Pencil Portraits, Paintings and Photography
Lynchburg Living Editor Shelley Basinger: We hear you come from a pretty big family, Robert. How did that help you develop a love of art?
Robert Pennix: I grew up in a very large family. My grandmother lived with us, and realatives were always dropping in to visit—aunts, uncles and cousins. Because I was an introverted child, I would look for places where I could find some solitude. I would find a space in a room away from everyone and just draw or sketch. That’s where it started.
SB: When did you really start to develop your technique?
RP: I took art all four years in high school.
My high school teacher taught me to recognize the importance of shapes, shading, color, and perspective. He was very serious about art and the rules that applied to art. His class was not an easy “A.”
SB: Where did life take you after high school?
RP: After graduation, I worked a factory job for about a year. Then I started working in the culinary arts field as a cook in training at the local college. Within a few years, I had worked my way up to a shift leader and head cook. I decided to go back to school to take some management and business courses. After finishing my general education courses, I took my first art class as an elective at Central Virginia Community College. I enjoyed the class so much that I switched my major to art and received my associate’s degree in commercial art. After I graduated, I attended Old Dominion University for a semester. But because I was much older than most of the students on campus with more personal obligations and financial responsibilities, I returned to Lynchburg and went back into the food service field as a food operational manager, then as a regional food service director.
I had a great career in the food service industry and retired with 30 years of state service.
SB: Sometimes we have to make those decisions to provide for our families! But you still kept art as a side hobby, right?
RP: I have been married for 32 years to my wife who is my biggest supporter. She has watched me struggle to find time for art. As we were raising our children and people found out that I was an artist, they would ask me to draw portraits of their children. This would happen occasionally, especially around life events and the holidays. She encouraged me to take these opportunities.
Many times, the portraits were for family and friends. After our children graduated college, I decided to give art another try—I decide to focus on the art I loved to do. In the last six or seven years, I have really put myself out there.
SB: You are very well known for your pencil portraits. Why are those your favorite?
RP: It just feels more at ease. I love the black and white look. I primarily work with pencil, and I like to do portraits in pencil. I have worked in charcoal, but it’s a little messy. For me pencils have a better flow and I don’t have to think about mixing colors.
SB: We’ve noticed you like to draw some notable figures in the African American community. Why did you choose those particular individuals? And was it hard to “get them right”?
RP: Some of the portraits I have drawn are of local people who have done some significant things in our city’s history. Most of them are from an African American background. I think more African American history should be taught especially about our local citizens. There is so much rich African American history that younger generations should learn in order to preserve traditions and culture.
My approach when I start a drawing is I try to capture the image of the person to the best of my ability. It is my perception; I also tell a client it will not be perfect but it will be the best reproduction that I can achieve.
SB: Aside from pencil, what other mediums do you work in?
RP: I have done some pastel portraits when people ask. I have sold some paintings on a commission basis. A couple years ago a lady wanted a portrait of her grandchildren. When I saw the image, I did not think it was a pencil portrait. It was clearly something that needed to be painted.
She allowed me to paint the image as I saw it and she later commissioned me for a second painting. I dabble a little in photography as well. If I have my camera with me, I am shooting—scenery, landscapes and whatever I find interesting. I like to use the camera and feel no pressure. Sometimes I get useable shots.
SB: In the past couple of years, you’ve been part of a vocal group that encourages the community to support African American artists.
RP: I grew up in a community where most of the people did something artistic but they never saw it as an artistic endeavor. I remember some of the older gentlemen in my neighborhood carving wood. (They would call it whittling.) The ladies would cut small pieces of fabric to make quilts. My grandmother would spend weeks or even months on one quilt. They were incredible, amazing pieces of art. Many times, she sold them for a few dollars.
A couple of years ago I was honored to be part of the Legacy Museum’s two-year exhibit celebrating the local visual artists who are African American. Every few months they would have
an artist talk—I was one of the first artists to volunteer to speak. Last year a group of us from the exhibit did an open forum discussion at the Lynchburg Public Library moderated by Tony Camm and sponsored by the Legacy Museum. I have also spoken at the local nonprofit The Listening. I enjoy art in all forms and I believe we should keep the community actively involved. Art is something that should not be removed from our schools.
SB: What advice do you have for aspiring artists? Particularly minority artists?
RP: The love of art has no color, no class distention, and no educational requirements. Passion prevails in your work; keep working and they will see the real you. There is no prejudice once people know who you are. Prejudice is a preconceived emotion that is only changed by the individual.
Photos by LUCAS MOORE