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

1 comment:

  1. All are nice, but the pastel/charcoal portrait is very appealing. Gorgeous value study, with lots of emotion.