While ProFile Stock hosts the archives of many legendary illustrators, I try not to use the “legend” label too liberally. However, with 60 Awards of Excellence from the Society of Illustrators, titles such as “Sports Artist of the Year” and “Official Artist for the Summer Olympics”, and numerous commissions for leading publications like Sports Illustrated and Time Magazine, Bart Forbes has undeniably earned a solid “legend” status.
Forbes is renowned for his paintings of sports—from fly fishing to the Indianapolis 500—and is perhaps best known for his golfing images. But no matter the subject, a common thread in Bart’s paintings is the sense of respect and dignity with which his characters are portrayed.
I hope you’ll take a moment to reacquaint yourself with one of America’s most distinguished illustrators. He may be just the legend you need working with you on your next project.
How did you first become interested in illustration as a career?
I have always loved to draw. I cannot remember when I was not obsessed with making pictures. When I was a small child I would draw in the fly-leaf pages in my children’s books because paper was not readily available to me. Many years later I had the opportunity to attend the Art Center School in L.A. not knowing what I wanted to do career-wise. I just knew I wanted to be an artist. I quickly realized that illustration was what I really wanted to do for a living.
Do you remember your first illustration job?
The first assignment I was paid to do was a portrait of a “Betty Crocker” type for an electric company newspaper ad. I had a job with a small design studio in Dallas at the time where I did everything from ad layouts to story boards, with an occasional illustration thrown in. After about two years I decided to begin a free-lance career as an illustrator and started building a portfolio and working toward a style of painting that might be marketable. I did a lot of work in the Dallas area until I felt confidant enough with my portfolio to try going to New York. With the help of an artist’s agent I began to get work in that market and with it came national exposure.
Who or what were/are your influences?
Growing up my influence was the Saturday Evening Post. Rockwell, Dohanos and the other cover artists were my heroes since I had never been to an actual museum of gallery. When I was in art school I was introduced to the work of the French Impressionists and still find inspiration from the painters of that era. I have always liked Pierre Bonnard’s work, as well, for his vocabulary of color and design—a great painter. There are many others as well—the portraits of Nicolai Fechin and Andrew Wyeth, for the subtle storytelling quality of his brilliant paintings. But I am influenced by a lot of different visual stimuli and I never miss a chance, when traveling, to visit local art museums.
How has your approach to image making evolved over the years?
My approach has evolved quite a bit. I developed a style of painting in watercolors that became what I was known for for many years. I eventually wanted to work larger and actually had an assignment for six very large paintings that I could not do in watercolor due to the size. So I painted them in oils and found a new direction in that medium. People frequently think my current paintings are watercolor (since I paint in transparent glazes) but I have painted in oils for a good many years. For a long time I was dependent upon photo reference for my work but in recent years I find that I am able to create other effects in my work by drawing from memory. I have also begun working on textured surfaces and experimenting with the palette knife as well as combining opaque painting with the transparent glazes. I believe that, for an artist to grow, he must constantly be trying new ways of working and thinking.
You’ve worked with many high-profile projects and prestigious clients. Is there a particular project that you’re especially proud of?
I don’t know that I have any one project that is more memorable than any other. I always feel that the next one is going to be the best I have done—and on and on. That’s another way, I suppose, of saying that I’m never really completely satisfied with my work. I did enjoy being asked to do the Lou Gehrig postage stamp a number of years ago as well as a poster that was used to market the stamp. I am a huge baseball fan and that one meant a lot. But I think I take the most pride not in my art but in our two children, Ted and Sarah, (who are adults now). Both of them are very successful in their own creative fields.
You were selected as the official artist for the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul. What was that assignment like?
Being selected to paint the Olympic Games in Seoul was quite an honor. I made two trips to Korea – one before the games and one during. The assignment was to create a series of 31 paintings that would depict each of the Olympic sports. I took a sketch book and tried to create studies that I could work from but, with the large crowds everywhere I went, I could not get the privacy I needed to sketch. I soon decided to just depend on my camera and telephoto lens to compile the reference I needed. Being able to take my wife and two children along made it a memorable experience for the whole family.
What do you do for fun or to relax?
I enjoy playing golf in my spare time—once or twice a week. My wife and I like to travel and one of the things I enjoy doing on trips are watercolor sketches. (Again, the obsession with making pictures.) But it is relaxing and a great way to remember what I saw as compared to just taking snapshots. I also find that listening to music while I am working relaxes me—and it’s almost always jazz—I am a great fan of Pat Metheney, among many others.
Describe the distinction between your gallery painting and illustration.
My gallery painting is quite different from my illustration work. I decided a few years ago that to have any success as a gallery painter I would have to develop a direction apart from the Illustration style. So I began by creating abstract textural surfaces that I work on top of, resulting in a more tactile way of painting. And I only do landscape or still-life—nothing figurative at all. These paintings are in oils, as are my illustrations, but they have a different feel. I spend about 20%—30% of my time on the gallery paintings with the rest of my time spent on commissioned work. Interestingly enough, much of the illustration work I do now consists of paintings for display and not for reproduction which, I suppose, would fall into the gallery category as well.
What is the most satisfying or enjoyable aspect of being an illustrator?
I have always thought the most satisfying part of what I do is just being able to earn a living doing the one thing I really enjoy. Unlike many people, I don’t dread mondays and look forward to the weekends. And, after some 40 years of being an illustrator, I still look forward to working on what ever the next project might be. The downside is I can probably never retire—but I wouldn’t want to because, as I said before, I continue to be obsessed with making pictures.
Any news or new projects you’d like to share?
I have recently been working on a project for John Snow at the PGA Tour that involves a number of mural sized paintings, from 10′ to 14′ wide—much larger than I am accustomed to working. They absolutely fill up my studio but they’ve been a great challenge and something I have really enjoyed doing. I have had to become accustomed to standing a lot when working at that size—and have had to buy bigger brushes than I normally use. The paintings are all golf scenes that hang on the walls of the new PGA clubhouse at the TPC Sawgrass course in Ponte Vedra, Florida. To date there are six of them already framed and installed and I am now working on the seventh painting.
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All images copyright © 2008 Bart Forbes. All rights reserved.
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