There’s a pecking order when it comes to those who make a living on the street, they range from the desperate – those people sitting, signs around their necks that say “help me”, pregnant girls bellies exposed with their hand out, through to the genuine street performers – the “human statues”, the buskers, and the artists creating works in all mediums. It is the latter I am seeking and head to the heart of Kyiv – Maidan Nezalezhnosti – to corner them in their natural habitat.
Some have been setting up easels and taking a spot here with sketchpad in hand for years. Some are untrained, and some have formal training at university level and above. Coaxing information from them is like pulling teeth, admitting little more than what they earn is enough to pay for an apartment, for example, but remain on the breadline. Still, they derive pleasure in their work even if they are unwilling to speak about it.
I suffer several rejections in my quest for an interview. One tells me I have to “pay money for information or go away, I have no time to spend on trivialities”. Another rambles on about love and other matters not related to art and so it continues... Finally, I find a more agreeable man, who informs me he doesn’t give formal interviews for Ukrainian newspapers or magazines, but agrees to talk on the basis of anonymity.
He has been immersed in art since his youth. Beginning from the usual childhood scrawling of the typical flowers and trees, he eventually moved on to draw classmates, his family, and landscapes. His talent was innate, he says, and often his parents asked him to paint portraits of their friends as gifts. Slowly art became his life.
His first girlfriend (later to become his wife) was wooed by his portrait of her, he proudly tells me. He entered university and studied publishing and editing but his specialty was not editing text, it was the accompanying artwork. He would continue down this line working in the publishing industry. Then, his life was turned on its head. His company began making staff-cuts and as he was reaching retirement age, he was forced out of the company.
Misfortune And Redemption
And so began a downward spiral. His wife left him, as there was never enough money he tells me, and life became a struggle. Hitting rock bottom, he had no option but to drag himself up by his bootstraps – the only answer was to use his only skill and five years ago he joined those eking out an existence on Maidan.
The money is enough, he says, it covers his utilities and personal expenses, but things are tight. There is no denying his talent, his style is unique and you can’t help but wonder if, like so many other artists throughout history, he will ever catch a break or even achieve recognition in his lifetime. I ask him to tell me about his technique because his drawings are so different from those of other street artists. His eyes light up as he begins to explain.
“Just as there is academic singing, drawings too can be academic. This is something you cannot learn on the Internet for example; this is not something you can teach yourself. Nowadays, many people hope by watching a 10-minute video on Youtube this video will help them to learn how to draw eyes, light and shade. You need to study for half a lifetime or more.”
He still practises, perfecting his technique, he says. “Even now I can sit for hours to better portray the reflection of the eyes, or a small dimple on a cheek. In academic drawings, lines are always clear, precise and you only really get one chance to get it right. No touch-ups, no erasing. The pencil lead must be worn down and you need to keep it at the right angle, an acute angle.”
His goal, as he tells, is to always render an image on paper that fully represents a person as realistically as possible. “I want my pictures to be realistic, so they don’t appear flat on the paper but have dimensions.”
The price of his portraits depends on the complexity, the time taken and, interestingly, the beauty of the model, he tells me. “The more beautiful, the more expensive my work will be.” In the time-poor, low-concentration span modern world, one of the biggest challenges he faces in creating a portrait is getting subjects to sit for long enough. “Often people aren’t scared of the price, they are scared of the time it will take. Everyone is in a hurry these days – at maximum they sit for an hour and that’s all...they need to catch a train. Sometimes that’s not enough time, but I lose business because people aren’t willing to sit that long.” There is an alternative, he says, it’s not “as good” as having a live subject but people often order portraits from photos from the Maidan artists. “Some Kyivans bring pictures of their family and friends and give them to us to create a portrait as a gift. Others prefer to present a caricature.”
Our conversation is interrupted as a client is interested in his work. A young newlywed couple want a joint portrait. Suddenly the artist’s face is etched with concentration as he plunges headlong into the work. He is silent, engrossed. I watch for a long time, and sure enough the newlyweds smiling faces appear on the paper.
Interested in getting a picture or caricature done? Different painters have different prices.
The general starting price for a work in the standard A4 size starts from 200hrv and goes up depending on size and intricacy
Works created using a photo start from 400hrv
Caricatures are from 35hrv
by Oleksandra Obushna