The first time I chat with painter David Darrow on the telephone, I ask him how I might pose. I tell him that I like the highly individual stagings of Annie Leibovitz's photographs. Darrow tells me that mine will only be a 16´´x20´´ painting from the chest up, so we won't have to worry too much about my pose. And as for how I should appear — sidelong glance, coy grin, gazing into the distance, serious and stylish — he'll probably be able to figure that out just by meeting me for a cup of coffee. I've already seen Darrow's paintings online, and I can tell that he's good with paint. His representations are realistic, and he handles light and color elegantly. But I can also tell from his online blog that he's witty and good with words. One of Darrow's blog entries that involves painting in the rain begins, "Weather or not... That is not a typo, it's a pun." Darrow, 50, is solidly built and stands an even 6 feet tall. He sports a goatee ("the facial hair of the fat man," he calls it), and his hair spills halfway down the sides of his round head in elaborate wisps. When he shows up at Starbucks for that coffee, Darrow is wearing the same outfit in which I'll see him again and again over the course of the next week: old jeans, a black Hawaiian shirt, and a wide-brimmed hat. As he'll tell me later, this is his painting outfit. I start our first conversation by asking Darrow a pointed question, a test of sorts. In this day and age of cameras and computers, why would anyone want to get a portrait painted? "I guess it's for the same reason that people don't just listen to CDs," Darrow answers thoughtfully. "They still go to concerts. They still want something that can only be done one time and can never be duplicated." A few days later, Darrow will refine his answer and tell me that the reason to have an artist paint you is because you like the work of that particular artist. I like this answer better. I've always wondered how Picasso might have seen me. Or Paul Klee. But Darrow's expertise isn't abstract stylizations like Picasso's or Klee's. Darrow's specialty is dead-on painterly representations. "I've painted hundreds of heads," Darrow says. "Maybe thousands. I've never really thought about how many." Darrow, who lives and paints in Oceanside, used to make a living drawing preliminary art for Hollywood movie posters. "I made better money back then," he jokes, perfectly seriously. "But now I still haven't figured out what my day job is. I paint, I do video editing, photography, webpage design, graphic design... Oh, and I do rock balancing. I get paid for that. It's not lucrative, but..." Rock balancing?
Darrow laughs. "Yes," he says, drolly. "Believe it or not. I balance rocks one on top of the other, and it looks very strange to someone who's never seen it before, because they are actually balanced. I can make a tower of little eight-inch boulders that's four or five feet high."
Why? Why would Darrow do that?
"I got into it as a hobby and a thing to do at the beach," he says.
And why would anyone pay to see rocks balanced?
"Because it's odd," he says. "It's a freak show. I occasionally get hired to do demonstrations for conventions and stuff like that."
Turns out you can see Darrow's rock-balancing feats online -- www.rockbalancer.com -- and they do look interesting.
So I infer that Darrow must have very steady hands.
"Yes," he says with sly intelligence. "Before I have coffee, yes."
Darrow tells me he went to art school at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. "I wanted to be an illustrator," he says. "And I did that for about 16 years, before the illustration market dried up for me."
He has an exacting sense of his tastes and a light sense of humor, no matter how serious the subject. "I don't like to paint landscapes," Darrow says. "I'd rather be broke, and so far, that's working out great." He laughs. "I've reached that goal. A broke artist! But it would make my day dreary to paint landscapes. It's more interesting to me to paint a head."
All three of Darrow's children are also artistic. His oldest son, Drew, 24, is a graphically oriented artist who works in "shapes, colors, and textures, on found materials." His second son, Greyson, 20, is a sculptor, drawer, and painter whose work won Best in Show at the San Diego County Fair when he was in high school. And his daughter, Danielle, who is 15, has "fantastic natural ability," although Darrow doesn't know whether she wants to be a painter. "They've got the genetics for art," Darrow says. "I believe in that. Artistic talent, for the most part, is genetic. You either get it or you don't. Although I could teach anyone to paint better. I don't know if I could turn a nonartist into an artist, but I could definitely teach them to paint better."
Darrow has taught art at the college level in the past, and he's currently trying to organize his own workshop. "I need to find a space for a workshop," he says. "I know how to paint, and I know how to teach others how to paint. I know how to do that because I had to learn it all myself, little by little. It didn't just come to me naturally."
Darrow tells me that it will take two or three sittings to paint my portrait. I'll have to stay still (and be more or less quiet) for four or five hours each day. "Most people don't have the time to pose for their portraits," he says. "So I usually paint from photographs."
It's not really the same, is it, painting from photographs?
"Some people think that painting from photographs is cheating," Darrow answers. "But I don't. Back when I did illustration, everything was from photographs. I didn't have time to be a purist about anything. But the bottom line is, I can paint. I can draw. I know what to do with the color and values in shadows to make the painting look like it was painted from life. But it's a lot easier to paint from photographs. Instead of my having to translate from three dimensions into two, it's already translated into 2-D."