Sports Artist for the Baseball Hall of Fame and the Philadelphia Phillies
I first noticed Dick Perez’s art at his exhibit at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia in 2004. Art at Home Plate – Philadelphia Baseball Legends on Canvas included 32 paintings commissioned by the Philadelphia Phillies for Citizens Bank Park. One of the pleasures was seeing the exhibit with my father who never got to see any professional games as a child but took me to many while I was growing up. I was pleased Dick let me use some of his wonderful Phillies drawings for my own book, Philadelphia Originals.
Born in 1940 in Puerto Rico, Dick Perez aspired to become a professional baseball player. He realized by age 16 that his talents lay in another passion – drawing. After relocating to Philadelphia from New York in 1958, he attended the Philadelphia College of Art, where he studied European landscape romanticism, classical realism, and expressionism – the same styles American artists had used to portray baseball players on tobacco cards and magazine covers at the turn of the 20th century. Perez’s baseball art reflects the influences of such masters as John Singer Sargent, Anders Zorn, Joaquin Sorolla, and Diego Velazquez. It provides an enduring record of ballplayers’ physical features and demeanors, as well as their professional achievements.
While other baseball artists tend to offer aesthetic renditions of players grounded in historical photographs, Perez’s work is wholly original in terms of context and pose. His portrayals also show the evolution of the game through its changing uniform styles, equipment, and ballparks.
Perez was the official artist for the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame for over 20 years, starting in 1980, and is the offical artist for the Philadelphia Phillies (since 1972). Between 1982 and 1996, Perez partnered with the Donruss Trading Card Co. to produce an annual series of paintings of premier players, known as the “Diamond Kings.” He currently paints for Topps cards (since 2006). His art has been exhibited at numerous venues.
Mr. Perez’s work is the recipient of numerous awards and is owned by major corporations, Nancy Reagan and Bill Clinton, among many others. He was also commissioned to paint Robert C. Nix, a former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice, for the Pennsylvania Bar Association. His works also include other sports and nonsports paintings.
Biographical notes (in quotes) – courtesy of William Kashatus – writer, historian and the author of the text for The Immortals and Sports Market Report.
This book is a soft leather-bound book, 12 ½ by 12 ½, 560 pages. It includes 1400 paintings, 402 of which are brand-new. All 292 Hall of Famers are included, including players from the Negro League and non-players. The Immortals shows players from the 19th century through the 21st. Also included is the entire 15 year collection of the Donruss Diamond King baseball cards. The book is a beautifully self-published retrospective of Dick Perez’s baseball art.
WRR: You grew up in the mecca of baseball – New York in the 50s where there were three teams – the Yankees, the Dodgers and the Giants. You then moved to Philadelphia which had a history of the Athletics and also the Phillies. Which teams/players did you follow when you were growing up? Did you have a chance to see any of these teams play?
PEREZ: Because of family economic conditions and a lack of interest in baseball among most of the adults, I did not get to see many live games. On a few occasions, an empathetic uncle would take me to Yankee Stadium, once to Ebbets Field. Growing up amid the tenements of Harlem made those visit to those ballparks magical. I had never seen so much unspoiled grass in so large an area. I became a Yankee fan, mainly because of the influence of a best friend. And, if you were a Yankee fan in the 50s, your favorite ballplayer had to be Mickey Mantle. My primary visual connection to baseball games was the television sets owned by kind tenement neighbors, and eventually our own TV set, when my family could afford one. By the time my family moved to Philadelphia the Athletics had moved to Kansas City, and I became a Phillies fan.
WRR: In the introduction to The Immortals you discuss a number of early baseball artists. Two notable Philadelphians seemed to address two characteristics in your paintings. Thomas Eakins’ “Baseball Players Practicing.” 1875, one of the earliest known baseball paintings, focused on the realism phase. Eakins was known for getting the perspective and the history right. Norman Rockwell (whose baseball paintings include “Game Called by Rain” – which is in the Baseball Hall of Fame) focused on getting the sentiment/the emotions of the participants right. Can you describe how Eakins’ realism and Rockwell’s sentiments impact your artwork?
PEREZ: Though I have great admiration for Rockwell’s ability as an outstanding painter, and I enjoy viewing his work, I shy away from the whimsical approach he employs in most of his narratives. I am more inspired by the technical dexterity that Eakins applies to head and figure, and the bravura of John Singer Sargent’s brushwork. While I might take liberties with color and the way I apply it, I am earnest in my treatment of the figures, the movement of baseball, and the facial likenesses of its players.
WRR: Can you comment on how paintings/your paintings differ from photography?
