San Antonio photographer, painters elevate portraits into works of art

Photographer Kevin G. Saunders is acutely aware of the responsibility that goes into taking someone’s portrait.

“The indigenous people 150 years ago were terrified of photography, because they thought they were going to steal their soul,” said Saunders. “So I’ve always thought, what if there is something to that? What if I am stealing your soul? Then I have a responsibility to really take care of it. And give it back in better shape than when I took it.”

Saunders is one of several artists in San Antonio who specialize in portraiture. Others include painters Giovanna DiZurita, who often works symbolism into her portraits; and Victoria Morales, whose work includes live wedding painting. When they and other portrait artists do their work well, it goes beyond merely capturing a likeness, a task easily carried out by pretty much anyone with a cell phone. A good portrait conveys something about the life of the subject and what makes them special.

Saunders, 65, has been involved with photography much of his life. Growing up in Amarillo, he learned a lot from his dad, whom he described as “a very gifted amateur.” His father taught Saunders how the camera worked, including how to figure out the lighting, since the camera he worked with had no light meter.

He learned more than the mechanics, though.

“I learned from a young age how to see. And that’s really what this takes,” he said. “It’s having enough guts to capture that image at the time.”

It comes down to something that noted French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson called “the decisive moment” — a split second that captures the essence of what is being photographed.

“Cartier-Bresson was right. It’s the decisive moment of knowing that’s it,” Saunders said. “And I don’t see it. I feel it. I don’t even need to look at it hardly. It’s a perception, an energy, a timing thing.”

San Antonio-based portrait artist Kevin Saunders’ work includes large-scale images.

San Antonio-based portrait artist Kevin Saunders’ work includes large-scale images.

Josie Norris / San Antonio Express-News

Saunders specializes in large-scale, painterly images like the one that visitors to his studio in the Blue Star Arts Complex see as soon as they cross the threshold. It’s an enormous portrait of a ballerina expertly executing a grand jeté, her face relaxed and confident.

“She did it in this space,” he said. “It only took six tries. I had to get the 180 degree legs, no tension in her face.”

Saunders decided to focus on portraiture in 2014 after years of spending much of his energy on cityscapes. He studied the work of a pair of portrait masters: Gilded Age painter John Singer Sargent and 20th century photographer Yousuf Karsh.

“I realized that there was a divergence that I could capitalize on, that Instagram and Facebook and digital was going to be capturing the masses and yet, there was a place to do dignified portraits of leaders,” he said.

Earlier this year, he finished a two-year project to create a mobile portrait studio. He duplicated the equipment he has in his roomy San Antonio space, including movie-style lighting and a backdrop, and tested everything out on a trip to Miami. Things went well, and going forward, his goal is to make 10 trips each year to high-end destinations.

The success of the studio was heartening. The pandemic was hard on his business, since he can’t do his work via remote. His studio had 300 clients in 2019. So far this year, he’s had three. He thinks the business will come back, he said. And he’s determined to stick it out.

“I’m very thankful to have made it this far, because I just know that I was put on this world to make a mark like this,” he said.

Kevin G. Saunders’ website is

Artist Giovanna DiZurita's work includes portraits, in which she embeds symbols that represent aspects of the subject's life.

Artist Giovanna DiZurita’s work includes portraits, in which she embeds symbols that represent aspects of the subject’s life.

Giovanna DiZurita

Symbols in faces

Giovanna DiZurita does a lot of different things — she teaches art classes, designs clothing and accessories and creates mixed-media paintings that have been displayed around the world. Portraits have always been in the mix.

These days, her portraits includes fun, cartoon-like digital images that she can make quickly. She often is hired to make them for children.

When she was starting out, she said, she said yes to every opportunity that came her way, including portraits. Very quickly, they became a passion for her, because they are so meaningful.

“I noticed that portraits tend to be something very dear to the client’s heart, and so it became something I enjoy doing very much,” said DiZurita, 29. “Most of the time, they tend to be either portraits of the day they got married or somebody that has passed away.”

