Dick Paetzke: From Master Wordsmith to Portrait Artist

Dick Paetzke is an advertising legend in the Seattle area. He worked as an award-winning writer and creative director on countless campaigns for every imaginable client and industry. Recently, Dick, nearing 80, shared what he has been doing in his retirement years. I was amazed and inspired. So, with his permission, I’m sharing it with you. The following is an edited version of his email.

By Dick Paetzke

Copyright © Dick Paetzke. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

I took up portrait drawing—actually learning how to draw. I’d had an affinity for it as a kid, and did some yearbook cartoons while in high school, but my primary focus as I matured was always writing.

I mostly teamed with an art director in an ad agency creative team, and as an agency creative director, I frequently felt a strong tug to put my oar in my partner’s water and make graphic suggestions. They were usually clearly met with, “Hey, I’m the guy who’s trained in this, butt out.”

As a major agency creative director, I had to supervise both writers and art directors and developed a very good sense of what was required on both sides. Enough to much later speculate, “I wonder if I could do that?”

I took a North Seattle community course in portrait drawing, eight two-hour sessions on Saturdays.

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One of Dick’s 68 portraits.

The instructor had spent years in the University of Washington Art Department and was at the time teaching the same class in about four local community colleges.

He was the worst teacher I’d ever had in my life. All he did was talk about himself and how he was far better than his teachers. With us, a bunch of ignorant novices, he only bothered to fill us in with some basic information about art tools and gave us a whopping supplies list that cost me almost $200 in an art supply store. We used hardly any of it.

His art instruction went like this: “Got your pencils or charcoal? Alright, Terence Brown is our life model. Okay, draw a portrait.”

“Huh?”

At the end of each session, whether we’d drawn from a life model or a large , projected photo of someone, we’d put our drawings up on a white board rail and the students (who didn’t know zip) were asked to critique them. Then Jon, the instructor, would pass in review with comments like, “Well, this one looks like a favorite uncle of mine.” No definititive direction.

While we were drawing, Jon also would draw the same subject. After we had all floundered through the student critique, he would triumphantly tape up his drawing at the end of the row. Given, his art technique was far beyond any of the rest of us. Except, you couldn’t recognize the face of the person he just drew, which seemed to me to be the whole idea of a portrait.

Fortunately, on the first day of class he had mentioned several books, which I noted on my drawing pad.

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Joy and gratitude come from Dick’s art.

So I ordered a book of John Singer Sargent’s charcoal portrait drawings. I spent hours just looking at it. Jon had also said the one valuable thing that stuck with me: “They say that to master anything you have to repeat it a minimum of 1,000 times.”

I later read elsewhere that mastery of anything required at least 10,000 hours of doing it. I didn’t think I would live that long.

Before I finished the entire class I had already decided that I would try to learn on my own. But I set at least an achievable goal, regardless of how well I did the work. I committed myself to finishing 100 graphite portraits as a self-teaching apprenticeship. I am now starting on No. 68.

I’ve been having fun and have even sold a couple of portraits that were commissioned. I’ve framed at least three as gifts for widows of three men I have known, including Seattle copywriter David Hyman.

I can’t tell you how much joy and gratitude those three gifts returned to me. They alone have made all the rest of my effort enormously more meaningful.

So far, as you can probably tell, I haven’t managed to achieve very great consistency, but I’m grinding away at it. The process has a certain amount of pain to it, kind of like striving to master a consistent, controllable and predictable  chip shot out of a sand trap to borrow a simile from your favorite sport.

But ultimately the pain is good and purifying.

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