilson, 1917