CAPE ELIZABETH — Paul Wyse spent the first 30 years of his life learning the skills necessary to become the best concert pianist possible.
He required much less time to master the skills necessary to become a top-flight portraiture artist.
Wyse, who splits his time between his family home at Cape Elizabeth and his personal home and studio in Ontario, Canada, recently made the news when Steinway Hall in New York unveiled his oil portrait of rock star Billy Joel.
Also in 2011, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., acquired two of his portraits of the famous pianist and Kennedy Center Award winner Leon Fleisher. One is an oil painting, the other a drawing. The painting likely will be exhibited later this year or in 2013, said National Portrait Gallery chief curator Brandon Fortune.
Wyse, 41, has spent most of the past decade in a wildly successful pursuit of painting, specializing in portraits of famous musicians. He spent most of his life studying classical piano, and still performs in concert halls around the globe.
He went to Deering High School, attended music classes at the University of Southern Maine, and studied at the New England Conservatory of Music, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Montreal, where he earned his doctorate in music.
All along, he harbored a desire to paint. But it wasn’t until he studied left-brain/right-brain thinking in musicians that painting became a passion for him.
In his studies, he posited that an accomplished musician could become an accomplished painter because of the similar methods of thinking and analysis that go into both art forms. How a painter shades a surface or manipulates light are not dissimilar to the decisions composers make about structure of music and placement of notes.
“Sometimes I think I studied music just so I could do this,” he said, gesturing to a completed portrait of Franz Liszt on the easel of his Cape Elizabeth studio. “In fact, I think I couldn’t have done this without studying music. I have a facility with this, and I come to this with a set of thoughts and a set of skills and a long history of having thought about art. It’s almost as if I just had to learn the technical side of it to do it.”
When he was younger, Wyse often responded to his piano teachers in visual terms. He would say, “It looks like this,” or “I see it like that.” His visual language frustrated his teachers. They wanted him to use different words that more closely expressed musical ideas.
“But that is how I saw music,” Wyse said.
Such intellectual dexterity makes mere mortals quake in his presence, joked Ron Losby, president of Steinway & Sons of New York.
“He’s a consummate artist in both respects,” Losby said. “I had lunch with him last week, and I asked him, ‘What do you prefer: Painting or playing?’ His answers are interesting. He said, ‘Right now, I really enjoy painting, but I could never not play the piano.’ “
As a pianist, Wyse is an official Steinway artist. Steinway confers the honor on pianists of every genre who achieve a masterful level of performance. Only after Wyse became an official Steinway artist did the piano maker learn that he also painted.
ONE THING LED TO ANOTHER …
When it came time for a portrait of Fleisher, Steinway commissioned Wyse to do one, and he later completed a painting and drawing of Fleisher for the National Portrait Gallery. This past year, Steinway hired him to do the Billy Joel portrait.
Wyse impressed Fortune when she spent time with him a few years ago. “We walked through the galleries, and talked about approaches, settings and other elements about the art of portraiture,” Fortune said. “He was just sort of drinking it in, and it was lovely to see that much intense interest in the art of portraiture from someone who was still learning.”
The Smithsonian was drawn to Wyse for his ability to tell Fleisher’s story through visual narration. For the setting for his portrait, he chose a concert hall at Syracuse University. Wyse painted Fleisher at the keyboard performing.
“We love to find a portrait that gives a visitor something more than a likeness. Sometimes that is all we have — a face. But when we can, we like to expand that vision to add to the experience for visitors,” Fortune said.
Joel is just the second living artist honored with a portrait at Steinway Hall, at 57th Street in Manhattan. Fleischer is the other.
Wyse did not receive special consideration for the painting jobs because of his association with Steinway, Losby said. He got the painting jobs because of his skills with the brush.
“His world of classical music and portrait painting coalesced so brilliantly,” he said. “Of all the famous artists who have painted for us — Wyeth and all the others — no one has ever been a pianist, or a good pianist, as well as a portrait painter. He is very special.”
In his research about art and music, Wyse found many artists who both play and paint, going back to Leonardo da Vinci. Someone more modern struck a chord with his sensibilities: John Singer Sargent.
Sargent was the leading portrait painter of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and strongly influenced Wyse’s classical painting style. He considers Sargent an idol, and noted that he also had a special fondness for painting portraits of musicians.
Wyse prepared for his Joel portrait by spending the better part of a day with the rock star at his Long Island home. They hit it off well, and traded stories about playing. Over the course of several hours, he got to know Joel, and developed a feel for the singer’s home.
He took many photos, then returned to his studio to begin preparatory sketches. Joel was involved throughout the process. He conferred with Wyse about poses, settings and other details. In the final painting, Joel stands off to the side of his piano, arms crossed and looking away. He is dressed casually in a leather jacket.
The painting is large — 7 feet tall and 3 feet wide.
“He was a pleasure to work with, and surprisingly camera shy,” Wyse said. “A lot of people assume celebrities would be perfectly comfortable having their portrait done, but that is often not the case.”
Wyse described Joel as gracious and kind.
“We talked about music a lot,” he said. “I grew up on Billy Joel music, so it was fun for me. He was my generation, for sure. When I was a teenager, he was the Lady Gaga of today.”
Somewhat reluctantly, Wyse acknowledged to Joel his own skills on the piano.
“He wondered why they weren’t doing a portrait of me.”
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: