Kyle Baker has been drawing people’s portraits since he was 17 years old. The first time he painted someone, “I did a drawing of a photo of a guy I pulled off of Photobucket,” he says. “I searched for ‘Bubba,’ then printed out the photo and painted it.” The painting was an assignment for art class, but it sparked a love for capturing people that has kept him drawing and painting ever since.
Working with oils, charcoal and graphite, Baker does his portraits from a combination of photos and life. As for his subjects, he says, “I try not to make them pose. But at the same time, you don’t just pull out a camera and point it at somebody.” It’s important to Baker to show his subjects respect and to have their permission for painting or drawing them.
The result is that Baker often portrays people he knows. For instance, his skateboard portrait is of a longtime friend and, in his drawing of the two people in the room, the man in the bed is his roommate.
The portrait of the girl on the couch he shared with the Pulse is of his fiancée (the two will be married in June). “Obviously I know her really well,” he laughs. But at the same time, when he’s painting from her photo, “I can go and look at her, see what her coloring really is, see that she needs more yellow,” he says. Painting people he’s seen often, in different settings and postures and kinds of light, allows him to more fully and accurately capture them.
Another of the paintings Baker shared is of a preacher he calls Johnny. “He sits right outside the library [on campus],” says Baker. “I walked by him every day for almost a year before striking up a conversation,” he says. “That’s part of the job, you know—getting to know people.”
His painting of Johnny is done from a photo, but before he put brush to canvas, Baker invited Johnny to his studio for several live portrait sessions.
“He did hour-and-a-half sittings with me for four weeks straight,” he explains. Baker did several small drawings and paintings of Johnny during that time. “You start to really get to know their features—like the triangle between his face and his beard, or the shape of his nose.” Only after he’d really gotten to know Johnny did he begin to paint his portrait, back in the setting where he’d first seen him: on the sidewalk outside of the library.
To improve his skills, Baker frequently draws from life, as he did with Johnny. He’ll draw with a pen only, or purposely do a sketch in only 20 minutes—and then try a three-hour sitting. He views this as practice for his full portraits from photos and an opportunity to improve his skill at capturing a person in full. It helps him to see the larger shapes and forms of the human body and to get them down on paper or canvas.
In addition to working on his art, Baker has been working part-time jobs at the campus library and a nearby restaurant.
“The art is full-time,” he says. “That’s how I like to think about it.”
Baker isn’t sure about his plans for the future: “It changes almost monthly,” he says. “But I love playing with it. I love what I’m doing right now.” Though he would love to make a living from his artwork, he says, “I don’t want to be forced to do it. I don’t ever want it to feel like a job.”
So for now, he’s learning, working hard, and learning his trade. And as for why he does it, he says simply, “I do it to facilitate happiness. It makes me happy, so I do it.”