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 it’s just one of more than 5,000 portraits she has completed in her long career as a portrait artist.
At 70, the neighborhood 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 it also has been built on years of experience and a lifelong love of painting.
“My mother was an artist,” she says, “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 says her 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,” Charles says. “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 says it was the best advice anyone ever gave her. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Public School Music, and a master’s degree from UTD in Humanities with a concentration in art. She has since studied independently with numerous artists throughout the country.
Charles began her career as a fashion illustrator, working for a large advertising firm in Dallas. Later, friend Jim Coker told her about a real estate project he and Trammell Crow were developing – a retail artist’s space called Olla Podrida (formerly located at Coit Road and LBJ Freeway). He offered to build a studio for Charles, but she was hesitant.
“My husband had passed away,” Charles says, “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.
“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 children’s portraits for affluent families, including the Hunt’s.
“All the children had their portrait done when they turned five,” Charles says, “and I really felt as if I got to know the family over the years.”
Even today, Charles says she maintains a waiting list, taking approximately one month to complete each picture. She works primarily from photographs and often visits the area where the portrait will hang to get an idea of the colors and lighting that will surround it.
“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 portraits start at about $3,500, she says.
“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.”
“They’re all ordinary people,” she said.
More information about Bronson Charles can be found at her website: www.bronson-charles.com.