Friday, February 23, 2018

Bill Farnsworth, Painter, Tells His Story


Upon graduating from Ringling School of Art and Design in 1980 I headed back home to New Milford, Connecticut, expecting to get Illustration work right away in New York. Block after block I carried a huge portfolio of original art, heading to book publishers, magazines, to hopefully get representation from one of the big art representatives.


That didn’t happen right away, in fact, it took me 10 years to go full time as an illustrator. I often said, “smarter people would have found something better to do”, but this was my course whether predestined or stubborn. 

In 1982 I met the love of my life and married Deborah Marie Jajer in 1984. In the fall of '87 our first daughter, Allison was 10 months old and Deb was expecting our second daughter, Caitlin, so I decided to go full time as an Illustrator after years of working full time surveying for my father. I did odd Illustration jobs at night and weekends. We lived above my in-laws, so we had built in baby sitters, plus rent control.


It was a calculated risk, because I had one big job to illustrate a brochure for these new town houses in New Milford, Connecticut, where we lived. My first meeting with the developer and ad agency was a disaster. My sketches were awful. I left there thinking my one chance to go full time and I just blew it. They gave me two weeks to get new sketches and bring them to the agency in New Haven. I used my mother-in-law’s knitting room as a studio and decided to go right to finishes, because this was my last chance.

Against the Tide

Two weeks later, I drove my MG down to New Haven with 4 rolled up loose canvases and walked into the agency to a group of nervous looking art directors and designers. Like rolling the dice, I rolled out the canvases and they loved them! Driving back home was one of the happiest moments of my life. It meant I could go full time as a real illustrator, as least for a few months.

Craft and Light

My dad gave me a storage space at his surveying business for my studio. Now the building he rented was a former Funeral Home. My first studio was an embalming room! It didn’t creep me out because I was painting full time.

I knocked around doing all sorts of Illustrations after the town house brochure. I did a magazine cover of a giant screw floating through space for $200. 

It was my introduction into Children’s Books that put me on an 18-year career in publishing. I loved illustrating “the story”. I had to paint everything under the sun. Where I honed my craft was during my two-year project illustrating the six books for American Girls, “Kaya”. 

After that project I got a lot more jobs illustrating not only Native Americans, but historic subject matter from Lewis and Clark to the Holocaust. At first, I didn’t know how I was going to illustrate one of mankind’s worst moments. I decided I was going to be brutally honest, yet with a window of hope. In these dark times heroes like Irena Sendler and Simon Wiesenthal showed their true light.


Illustrating the story was great fun and educational too. In high school I thought Lewis and Clark were just two guys on a hike! I had the great privilege to work with some wonderful authors and try to tell their story without words. If the kids could figure out what’s going on in the painting, I felt I did my job.

Buffalo Soldier

Around 2016 my non-fiction books were being produced cheaper with stock photos and art. It kind of sterilized history for kids. I knew years before that Illustration was going away, which is why I started cultivating the Fine Art gallery scene.

In my Illustration career I knew I was going to get paid but with galleries you produce a painting in the hopes you might get paid. Finally, the right collector walks into the gallery and pays a lot of money to live with your painting. No greater compliment to an artist. 

I would supplement my income with teaching workshops and attending plein air paint outs. Paint outs invite 20-50 artists from all over the country to document the community’s area. These events have popped up all over the United States by a 15-year Plein Air movement, supported by the baby boomers and Plein Air Magazine. There is even a Plein Air Convention.

Silver Run Summer

Going outside and setting up my easel has helped me improve my painting a great deal. You must learn to choose, edit and capture the essence of a scene. A couple bought my plein air study and asked me to write down my inspiration for painting the scene. What started out as a paragraph turned into a full page. I remembered a great deal from that 2-hour time. 

In East Point, Florida, I was painting an oyster boat along the edge of Rt. 98. This disheveled guy came up to watch me paint and he told me he built the boat I was painting. He fished, built boats, and houses his whole life. He worked his butt off to pay for his sons chemo in Tallahassee. I thought sometimes painting outside is not so much about painting, but the experience.

Yonder Comes Willy Boy

So today I paint what moves me and have been in direct contact with. I start the story and the viewer can finish it.

This is Week 7 of Artists Tell Their Stories. Thank you for reading and sharing Bill’s story today. To connect with Bill and see more of his work, please visit the following links:

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