KCAD Alum Jackson Wrede’s Personal Portraits Leading to International Recognition, Career Milestones

Posted April 2, 2024 in Alumni, MFA Painting

The artist John Singer Sargent once quipped, “every time I paint a portrait, I lose a friend.”

Not so for Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University graduate Jackson Wrede. Embracing a personal approach to portraiture has not only widened his circle—it’s garnered him a growing a reputation as one of the most talented up-and-coming artists working today.

A man in a white shirt and white paints sits on a stool with his arms folded. Behind him are a wide variety of realistic paintings. KCAD alum Jackson Wrede in his home stuido in Grand Rapids (credit: Gillian Becker)

Wrede, who received his Master of Fine Arts degree from KCAD in 2021, is riding a tidal wave of early career success with a series of ultra-realistic portrait paintings, each depicting a person he’s connected meaningfully with since relocating to Grand Rapids from Chicago in 2019.

Earlier this year he earned a place among the best portrait painters in the world with a semi-finalist nod in the Portrait Society of America’s International Portrait Competition. Just 50 semi-finalists were selected from an initial pool of over 3,000 entries, with his portrait of friend and fellow KCAD alum Kate Robertson, “Girl with a Sleeve,” being one of only 30 to also receive a distinguished Certificate of Excellence.

A hyper-realistic portrait of a young woman with blonde hair, a black t-shirt, and a full arm sleeve of tattoos"Girl with a Sleeve" by Jackson Wrede, a semifinalist in the 2024 Portrait Society of American International Portrait Competition and one of only 30 entries to receive a distinguished Certificate of Excellence (image courtesy of the artist)

That’s a far cry from a year ago, when his entry wasn’t even accepted into the competition.

“More than anything, this is validation that I am on the right track in my career as an emerging artist,” Wrede said. “Being recognized in the top 1-2% of portrait artists globally is already a pretty extraordinary honor, and I’m just getting started too—this art game is a marathon, not a sprint, and I want 1,000 more paintings with my signature on them before I’m dead and gone.”

Portraits haven’t always been the focus of Wrede’s artistic practice. Coming to KCAD, and during his time in the MFA program, he had a penchant for sprawling canvases featuring bold color palettes and a surreal collision of art historical references and pop culture panache. Since graduating though, he’s found himself increasingly drawn back to a long-held desire to paint from pure observation.

“For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by looking at realistic paintings. I had a book of presidential portraits and would draw caricatures of them as a kid, and I think what I’m doing professionally now is just an extension of that in a weird way,” Wrede said. “I’ll let the critics decide what all my art actually means in the end, but in the meantime, I’m just waking up every day and painting things that are interesting to me at the highest level I can.”

“Girl with a Sleeve” is a prime example of how Wrede translates that interest into captivating art. You might imagine a portrait painter carefully creating while observing his subject in real time, posed still for hours on end. But Wrede’s process is much more layered.

A woman posing next to a realistic portrait painting of herself.KCAD alum Kate Robertson poses next to "Girl with a Sleeve," a portrait painting of her created by fellow alum Jackson Wrede (credit: Jackson Wrede)

He begins by envisioning a visual identity of sorts for the piece to grow into as it develops. Drawing on everything from classical paintings to fashion magazines, advertising, film stills, and Instagram posts, he works to develop a firm sense of the scene he wants to set around his subject.

He then conducts a photo shoot with the subject, preferring to work from reference photographs rather than live modeling sessions to capture their overarching character and granular details of their physical appearance.

“What’s most important in painting from life is developing your drawing skills and increasing your faculty to make things look ‘alive,’” Wrede said. “Photography expedites this process to some extent and really opens the doors of creative freedom beyond what a live sitter or model can do for you.”

Next comes a rough mockup composed in Adobe Photoshop, and finally, the execution of the actual painting.

“I am constantly reminded of Andrew Loomis’s quote: ‘All the creativity is in the planning. The rest is just good craftsmanship,’” Wrede said. “The finished painting should have a polish and ease to it that it almost acts like a magic trick for the viewer.”

A second portrait of a close friend—a painting of KCAD alum Dillon Johnson dubbed “Man with a Glove”—has vaulted Wrede into another one of the most competitive portrait competitions/exhibitions in the world: the Titian International Portrait Painting and Sculpture Competition.

A portrait painting of a thin young man in a tailored gray suit"Man with a Glove" by Jackson Wrede, to be featured in the upcoming Titian International Portrait Painting and Sculpture Competition in Italy (image courtesy of the artist)

The 2024 iteration will feature artists from 25 different countries, with Wrede being one of only 12 painters from the US accepted. His painting will be on display alongside the other entries at Forte di Monte Ricco, Italy starting this May.

Even as he arrives on the international stage, he's staying firmly grounded.

“One of the cool things about this opportunity is that I know exactly where it comes from:  my little painting studio—the extra bedroom in a cheap apartment my girlfriend and I rent together,” he said. “I think when you see paintings in global contests like this, it’s easy to assume the artists making them are very well established with big workshops, and it feels like they’ve got everything figured out. I can confirm that is not the case—I am constantly doubting my work and experimenting with ways I can improve.”

The future holds plenty of opportunities for Wrede to do just that. Along with his Excellence Award in the Portrait Society of America’s International Portrait Competition, he was awarded a tuition scholarship to attend the Portrait Society of America conference in Atlanta this April, where he’ll have the chance to rub shoulders with his contemporaries.

“The thought of walking onto the elevator and stumbling into some of my favorite artists I follow on Instagram gets me very excited,” Wrede said. “A lot of these people are personal heroes or celebrities of mine, so to have four days to network with them and maybe even go out for late night drinks and talk the nitty gritty details of painting with them—I just can’t wait.”

It’s the perfect blend of inspiration and motivation as Wrede prepares for the first solo exhibition of his young career in March of 2025. Hosted at the Birmingham-Bloomfield Arts Center, the show will feature portrait paintings of his favorite West Michigan connections.

For now though, he’s staying humble, putting in the work, and taking life—and art—one step at a time.

"My plan to build on this success is to just keep my nose to the grindstone and crank out the best paintings I’m capable of,” Wrede said. “I’m confident if I do that and prioritize the quality of my work, everything will figure itself out in the end.”

See more of Jackson Wrede’s creativity at jacksonwrede.com and on Instagram @jacksonwrede

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