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Portrait of the artist

Photo of portrait artist Ben McCready in the COE gallery

Portrait artist Ben McCready recently added four deans to his portfolio, which also includes official portraits of U.S. Presidents Ford, Carter, Reagan and George H.W. Bush. (large image)

For renowned portrait artist Ben McCready, the most important step in painting a portrait — getting to know the subject — doesn't mark the canvas in any way, yet affects every brushstroke. "There's a saying about how a portrait really captures the soul of a person, and I think you need to do that," he said. "A lot of that is just having a very good appreciation of who the individual is."

McCready, whose portfolio includes official portraits of U.S. Presidents Ford, Carter, Reagan and George H.W. Bush, recently painted portraits of former College of Engineering deans Francis E. Johnson, Kurt F. Wendt, William R. Marshall Jr. and John G. Bollinger. The works join existing portraits of John B. Johnson, Frederick E. Turneaure and Morton O. Withey in a new gallery outside 1800 Engineering Hall. Current COE Dean Paul Peercy led a ceremony to unveil the new portraits and dedicate the gallery Oct. 26 during Engineers' Day festivities.

Be it U.S. president, college dean or corporate CEO, the Whitewater, Wisconsin-based McCready begins all his portraits in the same way. Since he paints from photographs, he studies pictures of his subjects, then draws a pencil sketch on the canvas. Once he refines the sketch, McCready begins painting, as he said, "from north to south." Incorporating as many as 100 colors, the face comes first, forehead to chin, and then a background for the entire portrait. "I want to make sure I don't end up with a background that muddies facial tones," he explains. Once he's satisfied with the background, McCready finishes with the subject's attire.

When the portrait's "first draft" is complete, McCready fine tunes it. In the case of the college's four deans, that meant not only examining the portraits individually, but making sure they worked together as well. "There were some things that had to be done," he said. In one portrait, the subject's shoulders were noticeably larger than those in the other portraits, so McCready made them smaller. He also found that the background in Wendt's portrait didn't work with the former dean's face. "Since his is a very distinctive-looking face, I needed a background that wasn't overly busy," he explains.

Darker backgrounds give all the portraits a rich, traditional look. Subtly, however, McCready used color to make each portrait reflect the time period in which each man served as dean. To make things even more difficult, he worked in part from a very faded color image of Wendt, and with Johnson, referred only to black-and-white photographs. "A lot of that is just sheer interpretation. There are a lot of things that are very definite for certain types of skin tones, and you can't go too far wrong," said McCready, who enjoys the challenge of working from black-and-white because the in-color result truly is unique.

And in accordance with his view that one of the most important elements in a portrait is the subject's personality, McCready feels the deans' portraits are a success. Overall, he said, the portraits convey dignity, warmth and caring. Individually, they also exhibit certain prominent traits. When he studied Robert Marshall, McCready talked to many people who described Marshall as a happy, all-around-wonderful human being. "So that was very important to be able to capture that," he said.

Johnson's portrait exudes his powerful personality and strength as a leader, said McCready. "There was no mistaking the fact that he was a very powerful man. I had to capture that and I think it really came through," he said. "You look at him and you're ready to march in whatever direction he wants you to march."

John Bollinger was the only former dean McCready actually met before he began painting. "I had the chance to get a good sense of what a good, well regarded guy he is," he said. The portrait captures not only Bollinger's warmth, but displays a telltale twinkle in his eye. "I think that reflects the adventuresome spirit of a guy who's sailed all over the world," explains McCready.

He captures history on canvas, so it's fitting that McCready's talent comes from within his own family history. His mother, Sally, is a professionally trained portrait painter, while his father, Donald, an emeritus professor of psychology at UW-Whitewater, also is a landscape and figure painter. "I was the beneficiary of two trained award-winning artists who gave me art lessons without my even knowing it was happening from about the time I was 4 years old," said McCready, who studied political science at UW-Madison and later turned to a career in art. He credits his wife, Anne, however, as playing an important role in his success. "She does everything but pick up the brush," he said.

And while McCready paints about 20 portraits a year and is booked up to two years in advance, this series of four was more than just work for him: The portraits complete a circle that ties his family both to the College of Engineering, and to itself. Anne's maternal grandfather, Milton Geier, was on the staff here for some 20 years — a connection that means a great deal to the couple and their son, Bo. "I painted portraits of some of the deans that were there and knew his great grandfather, who he never met," said McCready of his son. "I'm very proud to have had the chance to paint those guys."