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Pencil Perfect Portraits

by Karey Solomon

It started with cartoons—could he make his hand copy what his eye saw? He could, from a very early age. As a kindergarten student in Arkansas (military family), his rendition of Clifford the Big Red Dog was reproduced as a bookmark, and, with the encouragement of his parents and teachers, he kept on drawing. Mansfield resident Randy Owen may not have been born with a pencil in his hand, but one has been there almost ever since. Although he’s broadened his skills into painting and teaching, the pencil might still be his favorite tool for making art.

“When I learned about blending and shading—that’s when you rub pencil marks to get smoother transitions—that’s when art really hit,” he says now. “I started focusing on portraits of people and I haven’t looked back.” Largely self-taught, Randy’s attention to detail might be one of his most developed art skills. “A lot of people think portraits are the most difficult to capture,” he says. “If you draw a tree and it’s not the right shape, it’s still a tree. But draw a face and if there’s something off, people notice.”

Look at his portraits, particularly his pencil drawings, and it’s hard to believe you’re not looking at a photo. Every hair on his subjects’ heads has been noted and realistically reproduced; the quirks of facial expression, skin texture, and lifelike glow fairly jump off the page. There’s something in each one to make the viewer feel a real connection to the subject. “The secret is in the eyes,” he explains. Focused on the viewer or looking at something over your shoulder, the eyes convey that person is present.

And, he adds, you can’t just look at someone’s eyes—you’ve got to really look. “We know what things basically look like,” Randy continues. “Eyes are almond-shaped, right? But everyone’s eyes are slightly different. It’s about what you see, not what you know. It’s a tug and pull between those two. It’s about getting that perspective and really looking at things.”

Most often, when he’s commissioned to do a portrait, he’ll work from a treasured, meaningful photograph. First he’ll concentrate on the basic outlines, then layer in detail, a painterly approach he used long before he knew what it was called. It’s not a quick process—it often takes more than a dozen hours—and because he has a young family and a day job, those hours are in limited supply. But, in the end, “if someone likes the drawing, if they think I’ve captured their likeness, that means the world to me.”

Randy studied art at Mansfield University, but his major was mathematics. He admits he took art classes mostly to raise his grade point average, and actually learned very little. Instead, he painstakingly drew a new work almost every week, honing his techniques and challenging himself. He was as much an oddity among his fellow mathematicians as he was in the art studio—never meeting another mathematician with a strong interest in art nor an artist with much interest in higher mathematics. He went on to get a master’s degree in education from MU, but then, instead of going on for a teaching certificate, went to work as a credit analyst for First Citizens Community Bank, relegating his art to the afterhours spaces. While he’d love to draw and paint full time, his family comes first.

He continues to expand his art skills, working in oils and challenging himself with portrait commissions and other complex drawing projects. “I’m trying to transition to have [oil] painting my primary medium, but it costs more and it’s stinky, so I find myself reverting back to drawing,” he says. Some weekends he teaches drawing workshops at the History Center in Mansfield, often to adults who have not tried drawing for many years. He offers encouragement and an introduction to his techniques. But if these don’t work, he’ll offer a different approach. There are many ways to draw, and what doesn’t work for one person might be right for another.

For instance, while many artists work on perfecting one area of a picture before working on the next, like drawing two perfect eyes before moving on to the nose in a portrait, Randy will “spend quite a bit of time on the initial outline.”

“You can draw an eyeball really well, but if it’s in the wrong spot on the face, it’s difficult to move it. I want to first make sure everything’s proportionate.”

This summer, a portrait of the Owen family’s beloved cat Izzy graced the walls of the State Museum of Pennsylvania’s annual State of the Art juried competition in Harrisburg. Izzy died a few years ago after an ill-fated excursion on the road, and her portrait was Randy’s Christmas gift to his wife, Angelica. This portrait was inspired by Owen’s recollection of his pet’s regal demeanor; looking at the portrait, you can almost feel the texture of Izzy’s thick fur.

His portrait of his four-year-old daughter, Avalon (“Wacky Wednesday”), is a good illustration of why he generally paints portraits from photographs. Trying to photograph Avalon for a passport, she wiggled and made faces and stuck out her tongue. It made an interesting image, if not what the State Department prefers. Just like a young child not wanting to stay quiet long enough to have her photo snapped, there are no adults he knows willing to sit still for as long as it takes him to outline their features.

Randy is currently looking for more opportunities to share his work, among them planning more workshops for the fall. It will give him a chance to encourage others while enjoying his favorite pastime. Recently, he discovered a new talent in a not-altogether-unexpected place. When Avalon brought him a horse picture she’d drawn, he made the expected “That’s nice” responses, then took a closer look. He realized that although it was a youngster’s sketch, she’d drawn all the details of the horse recognizably. Would he like Avalon to become an artist?

“I’d love to live vicariously through my daughter if she chose it, but I’m not going to push her to draw or paint,” he says.

Despite the beauty of his art, Randy continues to think of himself as a work in progress. He’s still learning from everything he paints and draws, and says, “I look forward to when I can apply it to the next piece.”

See Randy’s work on Facebook and at

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