PEREZ: For the most part the expressiveness of a photographic artist is in the choice of subject matter, lighting, and composition, but there is not a lot that a photographer can do to change or manipulate the subject matter that is in front of the camera lens. That same subject passing through the eyes, the mind, soul, and the hand of a visual artist is prone to a more profound interpretation. In that sense it is as the great French painter Edgar Degas says, “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” Texture, color, design and composition are the icing on the cake, and I may exaggerate their use in order that viewers know that what is being observed is a painting, not a photograph.
WRR: The layout of The Immortals is by baseball era – Origins, Dead Ball, Golden Age, Depression, Post & Post War Years, Expansion and the Modern Eras. Which era is your favorite?
PEREZ: My favorite period of western history is the early 20th century. It is when art, music, industry, and global political conditions were reshaped. To me it was the birth-time of modern art and music. The great migration to America swelled both the urban and rural areas of the country. Baseball attracted fans in great numbers, and team rosters were composed of unique individuals, sons of immigrants, and the poor, rural and urban characters that dreamed of riches playing a game. The Deadball Era, as it was called, meant low scores, and more strategy. Running, and pitching mattered more than power hitting. I love the baggy uniforms, the action, and craggy faces of the ballplayers from that epoch.
WRR: The history of the black experience in baseball was based on segregation. I like how every chapter of The Immortals is organized alphabetically which has the effect of integrating the races throughout each chapter. It also integrates the managers with the regular players. Was that a conscious choice? Since the history of the early black experience and non-players is more limited can you indicate how you did your research on the early black players and early non-players?
PEREZ: The conscious effort was to treat all Hall of Fame members equally. Regardless of career numbers or achievements, let alone race. While some Hall of Famers are better than others, it is still quite an achievement to be among the elite few who are recognized as baseball’s best. The gallery of plaques that feature every member are all the same size and does not make a distinction, and I used that as my guide. To me they are all immortal. A player’s Hall of Fame worthiness is just the subject for a conversation or debate among fans and writers.
The research for players who played in the Negro Leagues was more challenging than the research for players who were in the mainstream of Major League baseball. Fortunately, Negro League uniforms still exist, and there are companies who reproduce authenticated caps and jerseys for collectors and fans of the Negro Leagues. There is also a Negro League Baseball museum that contains a wealth of visual information. The one aspect that was the most challenging was the lack of good photo reference material. Most of what exists are headshots and team pictures, so I had to make up many of the action scenes.
WRR: Each of your player profiles in The Immortals includes three core history items. The lifetime statistics of each player are the keys that have bound one era to another. There’s a prose history, written by historian William Kashatus, of the players accomplishments. And most notably, there’s your history reflected in your paintings. How do you reflect history in your player profiles?
PEREZ: I relied on the fact that there is reliable imagery that recorded the entire timeline of professional baseball. With the thousands of baseball images on my computer files, and the resources available regarding uniform color and design, equipment, and ballparks I was able to portray the evolution of the game in full color. I set out to create not just player portraits, but also many narrative paintings that show how the early ballparks were heavily illustrated by the signage of defunct products, fielding gloves that fit in the back pant pockets of players, the ballet of the game, and of course the garb of early baseball.
WRR: Your artwork includes a variety of angles. They also have wonderful range. There are some that just show the face. Others show the face and the body. Still others show an even broader perspective in that you can see part of the stands. Is there a difference in the way you approach each angle/each range?
PEREZ: The book contains over 1400 illustrations, 350 new works, and the rest culled from works that I created over my career. With that many illustrations, variety was a key factor in maintaining viewer interest. Fortunately, the game offers a wealth of visual information to draw from. There are the great faces of baseball, Yogi Berra, Babe Ruth, Warren Spahn, Casey Stengel, Ernie Lombardi, Honus Wagner, and Grover Alexander to name a few. There are the bang-up plays, the graceful and precise movement of fielders, the unusual batting stances, and the follow-through of pitchers to create a myriad of interesting paintings.
WRR: Can you give your fans some idea of the process of your painting? For example, is there a difference between having a 3-dimensional model (seeing the player live) and painting from a 2-dimensional model (an old photograph or painting). Do you draw a black and white sketch first or paint directly in color? How does your brush stroke differ from one painting to the next?
PEREZ: I used to begin a piece with preliminary sketches, but the computer has replaced that process. Depending on the complexity of a painting I might do a detailed pencil drawing right on the canvas as a starting point, but that comes after I have created an image by combining a number of photographs on the computer.My preference, though, is to paint alla prima without preliminary drawing. However, I do that only with simple portrait or figurative works. There is no great brushstroke dissimilarity in my oil and acrylic work. However, for me, watercolor, and gouache painting requires more careful brushwork.
