Patrick Milburn Press


You ought to be in pictures

Patrick Milbourn's classic portraits on view in Catskill


Ulster Publishing
October 28, 2005

by Paul Smart

Patrick Milbourn is an artist the way Thomas Eakins and Rembrandt were artists. Like so many of his forebears, he makes the majority of his income from commissions, and looks on the ways in which he's been given a chance to pursue his art full-time as a modern type of patronage. Be it an oil painting or pastel - in both of which media he's an award-winning practitioner - and be it a landscape or portrait or even a caricatured illustration, Milbourn's work is classic, rich and evocative of a long tradition stretching back through the ages.

He splits his time between New York and Catskill, where he recently opened his own M Gallery beneath his longstanding Main Street studio there. We caught up with the artist at the recent opening for a new exhibit of his more personalized portraits: pieces whose subjects tend to be "off the street," non-commissioning folk whom the artist asks to pose for him, and pays for the privilege. The show is called "American Tonalism: Poetically Correct" and will be up until mid-November. It matches and augments Milbourn's last (and first) show in the same space, a collection of his local landscapes, by further exploring the subtleties of his craftsmanship.

For some whom I witnessed visiting the recent opening, the individual pieces' pricetags - over $3,000, in most cases - seemed a bit of a shock. But all seemed soothed when they came to a back case filled with copies of paid commissions of well-known Social Register figures from the Manhattan upper crust, or of Colin Powell.

Pondering Milbourn's work, it's easy to feel a beginning disappointment at its general lack of thematic imagination. He works within staid forms. These works are not about things other than painting and art. And yet, once one understands this reality, each piece starts to expand with the richness of palette, expertise and emotional depth within each portrait. And the same was true of Milbourn's landscapes.

Milbourn started painting, he says, at the age of 5. By his 20s, he had a portfolio that he'd put together on his own, without training. He headed for New York and after spending all his free time drawing, started shopping around his talents in the magazine world. He landed a regular gig at Business Week, then started building up regular work at the New Yorker. He says that he never got to a museum until he was in his late 20s. But then he couldn't stay away. Milbourn says that his teachers have been the Metropolitan Museum of Art - and a growing collection of classic illustration work from the 1860s through 1940s. "I wanted to be surrounded by their professionalism," Milbourn says.

"You have to understand I was coming out of Nebraska, Kansas - a land where there was no art. It was all a strange world for me," he recalls. "It was a just a hoot and a half to have a career doing this work."

He started shifting towards portraiture on the sly, as it were. He joined a group of similar working artists who would hire a live model to work from. Then an illustration of Liam Neeson got bought, out of the blue, by the actor's wife, Natasha Richardson. "I realized there was a market for what I was doing," he says.

"Yes, that's me in that one," says the artist's wife, Allison, of a portrait in a ballgown. She says that the work was created as a means of pulling in clients for debutante portraits down South.

She notes how Patrick's work is more "spiritualism" than realism. "He interprets forms and textures by coaxing them out of the medium," she says. "They evolve - first through ghostly images, then creating a mood and atmosphere. Tonal values play an important role in his technique. Smudges and smears are left in place if they make sense and make the composition more exciting."

Quietly, she adds that it's been hard doing so many commissions, because the way the market is these days, people don't want anything Expressionist, and usually not even impressionistic about their being captured for posterity.

The artist himself calls himself a "late bloomer," still in need of a website and the other accoutrements that pull in the plum portrait commissions: from senators and CEOs, from the rich and famous - or simply the rich.

Milbourn's awards and accolades have included various prizes and grants from the National Academy of Arts, the Pastel Society of America, the Salmagundi Club and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The Artist's Magazine presented Mr. Milbourn as a Portrait Winner in two of its national competitions, complete with feature articles. He was also selected for publication in The Best of Portrait Painting (1998), The Best of Pastel II (1998), The Best of Watercolor (1999) and Watercolor Expressions (2001). In the illustration field, Milbourn's work has been used in many major magazines and publications including the New Yorker, Time Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, Sports Illustrated, House and Garden, Forbes, The New York Times, New York Magazine and GQ.

A dapper man, Milbourn shuns dabbling too deeply into Modernism's penchant for art talk. He's happier in the studio or, more recently, putting the final touches on his new gallery. "It's nice to have a place to see my own paintings on display; I always get a whole body of work together before showing any of them," he says of M, the space he spent a year lovingly renovating and making perfect. "In the future, I plan to show and sell some of the works I've drawn from for inspiration - older pieces of a similar bent - and works by other artists who work as I do." His next show, opening in November, will be of his collection of classic illustration work.

Milbourn is best-known, locally, for having annually submitted drawings for use as invitations and posters, their originals eventually auctioned off, to benefit the local Greene County Council for the Arts' annual Beaux Arts Ball. But it is here, in his new space, where his deeper heart seems to reside. He smiles broadly, serving wine and cheese to the many who have come to visit his recent opening. Some are on the verge of buying pieces; others are mulling commissions.

I realize, slightly embarrassed at my own original thoughts about originality and imagination, that I'm in the presence of something that's as culturally rich as so much of the newer-style art I see.

It's in this man's talent, his craft, his way of tonally saying things in a medium that needs not words, like these, but will likely last on its own, forever. Just like Eakins - and just like, in a more distant way, that man called Rembrandt.

M Gallery, at 350 Main Street in Catskill, is open on weekends from 12 noon to 5 p.m. and by appointment at (518) 943-0380.