Portrait Of An Artist As A Young Man
Bill Farnsworth has to be one of the most visibly notable persons in our neighborhood. Look no further than the Hughes Gallery in Boca Grande or the Dabbert Gallery in Sarasota–or in some of the finest art galleries in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, North and South Carolina, Texas and Colorado–for evidence. Heck, you can just google his website on the internet and judge for yourself.
For the record, others have judged him highly. He has won the Dickinson Signature Member Award at the national show of The American Society of Impressionists in each of the last two years, and he has been given awards of excellence at the national and regional shows of the Oil Painters of America. In recognition of his many stunning coastal landscapes, he was elected a Fellow of the American Society of Marine Artists.
So how did all of this come about? In this age of digital photography, how does one become a modern-day Monet or Cassat, competing with brush and eye against the high technology of the computer world?
For Bill Farnsworth, it seems like it just came naturally. “I remember drawing on the walls of my bedroom with a crayon when I was still in a crib,” he says. At age 4 or 5, he would lie on the living room floor, drawing pictures of birds on the graph paper his grandfather gave him. He remembers that by the time he was in third grade, he could draw Donald Duck very well. “I was a bit of a class clown, so they separated me from the rest of the class. I’d be in the back of the room, and I’d draw pictures, which my classmates would buy for a nickel apiece.” Okay, he had to give it back, but it seems he already had the business acumen of a freelance artist.
“Disney was a big deal back then, and that was my big inspiration,” Bill recalls. “We’d see all the cartoons on a color TV my friend’s family had: Mickey Mouse, the Road Runner, Bugs Bunny, and it was so good I could almost smell and taste the color. That was what got me going.”
His first notoriety came at age 10. He was in the hospital to have his appendix out, and in the children’s ward he drew pictures of Charlie Brown and Snoopy on the glass walls for the entertainment of the other kids there. A local newspaper found out and did an article on him. As he grew older, he would do line drawings of cartoon characters for fun and use oil paint to fill them in, thereby developing some experience with oils while also enhancing his skills as an illustrator.
“I didn’t have any formal training in art until I went to art school,” Bill says. “I first heard about being an illustrator when I was 14. There were several high-profile illustrators living in our town in Connecticut, and I thought that might be a neat thing to do.” Bill graduated from New Milford High School in 1977 with every intention of becoming an illustrator.
He came down to Southwest Florida at age 18 to study at what was then known as the Ringling School of Art in Sarasota. “I liked the area, and that’s how I eventually ended up here,” he says. At Ringling he took the usual courses in drawing, graphic arts, illustration and painting. “They offered fine arts in my final year, but the course didn’t seem to do anything for me, because I wanted to be an illustrator. I learned a lot on my own after I graduated.” His classwork did involve painting with oils. “I remember doing a sports car calendar and a poster for the circus. That was a lot of fun. And in our final year we were putting together portfolios of our work to show when we applied for jobs.”
After graduating in 1980, Bill turned down an opportunity to work for American Greeting Cards in Cleveland and decided to go to New York City, the mecca, to find freelance work on his own. “That was tough, and I had bills to pay,” he says, so he went back home to work for his dad in land surveying for the next eight or ten years. In 1984 he married his wife Debbie, and he spent full time on the surveying work five or six days a week, while going into the City for freelance assignments in his spare time.
One of his first freelance jobs was for Golf Digest. “My studio for freelance work was at one point in the cellar of our rented cottage, at another time in my mother-in-law’s knitting room, and at still another time in what had been the embalming room of a funeral home. A lot of people got the heeby-jeebies when they came into that studio,” he jokes. “I didn’t care if it was creepy, because I wasn’t outside in the freezing cold, and I wasn’t surveying–I was painting!” He also took on a teaching job at an art school in Greenwich to help make ends meet.
Finally he started getting freelance assignments with publishers–Harcourt Brace, Simon & Schuster, Houghton Mifflin, Random House, Holiday House, Cobblestone Books, as well as a children’s Bible publisher. “My specialty was children’s books,” he says, and he was at it full-time. “I did about 60 children’s books, and my specialty was historical subjects. They were mostly picture books.” The picture books were generally 32 pages in length, and Bill’s illustrations might include the cover, the book jacket if there was one, and as many as 28 pictures for the interior pages. Each book was almost a portfolio of his work in itself. And for many of these books, Bill did oil paintings as part of the process. “I’d also go out and do oil paintings for fun,” he says, “not as a means to an end.”
One of his big projects was for the American Girl series. “That was a two-year project,” he recalls. “I went out to Idaho and Oregon and took lots of photos and had them pinned all over my boards.” Typically, Bill would take the photos and use them as models for his painted illustrations. At about that time, in the 1990s, digital photography was coming into vogue. Illustrators were finding it easier to use digital photos rather than oils. In Bill’s words, “illustrating was heading south, and I didn’t want to trade my paintbrush for a pixel.” He was ready to move into plein air painting full time.
“Plein air painting started in the 1500s in Italy, where artists wanted to portray life where it was,” Bill says. “It is part of a process of collecting information from life, painting small field studies. I use the studies to do larger works, because they offer accurate color and values that a camera can’t.”
“Plein air is the most difficult form of painting,” he notes. “You can’t work from photographs. You have to work outside (hence the name), and you can’t control the lighting. Conditions change–time of day, rain, wind can all wreck your project, and you have to get your work done quickly.” When he got into plein air artistry, he entered regional and national competitions. The events typically have 25 to 50 artists from all parts of the world for a week to 10 days. When the competition is over, the plein air works are sold, and if one is lucky, there is also award money to be won.
There was plenty of action. “In any given month, there could be as many as 15 events going on,” he recalls. “As the years went by, my work became known, and I would get invited to several competitions in the course of a year.” He also taught at workshops and showed his artwork at sponsored events. He placed paintings with fine arts galleries on consignment. “I’d set the price, and if they sold a piece they’d keep 50 percent,” he says.
Bill reckons that he’s done over 1,000 book illustrations and more than 1,400 paintings in his 40-year career. That is prolific. And he can’t claim to have ever been a starving artist. “My profession allowed me to do what I wanted to do and to live a comfortable life,” he says. That life includes Debbie, their two daughters, Allison and Caitlin, and their four grandkids.
“Yes, like everyone else I was painting to make money,” he admits. “But for me, painting is a way to document your life. As a painter, you go outside, find a place, and sit down for a couple of hours. Pretty soon things begin to happen. You establish understanding and empathy for what you see. You try to put that into your painting, so that others may see what you have seen.”
It’s fortunate for us that through his numerous landscapes, seascapes and touching portraits, Bill Farnsworth has given us thousands of chances to see and feel what he has seen.
Dean Laux is exploring interesting folks living in our community. If you know of anyone with an interesting background please send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org. Include the person’s name, contact info and give a brief description of the person’s background.