My approach is the same for every painting I do, no matter the subject, including thoughtful composition, and interesting brushwork. I amplify the contrast of light and shadow, and apply an imaginative use of color, particularly in the shadow areas.
WRR: Baseball is a sport that binds. It binds fans to a city. It binds generations to one another. Part of the lure of your artwork is these binds. What binds help people choose your art?
PEREZ: All of those binds are true and I get a great share of commentary from my public regarding them. But I have found that the greatest bind is that of the fan to a particular player. If I ask a collector, “Who was (or is) your favorite ball player?” I immediately get an answer. Most of the paintings I sell are bought because of the player, and most of my commissions are for a painting of a particular ballplayer. In most cases it is the hero of the collector’s youth. The memories of our youth are somehow clearer. We were more “awe able” then and that awe is not diminished by the years. For many of us, heroes are a big part of our psyche, and the baseball landscape is filled with them whether they are in the Hall of Fame or not.
WRR: Johnny Evers (of Tinkers to Evers to Chance fame and another Hall of Famer), said “A ballplayer has two reputations, one with the other players and one with the fans. The first is based on ability. The second the newspapers gives him.” Is art/collecting the third reputation?
PEREZ: For the most part, the players I paint already have established reputations. Assuming it is a good reputation, what I do is promulgate that stature.
WRR: Baseball, unlike hockey or football, is a sport where the fans can see the players faces while the game is being played. Baseball, unlike basketball, is more of a one-on-one sport. Baseball is more of a conversational game. How do those elements reflect in your art?
PEREZ: Baseball has an earlier history, filled with more lore, legends, and a connection to the story of America. The game and its players have been described by all art forms: painting, music, poetry, sculpture, literature, and film. The faces and poses of baseball stars embellished pieces of cardboard that became prized possessions of young fans, and today, collectors of sports memorabilia. What I do feeds the passion and love for the game.
WRR: You also have painted for several baseball card series such as Donruss and Topps (where you did a variety of series for each). How does painting for a baseball card differ than painting let’s say an oil painting?
PEREZ: The art for baseball cards has to be less scenic. The player usually dominates over the background. There is no room for narrative commentary, so it is a greater task to make the treatment of faces and poses and backgrounds more interesting.
WRR: How would you describe the collectible interest in your baseball cards vs. your standard paintings? I would think one of the great parts about owing an original painting or a print are the size, the one of kind nature for originals and the thought that a fan could own a print of a painting that hangs in the home of a famous ballplayer.
PEREZ: Obviously, a long career helps. But most important is that I began my venture into sports art at the right time, met the right people, and had an idea that clicked with the sports collecting public. In 1979 I met a man, with whom I partnered, that had a connection to the Baseball Hall of Fame. There were no consistent color images of the members of that institution. I proposed a set of art cards that would feature every Hall of Famer painted in full color, and in the same style and manner. The cards created a sensation in the baseball memorabilia collector world; we produced other products with the Baseball Hall of Fame and maintained a close relationship with the institution. For over twenty years I was considered the official artist of the Baseball Hall of Fame, which was an important component to my curriculum vitae.
Another key to my career was getting involved in commercial baseball trading cards. Illustrating these cards with painted images was widely implemented from the 1800s and well into the new century. The Topps Company produced the last set of art baseball trading cards in 1953. I collected those cards. I felt that it would be a fresh concept to re-introduce art to baseball cards. The early 80s was a time of major change in the baseball card industry. The monopoly that Topps held in the industry was challenged and new gum and card companies entered the field. They all competed to stand out. One of these companies was the Donruss Company. A common associate introduced my partner Frank Steele and me to the firm. I proposed a subset of baseball art cards as a way of separating Donruss from the rest of the pack. The subset would be made up of 26 cards, each card featuring a player from each MLB team. The “Diamond Kings”, as they were called, were a huge success, and I painted them for 15 years. It was just another thing that added to my standing in the realm of sports collectors.
Most of those who buy my originals, prints, cards, and books are fans of the game, or collectors of baseball cards and memorabilia, and art enthusiasts. They do it because of their passion for the game, their heroes and, I now believe, for the way I portray the genre.
WRR: In addition to The Immortals you are the official artist for the Philadelphia Phillies since 1972. Can you say how that relationship came about? Is it an advantage or disadvantage to personally know the players you’re painting?
