Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Art School of Hard Knocks; Becoming a Portrait Artist

My niece has asked me to share some of my stories with her about my life as an artist.  I figured that since I was writing these to her for her paper I would just go ahead and share them on my blog.  It might entertain some of my fellow artists.

The Art School of Hard Knocks

Becoming a portrait artist:

In the winters while I was still in art school in Ohio, and then later after I moved to Virginia, I could always find work sketching in malls, hotels, time shares and craft shows.  My first pet portrait actually was for my brother Tony during one of these winter gigs.  His beloved husky, Mashka, was hit by a car and died, leaving him in horrible grief.  As a gift to him in 1996 I drew a portrait of Mashka swimming in our parent’s pond from a rather out of focus photo.  (See below) He became quite emotional when he saw it, and being the business man that he was born to be, encouraged me to hang it up at the mall.  I figured, why not?  I have a big blank space on the wall so I will just stick it up there.  As soon as clients walked past my little booth they were mesmerized by the idea of having a drawing of their pet. The next thing I knew more than 50% of my income that winter was from drawing pets and people from photos. I didn't think that I could do it successfully, there were so many obstacles to this process, but I had to do it.  I needed the money, so I just pretended like I was some sort of great pet portrait artist and cranked out some pretty crappy pet portraits.  I was getting impatient for the universe to show me what I was supposed to be doing with my talent, so I just kept spewing out those portraits until something better came along.

Eventually I found myself single and without child support.  For the first few years of being single I supported my two young kids and I with sketching quick profile portraits for tips while their dad also struggled to find work as a cartoonist.  I would draw anything for money during this time, but I swore that I would never go on welfare or food stamps.  My kids came to work with me and they would sit at the base of my easel since I usually could not afford day care.  I would work on the photo commissions late at night after they were asleep or during the day when they were in class, and crank out quick sketches 4 days a week at time shares and the local mall. After every quick sketch that I would do I would say to silently to myself, “Thank you God for that gallon of milk.” Or, “Thank you God for bringing me that commission of Fido so that I can pay rent.”  It didn't matter anymore that I was the best at drawing portraits, I had to survive. Being the best does not support the kids. Financial success has absolutely nothing to do with artistic talent or ability.

I was in a pretty constant state of panic, but I faked it well for Eddie and Halee’s sake.  It was vital to keep one foot in front of the other and focus on the goal of parenting and not on my current emotional or physical pain. I had given up on thinking that I would ever figure out what the universe had in store for my talent and walked away from my dream of ever being a real “A”rtist. Doing portraits of pets was outside of my definition of what I thought that I wanted to do with my ability, my art box as I sometimes call it, but it didn't matter anymore.  I was exhausted and I was defeated.

During those desperate years I learned to make half way decent portraits from some horrible photos because I could not afford to decline any opportunity to make money. Later I will describe this process on my blog. At first people would send me Polaroid snap shots since digital cameras had not been invented yet.  As cameras progressed the photos improved, but not by much.  Most of my photo references were of family or animals that had passed on, so the clients could not take additional photos and often begged me with tear filled eyes to capture their loved ones from just their verbal descriptions.  Sometimes I wondered if they thought that I was some sort of psychic portrait artist, able to conjure a likeness out of thin air like a police artist.  It was nuts, but hey, it was better than welfare.  My son jokingly called my business, “Dead Pet Portraits”. There were only two commissioned photos that I have ever declined during this time.  One client handed me a photo of her baby grandson in the casket.  Another client e-mailed me a photo of her dog, dead, lying in a pool of blood on the side of the road.  During these years and up until around 2011 I stopped making art for myself entirely. I had given up.

A few years ago I started feeling pretty guilty about wussing out, so I started studying again. I met with a few art schools to apply for graduate school, but was told by the graduate art director at BGSU that I was too old for grad school and that I was just a robot who created mini robots and had nothing to say with my art.  (He was referring to my years of teaching portraits.) I don't know why I expected to hear anything different from my alma mater. He did however spend some time talking with me to show me how to research on my own, which I am very grateful for.  Grad school would have been a waste of my time anyhow, I realize now.

