@story TONYA MCCOY
@image LAURA WATTLES
She sketches the eyes first and works outward. This is how Fort Smith artist, Laura Wattles, creates her close-up portraits. The fact that she uses simple graphite pencils to draw these amazingly detailed pictures boggles the mind. It’s also what’s garnered the attention of Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, NBC Weatherman Al Roker, and Oprah Winfrey. Yep, you read that right!
“To me, if I can’t get the eyes right, I have to start all over,” Laura says. She’s a perfectionist who’s been drawing since she was a child. She started using watercolors three years ago, and she’s just as particular about her paintings. “I’m known for getting a drawing or painting into a frame and then pulling it out two weeks later and working on it some more. Because I’ll start seeing things that bother me, and I’ll think, not good enough. I may rework it to nothing. I may rework it and throw it away.”
Laura earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Graphic and Image Production from Missouri State University. She moved to the area in the nineties, working for UA-Fort Smith, Beverly Enterprises, and Donrey Media Group. But all the while, she was drawing portraits in her downtime.
She combined her dedication to detail with her love for eighties rock in 1993, and caught the attention of the band Aerosmith. She was a member of the Aerosmith fan club and put her talent into drawing portraits of Steven Tyler. Her drawings were so good, that when she sent them to the band, they sent her backstage passes to a concert in Oklahoma.
“I’ve been backstage, and Steven Tyler owns one of my drawings now. And they’ve all signed this,” Laura says as she points to a poster-sized drawing of the whole band.
After the show in Oklahoma, she got her photo taken with Tyler, a thrill of a lifetime. A member of his crew said if she drew a picture of the whole band, they’d give her backstage passes to their next show in St. Louis. Laura went to work immediately. In just two weeks, she drew a perfect portrait of Aerosmith.
Generally Laura can do a drawing in a couple of weeks or months, but one of Laura’s favorite drawings took her several years to get ‘just right.’ The Poser is a drawing of a man dressed in 1920s era clothing- a white shirt and tie - with his hand splayed across his chest, as he squints down through an old-time monocle. The effect is striking. Laura says it took her ten years of “off and on” work to get this picture right. And she’s not sure she’s ready to part with him yet.
Laura admits she’s choosey about the subjects she draws as well. She shops antique stores searching for eye-catching old photos to use as the focus of her drawings. Her work tells a story of simpler times.
Laura uses the simplest of tools. Her pencil of choice is a standard 5mm lead pencil. The same kind of pencil used by schoolchildren. But she works her magic, meticulously sketching in minute details. On the drawing The Window, Laura spent forty-five minutes adding texture to just one inch of the checked shirt of her subject, a young boy in overalls. Locals recognize Laura’s talent, and the portrait has already sold to the Sheriff’s Youth Ranch in Alma.
Laura has been carrying a sketchbook around since she was a child. Laura, now forty-five, admits she sketches less now, but still keeps it with her. Drawing is something she’s always enjoyed.
“When I’m in the zone, when I’m really focused, it’s a great feeling. It’s like everything else goes away except for drawing and painting, and I like that feeling. I don’t know, I just like to create. I’ve always liked to do things like that.”
At one time Laura owned her own business designing paper dolls called Paper Kids. She made a replica paper doll from a photo of a two-year-old Oprah Winfrey and sent it to her “O” magazine. The magazine loved it, and featured it in the May 2003 issue. Laura says even Al Roker, NBC Weatherman, ordered a custom paper doll from Laura, who used an image of one of Al’s daughters for the design.
Laura continues to evolve, working on nostalgic portraits that make her so happy. Whether they turn a profit doesn’t influence her in the least. She shrugs and says, “I’m choosing to do what I like and hope it will sell. And if it doesn’t, it’s okay, it can hang on my walls.” To see more of Laura’s work, visit PK-Art.Posterous.com.