Brad Blackman, fine artist, talking about how he got started as an artist

Behind the Scenes: How I Got Started As An Artist

Being an artist is like breathing to me. I can’t imagine not making art. I never had a lightning bolt moment where I realized I was an artist. There was no sign from heaven or anything like that.

It’s something that has always been a part of my life by default. But I wasn’t born with a sketchpad in hand. Being an artist is something that has taken me years — decades, even — to realize.

Starting the Gold Swoop Painting

The Beginning

See, I was born early. I was a premie and got sick a day or two after I was born. The medicine they used to treat my infection saved my life — for that I am thankful. But it did extensive damage to my auditory and olfactory nerves. I have 80-90% hearing loss. I can’t smell very well, either. (I’m always asking my wife if my shirts smell okay enough to get one more wear out of them before washing!)

Since my hearing was damaged, my visual sense makes up for it. I learned how to draw to accommodate my hearing loss. This isn’t unusual for other deaf people. Many other deaf people I know are more finely attuned to visuals than the rest of the population. Since I couldn’t hear or speak well, I expressed myself visually. It wasn’t until I was two-years-old or so that my grandfather on my dad’s side — Papa Stan — figured out that I wasn’t hearing. So we had my hearing tested at Bill Wilkerson in Nashville. We lived in Kentucky at the time so it was a little bit of a drive.

I remember the waiting room at Bill Wilkerson. It had couches and chairs and those childrens’ toys with the wooden shapes on the wire that you push back and forth. When we went to have me fitted for hearing aids, we sat in the waiting room for some time, and someone gave me a sheet of paper and some drawing utensil. So I drew the toy fish in front of me. Of course, I don’t remember any of this. But apparently I drew such a remarkable expression on the fish that my family took notice. From then on, my drawing was encouraged.

Drawing Was My Life

My parents encouraged me to explore whatever I wanted. I did all sorts of things, from swim lessons to art lessons (which actually bored me) to Cub Scouts to running track and cross-country. I even took piano lessons. But the thing that was most consistent was I was always drawing. I drew constantly the first 18 or so years of my life. 

In elementary school, I dreamed of becoming an animator for Disney. I was fascinated with the artists at Disney-MGM Studios in Orlando. I thought it was cool that they studied real bears for Brother Bear. Even if the character they were drawing was a talking animal, they would make the same expression in the mirror and draw themselves as that animal. I was particularly fascinated with matching mouth shapes to sounds. I would film myself with the family VHS deck so I could study the shapes my mouth made and practice drawing them.

In middle school, I discovered comics via Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I found a graphic novel adaptation of the 1990 movie, and it was drawn in the same style as the original comic books from 1984, not the rounded cartoony style used in the animated TV show. From there I got into other comic books such as Spider-Man and Wolverine and Batman. I got really good at drawing superheroes and drew a few issues of my own comic book, which featured my two best friends and me. We were time travelers who transformed from skinny kids into muscle-bound heroes. I had a lot of fun drawing comics and it was my dream to work for Marvel Comics or Image Comics.

In high school, my aspirations grew a little more practical. I was on the yearbook staff, and learned how to lay out pages and spec type. I actually did layouts on grid paper and cropped photos with a wax pencil. Midway through the first year, we got a computer with Aldus PageMaker on it, and I learned how to do layouts that would have been impossible to specify on the grid paper. I learned this was called graphic art. Hey, I could do this for a living. And in the real world, it wasn’t called graphic art anymore. It’s graphic design. So when it came time for college, I majored in graphic design and got a BFA.

A flat brush will apply a long, smooth line.

Then I Fell in Love

In the Fall of my sophomore year of college, I took Painting I as it was required for my major. I was in love.

It was magic to feel the paint run across the canvas under the brush. To feel the give and take between me and the canvas. The buttery feel of oil paint between the thumb and forefinger. To do more than just draw something, to create a world with color and brushstrokes. It got even better once I took color theory!

I fell in love with painting and I never looked back. It still took a while for me to realize this was what I was supposed to do.

One More Story from the Family Lore…

My grandfather on my mom’s side — “Granddaddy”  — dabbled in art and loved painting in watercolor. He would bring me along to his watercolor classes at the Centennial Arts Center in Centennial Park (check out the Parthenon if you are ever in Nashville). When I was about 8 or 9 years old, I was at one of these classes with him. I was working away on whatever it was I was doing in watercolors, and the instructor, Hazel King, came by and looked at what I was doing and said, “Well Brad, you’re going to be an artist someday!”

I looked up at her and said, “I am an artist!”

Of course it might have sounded rude or disrespectful but everyone laughed and my family told that story for years. Looking back, I realized: I already was an artist. Nobody had to tell me. I knew. I wasn’t trying to be an artist. It was just what I did. You don’t have to tell a child he/she is an artist. The kid already knows. The kid just is an artist without even trying to be. I was right all along. It just took me 25-30 years to realize this.

Brad Blackman "McGavock" 2003. Oil on canvas, 40 x 20 inches

I Am An Artist

That’s why I never “got started” as an artist. Being an artist has always been a part of me. But that doesn’t mean I don’t make an effort at it. Believe me, it’s easier to just binge something on Netflix than make a new painting. Being an artist is a daily commitment. I have to listen to that call that is within me. To not listen to it is to avoid that which I was put on earth to do.

Another thing I’ve realized is that an artist is never truly “there.” You’ve never “arrived.” You’re always striving toward something. Maybe it’s a way of using color, or a texture, or a composition, or a poetic form, or a new instrument or some other thing. Again, it’s a daily commitment to the craft, a lifestyle of making art.

So how about you?

What is it you’re called to do? What were you put on this earth to do? I believe we are all here for a reason.

Sometimes we just have to dig for that reason, and we realize we had it all along.