Process of a Portrait: Artist on the Boulevard

Robert Daley, owner of South Hills Art Studio, poses in front of some of his many paintings. Photo by Claire Murray.

Robert Daley, owner of South Hills Art Studio, poses in front of some of his many paintings. Photo by Claire Murray.

By: Claire Murray

Faces surround painter Robert Daley.

A profile of Pope Francis. The familiar face of George Washington. Robert’s own face peeking out of a small canvas propped up against a desk. The outline of a little girl balances on an easel in the corner of the room. She has a pretty face, but no hands or feet — yet.

Robert sits on a stool in the South Hills Art Center, his personal studio and gallery on Brookline Boulevard, and tries to describe the process that he has done hundreds of times.

“You paint everything at the same time,” Robert explains. “It’s analogous to having a camera with the scene in the lens out of focus. You start out by bringing in the background and putting on the clothing and bringing in the skin tones — you put that all in roughly.”

A rough sketch of Robert’s own background would include a simple outline of Brookline Boulevard. In 1940, his parents built a small brick restaurant on the far end of the Boulevard. Thirty-nine years later, they gave the building to their son, who had just graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in art.

Robert dubbed the building the South Hills Art Center. He sold art supplies until he was able to support himself by his true passion and innate talent — oil portrait painting.

The faces that hang from the walls of the gallery look as realistic as photographs, but with an impressionistic finesse that only an artist of Robert’s talent could add.

“After you get everything down on the canvas, then you refine it,” Robert explains.

With his degree from Pitt and his “Italian hand” passed down from his artist father, Robert had all the ingredients of a distinguished artist. He refined his skills through decades of experience.

After 40 years in business, Robert’s paintings have received international praise. His collection of faces hangs everywhere from the entrance of Shady Side Academy to the Pope John Paul II Seminary in Washington D.C.

Robert glances over to his favorite portraits — two large canvases hanging above the gallery’s fire place. His father is on the left and his mother is on the right.

“It’s just a matter of playing with eyes and eyebrows, corners of the mouth. They’re subtle, but if you don’t know the importance of them, they can make a person look lifeless,” he says.

He explains the vital importance of every brush stroke. As he paints, he also critiques, evaluates and instructs anyone interested in learning from his passion.

After all, art is not just something you create. It’s something you share.

Every Monday morning, Robert trades his gallery of motionless faces for a basement filled with equally familiar smiles.

For three hours, the bottom floor of Baldwin Presbyterian Church transforms into a microcosmic
community of art. Robert has used the space for almost 20 years to teach his ongoing oil painting class to a group of 20 adults.

Neither Pittsburgh nor Brookline boasts a lucrative market for oil painters, but the students that gather under Robert’s lead find friendship and solace in the company of other passionate artists.

“It doesn’t matter sometimes about the art that you create so much as it is just going to class and being around the other people,” says Betty Bennett, a student of twenty years.

Robert rarely sits at the front of the room to direct his class. Rather, he spends the time walking around the church’s basement, stopping at each easel and giving thorough advice to students on their paintings.

He talks them through the process, explaining step-by-step how he would refine the painting as if it were his own.

Robert tells Betty to use dark shadows and drastic contrast, even on subtle skin tones. He tells Debbie Greenawald, another student in the class, to just step back.

“We get too focused on one little thing, but when you step away you see something’s really wrong,” Debbie says.  She admits to taking vacation days from work to attend the Monday morning session.

Refining can be done in a single brush stroke, or it can take the entire three hours of class. For Betty, who considers herself a slow painter, refining can span weeks or even months. Robert himself takes a brush to works that he “finished” years ago.

But what’s the step after refining?


“The satisfaction, that look on people’s faces, makes it worthwhile,” Robert says. He stays in business not for the money but for the moment his clients first see their loved ones on canvas — a fleeting expression that he cannot capture or explain.

A painted portrait celebrates and commemorates life. It is personal. A painted portrait allows for creative liberties, from the crown of butterflies that Debbie wove into her daughter’s hair to the “great hair days” that student Patti Campbell gives to all of her subjects.

“The word grandiose is applicable because it is a special thing, something that not many people have…There is a certain mystique with a portrait, there is a certain tradition,” says Robert.

On a weekend in late October, Robert sits in his gallery once more. The pretty girl without hands no longer waits on the easel. She is propped up on the floor, complete and ready to hang in a new home. In her place, an ear-less Cardinal Wuerl shakes hands with Pope Francis.

“That’s me on the canvas,” Robert says, nodding toward the half-finished painting, although his face is nowhere in sight. “Like a writer uses words, I use brushstrokes to tell a story.”

To Robert, art is a hobby, a job, a skill and a language. He speaks art to his community of artists as he explains and advises their Monday morning brush strokes. He speaks art to every person who looks at one of his faces, framed and mounted. Robert communicates his passion of art through every line, every dark shadow and every subtle corner of the mouth.

Video By: John Sheldon