For most artists summer is a great time for taking the paints out and sitting in the shade of a big old tree and painting the scene before them. Lots of old barns have been immortalized and lots of bugs have met their demise looking for pollen in the flowers that were brought to life on an artists canvas. For me, summertime means taking to the parks along the Fox River to sketch people who are slowing their lives down to enjoy nature. A delivery man sharing his sandwich with a squirrel under an oak tree inspires me to sketch and contemplate life. Sketching is more than just drawing a man laying in the green grass, eating an egg salad sandwich. Sketching is letting my imagination loose to create a story with my pencil lines and smudges. My stories may go no farther than my sketchbook or they may lead to a larger story told with colors on canvas.
For twenty years I’ve spent my summer mornings sitting in my car sketching people in the parks along the river. My car being the dome of protection from inquiring eyes and the questions every artist who paints outdoors has to answer. Adults pretty much keep their distance, children with inquiring minds are not intimidated by the serious look I try to maintain while sketching. So I only leave the dome of protection when a character so interesting drags me from my car in my need for more details.
I sometimes give lessons on sketching people in parks to artists who have never done it. One artist, a lady, felt uncomfortable sketching in the car. She could see other cars with couples in them doing what couples sometimes do – this park was known as a meeting place for lovers… She insisted we sit outside the car, in lawn chars, out of the dome of protection. I warned her that I had picked this park for the reason that a children’s day care center brought an array of kids of different ages there. I warned her we would not get much done once the kids saw us. She insisted, so we set up our chairs under the oak trees and began to sketch. The first kid was standing before us asking what we were doing within two minutes. In five minutes, there were five nine-year-old girls pleading to be drawn. Even one of the counselors was over asking questions about what we were doing. I ended up doing five portraits, giving each one to the subject. It was not as bad as I thought it would be. I hated giving away those drawings but those kids wanted them so bad. The lesson was over and we packed up and left, but that is not the end of the story…
A week later, there in the same park, no kids this time, just people on their lunch break. I’d completed my third sketch when a police officer comes over to my car and asks if my name is Hettinger. The idea a police officer who I’d never met before knew my name un-nerved me a bit. He asked if I’d drawn pictures of little girls the week before – now that really un-nerved me. He explained one of the girls was the daughter of a friend and the girl wanted to get a hold of me. So all he wanted was my phone number. Naturally I surrendered it.
A week later I get the call from Amy, one of the girls in the park who I’d drawn. She asked if I’d come to her house. My thought was her parents were interested in commissioning me to do her portrait in oil so I was eager to stop by, with the thought I was getting a commission. When I got to the house, there, parked across the street was the police officer who had found me for these people. We nodded to one another. Wondering why he was there I walked up to the front porch steps, thought again about him watching me, then went up and rang the doorbell. The door opened and there stood one of the girls from the park. She invited me in, leaving the door open behind me. The first thing I noticed was how bare the house was. Only an old sofa in the front room, no carpets anywhere in the house from what I could see. Only a dinning room table in the adjoining room. Right away I knew there was no one else at home. I glanced back at the police car and saw the officer watching. Turning back to the girl I saw she had two wallet size photos in her out stretched hand, both of a young man, one of which was him in a uniform.
“How much do you charge to do a painting of my brother?”
Oh crap, she wants me to do a portrait of her brother for a gift she wants to give someone… Before I could answer she began to tell me how he was a student at the Air Force Academy and had been killed by a drunk driver on his way home for a visit. She had me – I felt like a hooked fish being reeled in on her ten pound test line, no breaking loose from this. I had kind of had my mind played, and was set to do it for her, but from a better picture. I was still trying to throw the hook. Only her story wasn’t finished, she set the hook deeper telling me these were the only pictures left of her brother after her house burnt down while they were in Colorado bringing her brother home. By the end of the story I was ready to pay her to do the portrait. I had to get out of there before she had me begging her! The officer, still outside, asked if I was going to do the painting for her, and pretty much told me the same story she had inside.
I wasted no time in doing the portrait. I did not charge that little girl but her mother insisted they pay something. I accepted a tenth of what I would normally…