Today I do my best to be an art magnet with constant study, art shows and research.   I just started showing my work publicly and had my first fine art showing just this past spring. I also have a portable painting party business and Illustrate kids’ books, I wrote and published a book as well as created a ghost tour business.  In later writings I will explain how I got into those careers. Mostly I will admit that I just tried to succeed at whatever travesty the universe brought for me while I was waiting around to make it big in the art world.  Now I understand of course that each and every one of those travesties has led me to where I have always wanted to be, and that is to be a professional “A”rtist.  It took the universe many years to make the point that I was and always will be a real artist.

In a few days I will post some information about the process of creating a portrait from a horrible photo.  Here is a few examples of my portraits from photos from past years.

"Jessie"  pastel on paper, 8 x 10"  2010.
 Not a great photo, plus I had to add the toy in her mouth.  The client was wonderful and appreciative, but after this commission I had to take a little break from drawing pets as you can imagine.  I am a bit embarrassed to post this, but it makes my point. YIKES!!!

"Mashka"  16 x 20"  Pastel on paper. 1996.  My first pet portrait

"Lick"  16 x 20, Watercolor on paper.  2006
This was actually a really good photo except that the dog's foot was cut out of the image.  I had to make the foot up.

"Baily"  Pastel and charcoal on grey paper.  8 x 10"  2014

Monday, December 1, 2014

"The Art School of Hard Knocks; Becoming a Quick Sketch Artist"

My niece has asked me to share some of my stories with her about my life as an artist.  I figured that since I was writing these to her for her paper I would just go ahead and share them on my blog.  It might entertain some of my fellow artists.

The Art school of hard knocks

Becoming a quick sketch artist

It is fun to tell the story of how I first began drawing portraits for a living.  I had grand aspirations when I was studying fine art at Bowling Green State University in the mid-80s to be a great Artist.  My study focus was on life drawing, primarily using dry medium such as pastel and chalk.  I knew that it was just a matter of time before the universe opened up to me and I would magically become a great “A”rtist with a capitol “A”, in the mean time I knew that I needed a degree.  At this time the professors at my school were obsessed with abstract expressionism.  This caused much dismay for me since I had no ability to work in this way. It’s not that I don’t enjoy gazing at a Jackson Pollack or puzzling over Picasso, but I had no desire whatsoever to work in abstract.  Philip Pearlstein, Chuck Close, Edgar Degas and of course the great Georgia O’Keefe were my heroes.  I was born a photo realist and had taught myself how to paint by around 12 years old by studying these masters at the library and with the help of two awesome middle school art teachers. Most of my college professors ridiculed me for being able to draw so accurately, and many of them boldly claimed that I had nothing of value to say.  I wanted to be the next John Sargent but I was soundly corrected by my teachers that this was a bad idea because the great portrait artist sold himself out for money by doing portrait work.  A real artist lives in poverty they said.  A real artist gets a day job working in a factory and only paints at night and on weekends, so that they don’t compromise their art. (Adrian Teo, 1987, art professor at BGSU.) My fellow students were also very quick to point out that I was just a robot who could only make very pretty lines. I believed them.  It took 30 years for me to get up the courage to start showing my work in galleries and art shows thanks to these guys, but during these 30 years I was able to support myself by drawing portraits, and I was quite good at it once I got the hang of it.

At first I mostly just did profile portraits from life at amusement parks.  I got my start at Cedar Point, in 1984 right after my freshman year of art school.  They did not teach us how to draw the portraits back then.  My first day of work was terrifying.  My supervisor, who had no clue how to draw, walked me to an easel and said “Here you go, have a great day!”  I said, “Wait, how do I do this?”  She said, “Here is your chalk, here is your paper and look over here, you have your first customer. Don’t forget that you may only take 5 minutes to finish it.”  My customer was a very elderly lady who had Parkinson’s and could not sit still for me to draw her.  The family bought the sketch because I was sobbing by the end of it.  To make matters worse it was cold enough to snow and my uniform consisted of a pair of very short shorts and a short sleeved shirt with a windbreaker.  I could not even get warm in the shower after work.  Our dorms were a former hotel and they did not have heat, air or hot water.  If this was what it meant to be a professional artist I wanted out. This was totally outside of what I considered to be my "art box".

