My Unexpected Foray Into Sports Art

Posted by on Sep 17, 2010 in Blog, Memoirs | No Comments

 Let me start by saying that I have been drawing and painting for as long as I can remember and sports always has beenone of my favorite subjects. Sure, it took a back seat to things like Star Wars, Spider-Man & The Dukes of Hazzard for a while in my grade school years, but once I was in high school, I drew and painted a lot of sports images… mostly hockey.

 The first painting I ever sold was an image of my favorite athlete Ron Hextall. That painting was sold to one of my High School Guidance counselors who commissioned it as a gift for her son after seeing a similar image I painted [right] which was on display in the school. I think I got $50 for it which was not much I suppose, but I had just been paid to paint something and I had not even graduated high school yet. Not a bad start in hindsight.

Baseball in Philadelphia

1992 Art School Project

In my four years at The Hussian School of Art, sports was often my subject of choice on a variety of projects. Hell, my first big illustration job out of school was for the cover of the NFL Films “Road to the Superbowl” video. Needless to say sports & athletes as a subject was nothing new to me. So why did I title this as my “unexpected” foray into sports art? Keep reading.

Just three short years ago my career was primarily focused on graphic design, toy design, character development and Illustration. The bulk of the illustration work I did was in my more “contemporary” illustration style and none of it was sports related.

 The style in which I create my sports images was really born out of desperate necessity in an effort to prevent a big job from walking out the door. I was asked to create artwork for a series of t-shirts for DCI (Drum Corps International). The job as it was presented, was to illustrate twenty four individual “characters” for a series of three “through the years” t-shirts celebrating DCI’s 35th anniversary. We showed them some samples of my “character” work which they were happy with. After seeing a sample I created of one of their Drum Corps players they suddenly changed their minds and felt that it was too “cartoony”.

DCI 90's T-Shirt Design

DCI 90’s T-Shirt Design

Confused by this sudden change in direction I asked them for an example of what they were looking for. They sent a low resolution, poorly Photoshopped video grab. After trying to explain to them why this would not be printable on apparel, the job seemed as if it were in jeopardy. Instead of walking away [which I thought seriously about doing], I began experimenting, trying to emulate the look of this sample into something that could be screen printed in spot colors. Before I knew it, I had come up with something that I felt not only would suit the client’s needs but was just a very unique and original style.

As a painter I was always much more of a realist, painting very photo realistic images with very tiny brushes my instructors would refer to as my “chisels”. So this loose, graphic style was such a departure from anything that I had ever done before. Creating these images digitally allowed myself a creative freedom to experiment that I would not have allowed myself in the “real world” where you can’t “undo” your mistakes.

Just to wrap up that end of the story, I created a second sample in this new style and showed it to DCI. They loved it and gave me the green light to finish the remaining twenty three characters. In the end, they were so happy with the art they decided to make & sell posters as well.

David E. Wilkinson's Troy Polamalu

Looking at what I had suddenly created, I could not help but to think that it would be a great style to depict athletes in. It reminded me of a modern looking LeRoy Neiman painting. I decided to follow my creative intuition by painting a few different images to give out as Christmas gifts to family and friends. When I was done I felt as if I was certainly on to something as the loose, painterly style really seemed to fit the action and motion of sports. I decided to continue working at it by coming up with new images to work on as I refined my technique further.

The images I am doing today are so much more detailed and involved than the first images I created. Like anything, it becomes an evolution and you learn something new with every image you create. As I look back on my earliest images they almost seem rudimentary, although I am still proud of the work and what they represent.

I suppose the lesson here is to always keep an open mind and take advantage of every opportunity as it presents itself in your career because you never know what you are truly capable of creatively until you try. Because I did not allow myself to simply pack it in when it seemed it was not my illustration style they wanted, I enabled myself to discover a whole new style which I would have never otherwise considered or thought possible.

I try to use this as an example and express to the students I speak to that their careers in art should not be looked at as a destination but as a journey. The more chances you take creatively more roads you will discover and the more people you will meet. Every one of those people can lead you to someone else and your next job.

Year: 2008 Event: Ron Hextall Hall of Fame Night pre-game dinner party

Year: 2008
Event: Ron Hextall Hall of Fame Night pre-game dinner party

In the very short time since beginning this unexpected journey into sports art, I was invited as a guest of the Flyers to present a painting to Ron Hextall on the night of his induction into the Flyers’ Hall of Fame. What an honor that was to be even a small part of such an important night in the life and career of a athlete I grew up idolizing.

In addition, I have been fortunate enough to work with another one of my favorite Flyers Brian Propp and Riley Cote on a number of different projects. Most importantly, through works I have donated I have helped to raise well over a thousand dollars for a variety of charitable causes. I look forward to raising that number in the very near future.

 I really feel that my book as a sports artist has really only begun to be written. As I see it, this is just the first chapter. I know I will continue to develop my technique and try to get it out there and see where and to who this road leads. As I said, it’s a journey and there is no GPS telling you where you will end up.

 I welcome your thoughts, comments and questions.


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