PEREZ: The Phillies ended the relationship with their ad agency in 1972 and were bringing all marketing and advertising activities in-house. They needed someone on a free-lance basis to deal with their publications and ads. My work for the Philadelphia Eagles, for whom I was doing work at the time, caught Bill Giles eye and he asked to meet me. The rest is history.
I don’t think meeting or knowing players provides any helpful information for capturing them on canvas. I have found that a player has a private persona and a game persona. One is personal, and one is public. What I create is for the public. It is how the fan sees a player involved in an athletic performance. Many years ago when I was doing work for the Eagles I had dinner with a few Eagles officials and a player named Charley Young. I sat near him and found him affable, congenial, and conversational. I was scheduled to do some on-field, game-day photography along the sidelines the next day. I saw him then as steely-eyed, totally focused, and fixated on the game. He had no clue of my presence, or who I was. It was not the Charley Young I had dinner with the night before. I understood, then, what “game face” meant.
WRR: Can you briefly described the different techniques/canvases you use – Oil, Watercolor, Gouache, Acrylic, Black and white?
PEREZ: Most of my early work was in watercolor. The paintings I created were for publication, and painting in that fast drying medium meant an immediate trip to the printer. I struggled with oils in art school and it took me a while to get comfortable painting with them. But once I mastered the medium, it became my favorite method of painting. There is just no comparison for the range of technique and effects you get with oil paints. However, I still enjoy the spontaneity of watercolor, and I still use the medium.
Gouache is an opaque watercolor, and it was a medium that was popular with early illustrators because of its fast drying quality, opacity, and the almost “oil painting” effect you can achieve by applying the colors in thick layers. It is a very difficult medium to master, especially maintaining evenness when creating large, flat color areas. Though I enjoy working in acrylics, it is the medium I use the least.
Because some of the publications, like the yearbooks, I designed and illustrated for the Phillies and Eagles very early on were not in full color, I created a large number of black and white, pen and ink, and pencil drawings. These were a lot of fun to do and I got very proficient at making them. However, as I progressed in my career, I found that black and white did not sell as well as full color work, so I do very little work in black and white. I did do a few of them for my book for old times sake.
WRR: Is the joy, for you, in the finished product or in the creation?
PEREZ: The joy for me is to behold the finished piece (though many artists, including me, claim a piece is never finished). But when I reach that stage where I am comfortable in considering a piece “finished”, I am often surprised by good results. For me, the process of creation is filled with uncertainty. As a painter I lack the discipline of using predictable measured mixtures of paint to do skin tones, the colors of nature, or objects. The only things I work out absolutely are subject matter and composition. Otherwise. I am constantly experimenting. I am delighted when I can create beautiful skin tones by using unlikely combinations of green, red and white.
Although I have an idea of what I want my end result to look like, I am developing the picture as I go along in terms of color, texture, tonal values, treatment of edges, and when it all works it is highly rewarding. Having said all of that, this is not the way it is for my watercolor work. For me watercolor is less forgiving and demands some discipline. I rely on tried and true methods, and predictable color mixtures. This may make painting more tedious, but the end results are still satisfying.
WRR: What current players/projects are you working on for 2012 that you can share?
PEREZ: There are usually a few commissions that I do every the year. I’ll be collaborating again with Bill Kashatus on another art retrospective book. It will be a Phillies book containing much of the artwork I have done for the Phillies over my 40-year association with the club. I will be working on pieces that will be exhibited in a one-man show in New York. And there is always something unplanned that comes my way during the course of a year.
Joe practiced law in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, for 14 years and designed large scale databases for AT&T for five years. He currently works for NextLevel Web Strategies, a legal marketing firm based in Princeton, NJ. He is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, received his J.D. from George Washington Law School and he has a Masters Degree in Computer Science from Drexel University.
Joe’s book, Philadelphia Originals, was released for publication by Schiffer Publishing in 2009. The book shows that the unique styles (how Philadelphians paint, sing, practice law, tell a joke, cook) of Philadelphia’s most notable professions can be traced back to the perfect complement of the spiritual William Penn and the practical Benjamin Franklin.
His second project. Philadelphia Before You Were Born, is a study of the last time Philadelphia newspapers used artists for all their illustrations. It was published in 2011.
Joe’s many other published writings include a humorous look at book clubs for the Bucks County Writer and the literary stages of a baseball season for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He also writes the Interviews with the Famously Departed Column for the Wild River Review.
Joe Glantz in this Edition
Dick Perez: Sports Artist for the Baseball Hall of Fame and the Philadelphia Phillies
From Washington DC to Salt Lake City: How Nancy Boskoff became Executive Director of the Salt Lake City Arts Council