A few weeks ago I met Dick Paetzke. He introduced himself to me after I had finished giving a presentation on the "Joy of Traveling with a Sketchbook." Shortly after that we got together for coffee and to talk about art, learning, Italy, and good food. All favorites of mine!
In particular, I want to share what Dick told me about how he decided to teach himself to draw, and draw graphite portraits at that. If you've ever tried to draw a portrait, you know how challenging it can be! Dick chose to learn by challenging himself to draw 100 portraits. Now, at age 82, he has completed 83 portraits and is working on #84. Below is a collection of a few of his portraits from throughout the years. In this collection we can see the progress in his skill, his ability to draw and to see. So inspiring!
Here is his story, in his own word. I hope this entertains and encourages you as much as it did me.
Well, for most of my life I've earned a good living as a successful advertising writer. I almost always worked in an advertising agency environment partnered with an art director to create print ads, promotions, radio and television commercials, posters, films, and online materials. Clients spent millions on what we created because it made their businesses grow.
Working in a writer/art director creative team in a high pressure setting is exhilarating. And because it involved getting the best possible results from two largely different skill sets, one verbal, the other graphic, it can often produce conflict before it produces synergy, what that old Cole Porter song called "that perfect blendship." Often, I'd suggest to my art-side buddy, that a layout would look better if the product photo were larger, or that maybe he shouldn't use white type reversed out of a black background because it was too hard to read. Just as often, he'd tell me to stick to my own side of the business, he was the guy with art school training. He understood mysteries I couldn't conceivably fathom.
That went both ways. I absolutely hated it when my partner told me a headline was too long for his layout, or even, damn it all, came up with a far better headline than I did. And inwardly, silently wondered, if I could somehow come up with some of the same graphic magic that he had at his fingertips. The fact was, I not only loved what I did, I loved the art side too, which became important when I eventually became a creative director responsible for hiring art directors, artists, illustrators, graphic designers and all the other art-side talent that make an ad agency work. I had to intimately understand what they were doing even though I didn't do it myself. Notice I said, "didn't" not "couldn't." I hadn't yet dared to try.
That opportunity didn't come up until I saw a family friend painting some simple, but charming postcards with watercolors. She asked me if I wanted to try it and handed me a brush. I can't remember what I painted, I think it might have been a coffee cup. It didn't amount to much.
But a short while later a catalog from a local community college arrived in the mail and offered two art classes, one in watercolor painting, the other in portrait drawing. Both were taught by the same teacher, a former major university art school professor. Some inner voice urged me to sign up for both, but I didn't want to make that much of a commitment on something so speculative. Remembering my sloppy coffee cup attempt, I signed up for the portrait drawing class. It turned out to be a horrendous mistake. Or at least I thought so at the time.
The teacher, who shall remain nameless, was the worst teacher I ever had in any subject. He continually talked about himself and showed us virtually nothing that added to anybody's skills. Despite the fact that I was getting no really useful instruction and wasting my tuition money, I somehow started to realize how challenging it was to even try to draw a recognizable portrait. He had the students critique each others' work, even though as beginners we had no notion how to do that. He would add comments like, "That looks kind of like an old uncle I had."
What he did do was mention a book of 42 charcoal portraits by the Florence born American artist John Singer Sargent. I bought it and was stunned. Sargent's portraits were alive. I sat and stared at them for hours. I knew then that I wanted to draw portraits. Then I remembered something else Professor Otherwise Inadequate had said, something he must have heard in art school: If you want to master something, you have to either spend 10,000 hours at it, or repeat it 1,000 times.
"Oh, help," I thought. "I won't live that long." But I really wanted to try. So I set myself what I thought might be a reasonable goal that would be a step in that direction. I assigned myself to do 100 portraits as a sort of self-teaching apprenticeship. That was just about six years ago. Now, at age 82, I have finished 83 portraits. Some of them are not bad, but in no way am I there yet. And don't want to be.
At first I drew almost anybody from any kind of scrap, online pictures, photos in magazines, all of people I didn't know. Then I made myself a rule to draw only people that I actually knew or had a relationship with. While I've also drawn a couple of people from photos someone has provided, I now primarily want to photograph them myself and draw from truly candid shots of people "being themselves", talking, gesturing, being emotional, and anything other than being rigidly posed. Some people are so self-conscious they can hardly stand to be themselves and instantly want to become a "model." I find faces fascinating and ideally I want someone to be able to look at portrait I have drawn and say, "That makes me feel like I know that person."
I am learning by making mistakes. That is probably largely the way I have learned everything of consequence in my life. I have about twelve different books about drawing and portrait drawing, including Sargent's. Each has helped me identify something I need to correct. Each portrait adds to my ability to hopefully not make the same error (of the 200 trillion errors that are possible) in the next one. I value those mistakes, glitches, and "failures" because they are invaluable instruction.
When you're driving with kids they always ask "Are we there yet?" As far as art goes, I have to caution myself never to think I'm there yet. The calendar may classify me as an adult, even a pretty old one, but I will fight to maintain my immaturity and not be so "grown up" that I no longer have the time, curiosity or energy to open new doors and immerse myself in what is waiting behind them. ~ Dick Paetzke
On an unrelated but equally interesting note, back in 2009 Dick published a book, Postcards: Little Letters From Life (available on Amazon). On the "About the author" page he is described as:
Dick Paetzke is a longtime advertising agency creative director and writer as well as head of his own creative services business. A native of Seattle, Washington, he has been an infantry soldier, cold an shivering duck hunterr, student of languages, ardent reader, motor scooter rider, novice grandfather, author, and fancier of well-cooked pot roast. He makes his home in Seattle and Lecce, Italy, with his wife Adriana.
This description did not include "portrait artist." He told me that came along in the same year, but like much of his life, it happened as a surprise. Such a pleasure getting to know you Mr. Paetzke!