the Maestro

You don’t often meet someone who goes by “Maestro.”  I’d go by “Maestro” too, if the curator of the Vatican Museums is the one who gave me the title.

My “star sighting” tag was created with the intention of documenting those random glimpses of famous people that living in this city supposedly gives you.  But this evening’s star sighting, while still uncommon, was not unforeseen.

As part of the college’s lecture series, I attended a presentation by Maestro Igor Babailov tonight.  For the first hour, he gave a talk — mostly musings on modern “art” (or lack thereof), the effect the camera has had on modern realistic painting, and his own works.  The second half of the evening, he sketched a quick portrait of a volunteer.

He pointed out that creating a portrait from a live model is drastically different from creating from a photograph, due to light and tone and color and sharpness.  For this reason, he always prefers his subjects to sit for him.  Recently he was painting General Petraeus and the general could only give him two hours of his time.  When the Maestro got to his medals and whatnot, he asked the general if he could have a bit more time — he wasn’t content to just take pictures of the medals and work from that.

He also spoke a little of his youth in Moscow, where he learned to sketch and paint. (He painted his first portrait at age 4!)  The only good thing about the Iron Curtain, he told us (paraphrasing his friend Michael Novak) was that it kept modernism out of the art schools in Russia.  So when he was learning, he was still learning according to the great masters.   He said that he and his friends would go to train stations in Moscow and sketch as much as they could.  He encouraged any artists in the audience to practice sketching from their surroundings– not only is it better to sketch real life rather than photographs, but you also have to learn to sketch quickly (before your subjects walk away!).  This, he advised us, will foster your talents faster than sketching from photographs.   Relying on photographs, he warned us, will be like running on a treadmill.  You think you’re advancing three miles, but you look up and you’re still where you started.

During the sketching demonstration, he stopped occasionally to explain something or point out a particular.  I thought the neatest point he made during the sketch was about the importance of knowing how to use the correct pencil correctly, and the pencil strokes corresponding to the muscles of the face.  He had spoken about the importance of anatomy, something they stopped teaching in the art schools in the 1950s and 60s, which he pointed out has resulted in modern artists being unable to draw the human form.

I can’t do his presentation justice, but I encourage you to check out his work at his website:

Perhaps his most famous works are his portraits of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, which hang at Castel Gandolfo and the Vatican Museum, respectively.  Currently the painting of Pope Benedict is on tour with the Vatican Splendors exhibit, and I was able to see it in St. Louis this past summer.  He brought a few of his paintings with him and walked us through a few other ones on his website.  His portrait of President George W. Bush was particularly impressive.

One of my favorites was his portrait of George Washington, which he created from the famous statue by Jean-Antoine Houdon that stands in the Capitol in Richmond, VA.  Houdon was asked by Benjamin Franklin to create a statue of George Washington. The Maestro said Houdon was originally asked to use the famous painting by Gilbert Stuart, but Houdon refused, saying if they wanted him to create a statue, he would need to see the President.  So he came to Mt Vernon and Washington sat for him.   From that, Houdon created busts of Washington and the famous statue.  After the statue was created, it was said to be the best likeness of Washington — even Stuart admitted that his face was second to Houdon’s, and the Marquis de Lafayette said, “That is the man himself.”

The Maestro studied the various busts and the statue, and eventually created this painting, which now hangs in Mt. Vernon:

It was a most enjoyable evening — to be in the presence of a master!

Here’s a neat little YouTube video of a sketching demonstration:



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