Unusual Suspects


Last Tuesday, I got a phone call from Gautam Gulati.  He wanted to commission 12 portraits that had to be completed and framed by Sunday.  Four full days.

Now, Gautam Gulati started and runs the Unusual, Inc., a corporation that seeks out and promotes unusual ways of doing business.  Particularly innovative innovation.  He had trained as a doctor and gotten his MD, but then layered several other degrees on top of it.  I know he had an MBA and an MPH.  He may have other, hidden degrees, but I don’t know what they are.  He had given up his corporate career to deliver talks on unusualness and manage his startup.

So a very successful man, who was used to hard work and getting things done against the odds, had called on me to do something I had not come close to doing before: drawing an average of 3 portraits a day, based on unknown and most likely minimally suitable reference photos, and without any communication with the subjects to learn their personality or tendencies or preferences.  And on top of it all, these were particularly “unusual” people:  how would I capture them without some knowledge beyond the resume?

I wondered whether Gautam thought I produced widgets; whether he thought that, for the right price, I could just up the ante and churn out more drawings.  At the same time, it dawned on me that this would be a great challenge and within my capabilities.  I had been doing portraits a long time.  I can see the planes of the face and the turn of features and the way light is hottest on the temple and most absent under the eyebrows.  I imagine these things in my dreams.  It would be fun.

So, we agreed on a fair price and he emailed me the reference photos.  I committed to the job.

The subjects looked great in the photos, but not all of the photos were good for hand drawn portraits.  They were washed out with flash or showed the kind of gleaming smiles that look great in photos but can seem static in portraits.  Working with those references would be a challenge.  It harkened back to college when, during breaks from French lit papers, I would open up a newspaper or a Sports Illustrated and sketch people in advertisements,  struggling to understand why the subject’s smirk looked great on film but like a tilted Mr. Potatohead mouth in the sketchbook.  Puzzling through that kind of problem lay ahead.

But somehow I did it.  I can’t tell you how.  I was most productive on two nights that I spent at a sick relative’s place, waiting to hear if an emergency would force me to abandon everything and attend to the matter.  The reference photos collected in haphazard piles.  They grew smeared with pencil and charcoal.  Two of the portraits took 10 hours to complete.

It helped that Gautam reviewed drafts of the drawings.  He knew the subjects and was able to provide brief critiques.  A couple of times, I started over.  There was not time to look back.  Starting over is part of the artistic process.  You have to kill your darlings, someone said.  Nothing is wasted.

On Sunday evening, I waited anxiously for a report back on how things went.  Apparently, it went well.  Photos of the framed drawings started to appear on the subject’s pages on Facebook.  One shot (attached) of all the recipients holding their portraits suggested that the subjects were pleased, something that Gautam later confirmed.

Leaving aside the selfish eagerness I had to know how the portraits were received, I was struck from photos at how engaged the audience was with the speakers during the presentations.  The slides and handouts seemed impressive.  These were people who had teased out accomplishment from unvisited corners, who had knacks and intuition.  I regretted not being there to hear them speak and to ask them questions.  They were leaders in health care, human rights, culinary arts and angel investing to name a few.  I felt small in comparison: a guy who had chucked the law to doodle.  But I do take satisfaction that the gifts that I created gave joy and pleased and will hang on walls in far off places and speak to visitors and subjects alike for many years to come.  That, in a world of ephemeral and redundant imagery, a dozen, hand drawn portraits might leave a more lasting and true impression.

Below are photos of the individual drawings along with a photo of the subjects receiving and reacting to  them.  Photo by Brooks Craft.

Photo Sep 22, 5 51 58 PM12038622_1504814676495959_8049157746850385821_o Photo Sep 25, 8 13 59 AM  Photo Sep 25, 4 05 47 PM Photo Sep 23, 12 57 25 AMPhoto Sep 26, 5 51 02 PM Photo Sep 26, 8 02 58 PM Photo Sep 26, 8 06 35 PM 2015-09-24 10.02.15 Photo Sep 26, 8 14 28 PM Photo Sep 26, 8 13 13 PM Photo Sep 26, 8 09 36 PM Photo Sep 26, 8 08 27 PM

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