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Strokes of genius.

The townhouse of Thomas and Ami Blackshear, located on a shady cul-de-sac in picturesque Novato, Calif., resembles a mini gallery with two artists in residence. Signed works by Thomas and Ami line the walls; glass cabinets display Thomas' award-winning collector plates; a spot of honor is given to Wiffle Poo, the tiny clown that Thomas sculpted for Ami and later used to launch his Innocent Wonders figurines for Hallmark; and a brass easel holds Forgiven, the painting that has been reproduced as part of the best-selling DaySpring fine art series, The Master's Collection.

Appropriately, the Blackshears' round, glass coffee table contains the face of a working clock. It is a constant reminder of time, a commodity in short supply for the in-demand couple. "Somebody called me the other day and asked, 'How can I become a professional illustrator and do the kind of work you do?'" recalls Thomas. To convince the aspiring artist that success has its dark side, Blackshear ticked off a list of current projects, complete with pressing deadlines. He laughs at the caller's response: "He kept saying, 'Wow! Wow! I guess I don't want a life like that!"' Since his graduation from the American Academy of Art in Chicago, Blackshear has built an enviable client list that includes Disney Pictures, Coca-Cola, Jim Henson Studios, National Geographic, George Lucas Studios, and Milton Bradley. To accommodate their needs, Blackshear puts in long days, or, in his case, long nights. "I picked up the habit of working nights from Mark English," he explains of his 6 p.m. to post-midnight hours. "He's one of the top illustrators in the country, and I had the good fortune to be his apprentice for a couple of years. He worked at night, so I worked at night."

As demanding as his schedule is, only once has Blackshear worried that he might not deliver a project on time. Two major assignments--the clown series for Hallmark and a commemorative book for the U.S. Postal Service-had him juggling simultaneous deadlines. The Post Office project required him to create 28 portraits of famous black Americans in 12 months.

"I'll never put myself through that again," he says emphatically. "I wanted my portraits to be different from the average paintings done of these individuals. I wanted something new and exciting, and that took a lot of time. It was the first job I thought for sure I would fail at." Instead, it became one of his greatest successes and led to a Blackshear exhibit at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. It also may have contributed to his need to pause, catch his breath, and rethink his career goals.

Although he still considers himself an illustrator, he currently is on hiatus and is exploring the world of fine art. He enjoyed the open-ended assignment that led to his limited edition print, Forgiven, and wants to do more. Officials at DaySpring Greeting Cards simply invited him to "get before the Lord and paint what God is telling you to paint." He thought about the possibilities for three weeks, then, during a Wednesday evening church service, saw an image flash across his mind. "That was it," he says. "That was the painting I was hoping for."

He claims he's been seeking his artistic niche for the past four years. Success has been ample, but satisfaction has been elusive. Still in his 30s, he says it's too early to decide how he wants to be remembered as an artist; he only knows, "I want to do beautiful paintings." He points to the enduring works of his heroes Norman Rockwell, N.C. Wyeth, J.C. Leyendecker, and other standouts from the golden age of illustration.

"They had a timeless quality," he explains. "All of them were commercial artists--illustrators-but their work is represented today as fine art. Why? Because it is so appealing; it bridges the gap between fine art and commercial art. I want my work to do that. I want my work to have that same quality, so no matter what the time frame--10 or 20 years from now--somebody will look at it and say, 'That's so beautiful, I'd like to buy a print of that and hang it in my home.' That's the kind of painting I want to do."
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Title Annotation:illustrator Thomas Blackshear
Author:Gage, Joy P.
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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