If He Gets the Eyes Right, Bob Johnson Keeps Drawing

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You can find art all over town — not just on gallery walls. In this series, we take a look at some of the local artists who serve up their work in coffeehouses and other non-gallery businesses around town.

“I’m seventy,” says artist Bob Johnson. “I worked at everything: I drove a cab sometimes, I drove a bus, I drove a train. I used to work for King Features doing puzzles for them with drawings that ran in the New York Daily News and Chicago Tribune.” Technically, Johnson’s retired now — but you wouldn’t know it from the massive collections of portraits he’s shown everywhere from Starbucks to St. Anthony Hospital. In fact, Johnson’s currently drawing the past and present police chiefs for the Glendale Police Department.

Johnson specializes in faces that are so spot-on the term "caricature" hardly does his craft justice. “What else is there, really, besides people?” he asks. “I draw people, and it’s very enjoyable.”

And as far as he's concerned, the eyes really are windows to the soul. “Most people set up the face first, and put everything into position, and the eyes are just part of it,” Johnson says of his artistic process. “I start with the person’s left eye. If I get it right, I draw the second eye. If I get both of the eyes right, I go on — otherwise. I don’t.”

Johnson doesn’t have any formal art training, but he watched his mother doing portraits when he was a kid. Those early memories came back at a handy time. “I hit a rough spot in my life in the ‘70s, and I started going to diners at night,” Johnson recalls. “People would come in, and I’d put up a salt shaker and draw them. A lot of people didn’t notice I was doing it, but the cops always did, and would come up after and ask how it turned out.”

The whole process was satisfying; a week into it, Johnson had already filled up an entire sketchbook. Five years later, he had amassed hundreds of faces.

Johnson isn’t sure what to call his work — he isn’t entirely convinced it’s art, but he knows he loves doing it. “I used to draw at a place called Muddy’s — it was a coffeehouse off of the 15th Street viaduct,” he remembers. “I just would sit there and draw everybody.”

The goal, is to “pick up the character in faces,” he says. “Either you think three-dimensionally or you think two-dimensionally; if you think two-dimensionally, it’ll never work."

These days, Johnson plays pool, goes to yoga with his wife and draws — sometimes at the Colorado Boulevard Starbucks inside Barnes & Noble, where about 108 of Johnson’s pieces recently lined the walls. Johnson had wanted to put his stuff on the ceiling, too, but the manager said no.

Johnson does two portraits every day, and always away the originals. “I get up every day, and I do exactly what I want,” he concludes. “I got it made, and I know I got it made because I used to drive a bus.” 

Follow Jamie Siebrase on Twitter.

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