Walking through Chris and Linda Hartsfield’s spacious home on the Timbercreek Golf Course, one notices much of Chris’ photography, and a few giclée reproductions of the watercolors essential to the couple’s success on the outdoor art show circuit. “We treat this as an enterprise, ” Chris says. “She runs the business end. I create the artwork.”
Chris always wanted to be an artist. While his parents, Virgil and Judy, usually gave his three brothers sports gear for Christmas, they bought him art supplies. He was drawn to the realism genre early in life. “My mom is an artist. Back then she was doing studio photography, as well as painting representational country, Americana scenes.”
Still, his journey from a kid who likes to draw to a professional artist was long and circuitous. “I got married way too young — in high school — had kids right off the bat. I was going to school and then working the second shift in a factory, making 155-millimeter shells for the Vietnam War. I didn’t get the chance to go to art school, ” he says.
By age 22, Chris had settled into an advertising job at the local weekly newspaper. He honed his sales skills, progressing from small weeklies to big dailies, eventually landing at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A management position followed, but he still wasn’t satisfied.
An Artistic Endeavor
Fall Creek Too
When his parents started working outdoor art festivals, he’d call home, and be told of their travels to shows in places like Eufaula or Enterprise, Ala. “In those days, and this was at least 40 years ago, artists were just learning that they could sell their work on the street, ” Chris recalls. “So I started thinking that I’d like to paint for a living.”
He left corporate America in 1988, trading suits and ties for an aging Volkswagen van and simple A-frame display boards. “I sort of hung onto my parents’ coattails. I was too broke even to pay the $40 or $50 space fees to do a show, ” he says. “I think we paid about $700 for our double space at the Fairhope Arts and Crafts Festival this year.”
Things were much improved by ‘98, when he met Linda. He still lived in Atlanta. She owned a travel agency in Montgomery. “We started dating, fell in love, and got married. We bought a house in Montgomery, then 9/11 happened and her business tanked, ” he explains. “With the travel industry changing dramatically, she started helping my business, handling the mailing lists and the framing. We’ve been around each other almost 24/7 ever since.”
Their joint careers hit an unexpected, giant proverbial bump in the road with Hurricane Katrina.
“To be close to Linda’s parents, we left Montgomery and bought a lot behind their house in Pass Christian, Miss. While building our house, we lived for a year in a studio apartment in a little storefront in Waveland, Miss. It was one of the more fun places that I’ve ever lived in my life, ” Chris says.
They’d been in their new house for about a year when the hurricane struck. They were doing a show in North Carolina, and had all of the artwork there, but the house “got completely annihilated, ” Chris says. “The waterline was at 12 feet. We
Finding His Niche
Chris does about 24 paintings a year, generally working in half-hour spurts interspersed with similar chunks of time allocated to printing reproductions or loading the truck, or any of the other myriad tasks essential to doing shows.
“After 25 years in this business without ever having to have another job, I can tell when the economy seems to be turning — like what is happening now. We sold two originals at the Orange Beach Festival in March; we’ve sold six in a month. Three or four years ago, we didn’t sell six the whole year, ” he says. “We did earn revenue from giclée reproductions, because they’re so affordable.”
The Hartsfields travel to art shows in a large walk-in box truck. “There are maybe 10 originals in there, but that truck is full, with maybe 600 items. Everything I paint goes to print. Our catalogue now includes around 150 images, and we typically carry three sizes of each” he explains.
Not all print editions sell the same. So how does he decide what to paint? And how does he achieve such fine detail with watercolors?
“I’m an opaque watercolorist. White gouache is in my pallete at all times — permanent white gouache, along with transparent watercolors. That opaque style of watercolor allows me to paint similarly to the way an acrylic painter would paint, ” he says.
Photography adorns Chris’s walls largely because he has no paintings to hang. He sells them. He spends equal time behind the camera and at the drawing table where he paints.
“I have this huge separate body of work, probably 200 or 300 images. Occasionally, I sell them, ” he says. Then indicating a scene from Italy he shot two years ago adds, “I think I’m getting ready to paint this piece.
“When I first started I had a budget to meet; I was focused on making a living. That kind of set the precedent for me. In my business now, I’m inventory-driven. I paint landscapes when we need them, nautical themes, street scenes, and this new niche wine and liquor still lifes.
“I was in the Highland Tap in Atlanta one night in 1992. My camera was on the counter, and I shot this typical bar scene of bourbon, scotch and vodka bottles. I created a painting from it. The prints quickly sold out. The light went on. I thought, maybe I could reach that male audience that I’d never had before. I started painting bar scenes with high-end rum, scotch or tequila. That opened up a whole new body of work for me.”
To begin one of his bar scenes, Chris arranges bottles on a glassed-in porch with good ambient light. “I get the light like I think it should be, shoot some digital photos, and then transfer them to the Mac. I select one and do my editing in Photoshop. When it’s edited and I like the composition, I decide what size the painting will be: 12-by-20 inches, 18-by-36 inches, whatever. I set the size with my reference photo, by proportionally reducing the edited photo down to about 4-by-6 inches. I print it, load it into my projector and turn out the overhead lights. I project the image down, directly onto watercolor paper and do the pencil drawing. After I get a pencil drawing for my reference image, I do the painting the old fashioned way — brush and paint and then to
text and photos by Adrian Hoff