A few weeks later I had all I could take.  I wasn't making any money because we were not paid an hourly rate at that time.  I earned 50 cents a sketch, that’s it!  I begged my supervisor, Nina Bonezzi to transfer me to work at a roller coaster but she pulled me back into the break area to give me a little talk instead. I will never forget her and the powerful advice that she gave me.  “Emily”, she said, “If you would just pretend like you were enjoying yourself and try to have a positive attitude, you would attract much more business.  Not only that, but your sketches will improve.  Take off your dark sunglasses.  Stop crying at work, and fake a smile.  I have a feeling about you.  I don’t know how to draw, but I have a feeling that you are going to be the very best at this and you will be doing it for a very long time.”  Her advice was just what I needed to hear.  It never occurred to me that drawing in the public was exactly like being on stage and performing.  I understood stage performance thanks to my years of music study, so I figured I could fake this. I assumed that this was what I was meant to do until the universe prodded me in the right direction for my life work and so I gave it my all.

It is amazing what a positive attitude can do for an artist. Somewhere around July I stopped faking and started flying. I learned mostly by mimicking the other more experienced artists, since they usually were hesitant to share their sketching secrets. By the end of that summer I was in the top three of about 20 artists. By the end of 1986 I was the top profile artist at Cedar Point, averaging a 2.5 minute sketch and kicking out over 100 faces on an average Saturday. My all-time record was 132 faces in 14 hours of nonstop drawing. Now the newbies were mimicking me, but I encouraged it and taught them how to sketch. Eventually teaching would become my primary focus in the parks.  I may be a robot, but I became a damn good one.  I was fully supporting myself and bought a little trailer home and a cherry red Camaro before I even graduated from collage.

In 1987 I was finishing up my junior year of art school when this new company called Kaman’s Art Shoppes asked me to run my own art operation at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg Virginia.  Oh man, I did NOT want to do this.  I was petrified!  I was so not qualified to run an entire park art operation. I just wanted to have fun and make beer and book money. The owner said that if I did not accept the park manager job that he would fire me.  I doubt that he really would have done that but  I didn't want to take a chance. Like my first year at Cedar Point, I was told that he knew that I had a very special ability and that I could do this, but I lacked self-confidence.  My first year at the park was horrible as you can imagine.  I was 21 years old and in charge of somewhere around 40 artists, some of them much older than me.  I remembered the lesson however about maintaining a positive attitude and did my best to fake it.  I don’t think that I fooled too many people, but it eventually did attract to me the right people and circumstances to be a very good park manager. I decided that I would continue to be an art souvenir park manager until the universe nudged me in the right direction to continue with my work as an “A”rtist.

After graduation I was the park manager at Busch for 8 years. I went on to train some of the other artists who became to  a park managers themselves. Kaman’s went from being a small operation run from Rich and Tricia Kaman's garage to the largest art souvenir operation in the United States. (  I wrote the company’s national portrait training guide in the mid-90s, and re-wrote it for them again in 2005.  I won’t say that I was the best park manager they ever had of course, but my employees told me frequently, and some still tell me today on Facebook, that I was the best manager they ever had. I figured that I didn't do too bad of a job considering that I was working out of my box. I would still wait for many years to discover what the universe had in store for me artistically however. The next several years after this would be very difficult.  If I was going to quit working as an artist it would have been during this next overwhelming time of my life but I stuck with it even after I left Busch.

I will continue this story in a future blog.  In the mean time here are some silly photos of me sketching.

Em sketching, November 2014

Em sketching at Cedar Point, 1986