When she painted then Vice President George Bush, portrait artist Bronson Charles had a little trouble with the eyes. “His eyes were so translucent it was like you could see right through them,” she recalls, “I really liked him, and enjoyed painting his portrait, but I had trouble making him really come to life. It was just so hard to read his eyes.
“My husband remarked that those eyes made him a perfect CIA man — they gave away nothing.”
Charles’ portrait of Bush hangs in his Presidential library on the A&M University campus, and is just one of over 5,000 portraits she’s completed in her long career as a portrait artist. At just over 70 years old, the Lakewood resident is still painting as many portraits as she ever did. Her reputation as a premier portrait artist was launched in part by her work for Bush, but has been built on years of experience and a lifelong love of painting.
“My mother was an artist,” she explains, “and she saw early on that I had a natural ability. Then again, she was looking for it. I often wonder if I had been born into or adopted by a family less focused on art, would anyone have noticed my talent?”
Charles’ mother was a huge influence in her development as an artist. “I had received a scholarship to TCU, and my mother told me to major in something other than art,” explains Charles. “She felt that my natural ability was already so developed that I would do better to earn a degree in something I could teach. She told me to look at myself as an artist, see where my shortcomings were, and independently study with master artists in those areas.”
Charles feels it was the best advice anyone ever gave her. She earned a Bachelors Degree in Public School Music, and a Masters Degree from UTD in Humanities with a concentration in Art. She has since studied independently with numerous artists across the country.
Charles began her career as a fashion illustrator, working for a large advertising firm in Dallas. Soon after, her friend Jim Coker let her know about a real estate project he and Trammel Crow were developing. It was to be a retail artist’s space called Olla Podrida. He offered to build a studio for Charles, but she was hesitant. “My husband had passed away,” says Charles, “and suddenly I was a single parent of four children. I wasn’t convinced I would be able to support everyone as a portrait artist.”
As a test run, Coker let Charles paint in an open space in the mall on Saturdays. “Pretty soon I was making as much on Saturdays as I was all week at the advertising agency,” she says. “I decided to open the studio at Olla Podrida.”
Charles recalls the time spent in Olla Podrida’s artistic community with happy nostalgia. “I was doing the quick sketches, charging almost nothing really,” she says, “but it was a very enjoyable time during which I built a good reputation. There was such wonderful natural light for painting, and such a pleasant community of potters, silversmiths, and artists of all kinds.”
Requests for more traditional oil paintings grew as Charles’ reputation spread throughout Texas. She began painting the portraits for children in affluent families, including the Hunt’s. “All the children had their portrait done when they turned five,” says Charles, “and I really felt as if I got to know the family over the years.”
The demand for her work has never waned in the time since. Charles currently operates on a waiting list, taking approximately one month to complete a picture. She works primarily from photographs, which she prefers to take herself in order to assure the correct lighting, mood and poses. Often, she will visit the area where the portrait will hang in order to get an idea of the colors and lighting that will surround the portrait.
“I work off the photograph,” she says, “but I like to have the subjects come in for a sitting to give the portrait its final touch. I want to make sure there’s nothing missing in the photograph that could really make the portrait come to life.”
Her prices are admittedly significant, with portraits beginning around $3500. “You don’t buy a portrait with the grocery money,” Charles laughs, “but I paint people from every background, not just the wealthy.”
Not long ago a prospective client asked if she ever painted “ordinary people.” Charles replied, “They’re all ordinary people.”
More information on Bronson Charles can be found at her website: www.bronsoncharles.com.
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