August fifth, 2019, Pearson International airport. I was waiting impatiently to finally board my twice-delayed flight to New York when my phone began to ring. On the other end was a quiet woman who spoke quickly as she fumbled her way to her offer of employment. Apparently, she was the “ambassador” for a very unusual American master portrait artist. I was recommended through a series of mutual friends. She wanted me to drop everything I was doing and join her for a few days so that I could document what she was calling “the experience of a lifetime.” I was intrigued.
This mysterious caller—better known as Rebecca Ethan as I would come to find out—didn’t give me much information on the job or what I would actually be documenting. Nor did she give me any time to react before she offered me triple my regular rate and a contract was waiting if I accepted. How could I say no? I didn’t know it then, but that job would turn out to be one of the most illuminating experiences of my life. I was to meet an eccentric, talented portrait artist who pulled back the veil on modern high society and what it meant to be truly well connected.
Rebecca had a contract waiting for me in my email the following day, which included a non-disclosure agreement as well as a set of instructions on how to board the private jet that would be waiting at Buttonville Municipal Airport to fly us down to San Antonio. I had never been to Texas, but when Rebecca met me she let me know we wouldn’t be in Texas for very long. We were flying down to meet master portrait artist Kevin Saunders and have his studio equipment and mobile showroom loaded onto the plane. Then we would be making a quick return flight to Toronto that evening so that they could set up for something they were colloquially called “The Grand Ol’ Portrait Party.”
When I boarded the Bombardier Global jet, I used the time with Rebecca to focus on asking her more about herself and the coming week. It turned out that Rebecca was the daughter of a wealthy Quebec real estate agent who was steeped in art history and gathered a group of wealthy, well-connected Torontonians together to book a portrait artist for four days of unlimited portrait sessions. Why? Because she had a cousin who lived in San Antonio that had been telling her about this up-and-coming artist, Kevin Saunders, who was going to take the world by storm. Kevin was, according to her, one of those rare talents that only comes around every few centuries — and she wasn’t wrong. Canadians had seen Yousuf Karsh, after all, so they knew what they saw in Kevin.
The very definition of a modern Renaissance man, Kevin dropped out of high school to drive transport trucks cross country, then studied anatomy in college—intending to become a doctor—before abandoning that goal to become an Olympic sailing hopeful and later orchestral musician. Kevin had transitioned into portrait photography later in life after designing and selling an airplane elevator concept to Boeing for 1.5 million and building a custom luxury bicycle brand. Bored with his business pursuits, he turned his focus towards his lifelong love of portrait artistry and set a goal for himself to become this century’s, Yousef Karsh. He spent many years honing his craft.
Kevin quickly rose to prominence in the southern United States at the beginning of the pandemic and produced a number of grand-scale fine arts portraits for larger than life American business personalities like Henry Cisneros, Paula Gold-Williams, David Bohne, Gordon Hartman, Ben Peavy, and even former congressman’s Will Hurd and Charlie Gonzalez. That came after this trip and Rebecca and her cousin knew something I didn’t. I wanted to discover why. At least that’s what I found myself wondering as Kevin boarded the plane.
An older, yet strong-looking man of sixty-four, Kevin had the typical white hair of a man his age but the eyes of someone much younger. I’ll never forget that piercing first glance he shot my way as if he already knew me. When he reached out to shake my hand I instantly knew I had met a unique person.
Kevin wanted to begin our conversation by asking me about myself and my body of work before he transitioned into his own artistry and philosophy on how he captures an amazing portrait. “If I’m that person who is trusted to tell your story in a portrait so it lives on for generations,” he told me, “ then I must be able to create a movie with one frame. My portraits are more than just art to adore one’s ancestral home. If a family is significant enough to have a story to live on in a legacy—and you and I know most don’t—then who goes into that story becomes part of an intergenerational story.” That was the main idea behind this trip, and the reason why so many wealthy families and individuals took Rebecca at her word when she said, “Trust me, this guy is going places”.
I saw Kevin two days later when he showed me around his mobile portrait studio. Though it was just set up in a quiet rented space in North York, the place had a warmth and calmness that was unusual for portrait studios. It also had this vibrant energy that made me smile. Kevin told me that people can feel the energy in a place and he used that to his advantage, making sure to set the tone of a session before his clients walked through his door.
The equipment was astonishingly professional, beyond anything I thought would have been necessary for a portrait shoot. There were vintage movie lights like one would see from the ’40s and ‘50s as well as a big “view camera” that seemed like something out of Star Trek. Everything seemed complicated, but when Kevin showed me how it worked, it was incredibly simple. “It is the same in practice as the big wooden cameras 100 years ago,” Kevin said, “but it has a 150-megapixel sensor instead of an 11 x 14-inch piece of film.” I’d never seen anything like it.
I’ve sat in on many “photoshoots” and what I saw Kevin do in a portrait session was unlike anything I had ever seen before. Kevin was looking at the subjects from various angles while the subjects were studying the portraits and they were carrying on a conversation. This went on for a half-hour or 45 minutes, and then there seemed to be a “perfect time” when the subjects seemed ready to step in front of the camera.
I think this is what truly made him the best. The entire process of capturing portraits was truly amazing to watch unfold. I was used to seeing photographers take hundreds of photos in a photoshoot and while Kevin used a camera, it was simply the tool he used to capture the information he gleaned from studying his clients beforehand. He somehow was composing his portraits in advance and guiding the subjects to give him the emotions he needed to project a likeness onto a portrait print.
After I left the portrait shoot, I didn’t see Kevin again until I was flying back to Texas two months later with Rebecca to pick up the portraits. When I finally got to Kevin’s studio, I had the opportunity to see what he did with his off-site artistry. While it took a very small amount of time to create the original photographs back in Toronto, Kevin spent days—and in some cases—weeks doing highly detailed and precise artistry to produce a portrait that was truly stunning.
Kevin showed me a few of his trade secrets, and I can see why he mentioned his study of anatomy. Kevin took the imperfections that clients wanted to have fixed and performed a kind of digital alchemy that was incredible. I got to see the “before” and “after” and when I saw the finished product for Rebecca, my jaw dropped. Kevin said, “If I were to paint you, I wouldn’t put these details into the painting, so if I’m painting with light, I’ll use the same interpretation and you get to choose the way you wish to be remembered.” What struck me was the fact that the final images didn’t look “photoshopped” but just looked “right.”
That may be his best-kept trade secret. He uses his talent and previous life experience preparing to become a doctor to alter his portraits in such a way that the figures portrayed come to life. This was when I realized he was reviving a human tradition that has fallen away as we’ve modernized — the fine arts portrait.
Kevin’s work is visible at www.kgsstudios.com where you can view his entire portfolio.