She works from photographs, but before she starts painting, she always has a chat either in her studio or over Zoom so she can get to know her subject. If it’s a memorial portrait, she’ll ask for a favorite memory and what the subject was like. If she’s painting someone living, she asks about their lives, their favorite color, how they met their spouse— anything that might give her some insight she can put on the canvas.

“I like to grab all of the information rather than just me saying, ‘Oh, OK, this is the face, I’m going to paint it,’” she said. “I really want to tap into what the client’s emotions are about the person – is it excitement, is there a little melancholic feeling about it? And do you want the person to feel very alive and vibrant because that was their personality, or do you want them to be more classy and quiet? That’s what I like to capture.”

Those conversations also are important because she wants to make sure the portraits reflect her clients’ view of the people she’s painting.

“People say, ‘This is the only picture I have, but can you make her a little bit skinnier or a little bit more chubby because the picture looks like she was very skinny when she wasn’t,’” she said. “It’s very interesting that everybody has their own interpretation of how they saw them.”

Those who look closely at her work may pick up on clues to important moments in the subject’s life.

“Sometimes, I like to incorporate hidden messages, dates or symbols, inside the portrait,” she said. “Let’s say they got married a certain date. I can add it into her hair or in a flower she’s wearing. Or if they passed away, I can add in the day they were born, the day they departed, things like that, just paying respects to the person.”

She has created a few self-portraits, including one that included that kind of symbolism.

“It was a very cool painting, because I could tell right away it was me, but also symbolically, it was my whole story in one face,” she said. “It was very cool.”

Giovanna DiZurita’s web site is

Artist Victoria Morales' work includes live wedding portraits. She starts them during the ceremony, then completes them at her studio.

Artist Victoria Morales’ work includes live wedding portraits. She starts them during the ceremony, then completes them at her studio.

Victoria Morales

Painting through commotion

Victoria Morales had a roundabout journey to her career in portraiture. The self-taught artist loved drawing as a kid, and working on sketchpads helped her get through bone cancer when she was diagnosed in the second grade. But when it came time to choose a career, she wasn’t sure she’d be able to make a living as an artist. She first tried teaching and then working in human resources, two occupations that didn’t quite fit.

Then, when she was planning her wedding, she came across Pinterest posts about wedding art, including portraits of the happy couple that guests were invited to sign. Rather than hiring another artist to create one for her wedding, which was in February 2020, she did it herself. That planted the seed for a new venture. When she got back from her honeymoon, she started digging into the world of art and weddings.

“I learned even more about live wedding painting and how custom art can be incorporated into weddings and everyday life — pet portraits, family portraits, in-studio commissions,” said Morales, 27. “I saw other artists doing that, and knew in my heart I’m meant to do this. This is what I want to do.”

She launched a business, Victoria’s Visuals, which includes live wedding painting.

When couples hire Morales, she comes to their wedding and paints throughout, typically capturing either a moment in the ceremony or the first dance. She often calls upon skills she picked up during her brief stint as a teacher.

“I’m used to having to do things on the fly and work amongst chaos,” she said. “That has helped me do art and stay focused in an environment that is really loud with a lot of commotion and fun things going on around me.”

Her goal is to finish the background, as the couple’s faces, while she’s at the wedding venue. She finishes each portrait in her studio, sometimes adding in elements that the newlyweds have requested, including images of loved ones who have passed on.

At couples’ request, she also sometimes does small, quick paintings of guests during the reception, working with a watercolor pen.

“It’s entertainment, but it’s also a favor, a fun takeaway from the wedding,” she said.

Starting a new business during the pandemic was a challenge, but she’s glad she took the risk.

“I love to do drawing, and just didn’t know how I could turn that into my life’s work,” she said. “I’m really thankful I found it.

“I think another thing that’s cool is, with everything being very digital these days, I feel like a real painting, a memory or something special to you being captured through custom artwork, it’s like bringing something from the past back to the new day and age. You don’t see it as much any more. that’s why it’s really special.”

Victoria Morales’ web site is

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