Head out to your local county fair and you'll probably come across an artist who makes cartoonish portraits of big-name celebrities. They might have some more realistic portraits on display, but can they proudly tell you that Gal Gadot, the actress portraying Wonder Woman in the DCEU, personally enjoyed their work?
That kind of honor isn't encountered everyday. For John DiBiase though, he's received praise from Gadot and countless other celebrities who have enjoyed his very realistic portraits. Not only that, he's also among artists who are contributing their work to Star Wars Topps trading cards. I recently had an email exchange with John discussing his work, technique, and the recognition he's received along the way.
The Early Years
John DiBiase started his artistic endeavors early in life:
I actually started drawing at a very young age, just doodling my own little cartoon characters that I made up. But it wasn’t long before I found myself frustrated that I couldn’t draw popular characters that I really wished I could draw (like Garfield).
From these early tries, DiBiase developed a desire to get beyond caricatures and hone his skills:
[W]hat really inspired me to want to try to learn to draw detailed art was actually the 'Jurassic Park' trading cards from Topps. There were a series of cards in the set of character designs sketched by an incredible artist named “Crash” McCreery. I ended up trying to reproduce the drawings freehand (which means just eyeballing it and recreating it without any guides) and … it was poor, ha! But it was good practice.
Years later, I attempted it again and it came out better, but really, it was seeing his drawings that just really made me want to learn to draw detailed work! And from there, I attempted portraits and started down a long, hard road of learning how to draw a human face as realistically as I could. I’d definitely have to credit Crash as my biggest artistic inspiration.
The Tricky Techinique
When it comes to technique, John DiBiase doesn't take the easy road. As he explains:
I draw freehand. Many artists use the grid method or other tools to try to get a better likenesses or precision with a drawing. I do my best to eyeball the source image and replicate it on paper next to it. I find it really challenging and often even fun. I know other artists can do that extremely well and it’s my dream to be able to improve at it.
On casual viewing, DiBiase's work looks flawless. But for every picture, there are hours of sweat behind it:
I find myself still erasing a lot and spending a lot of time reworking the drawing while I’m doing it. The process can just be super frustrating when I – no matter what I try – can’t get the drawing just right. But I’d rather fail in an attempt at freehand and just try something else again than do it another way. I definitely feel like practice helps a lot in the end, though. So I make it a point to carve out a couple hours before bedtime each night to get some drawing practice time in.
In addition to using his talents to capture moments or characters from movies and shows, DiBiase also uses his pencil to create stunning celebrity portraits. Unlike the caricatures you might find at a carnival or mall, DiBiase's drawings are realistic and lifelike. What started him down this path?
I think, as a teenager in the mid-90s, I was inspired by whatever I was really into at the time. And at that time, it was music. So I’d draw musicians I really enjoyed from 8x10 photos or magazine ads, posters or even album art. It wasn’t easy. Unlike today, we didn’t have access to a seemingly endless supply of photographic resources at that time. (Actually, I found my very first attempt at drawing a person recently and it was a Philadelphia Phillies baseball player named Lenny Dykstra. It was a terrible drawing. Ha! But I was really into baseball before trading my passion for the support for music.)
Anyway, I believe it was right around the time of Titanic’s release that I probably started drawing movie actors and characters. I drew a portrait of Leonardo DiCaprio for my cousin as a gift (in charcoal, actually), and then did another of him in pencil. Copies of it ended up circulating around my high school at the time, too – which was weird because not only am I an introvert, but I wasn’t exactly in the popular crowd at school. Ha. But the girls LOVED Leo! From there, I ended up working on drawings of Tommy Lee Jones, Jim Carrey, and Catherine Zeta-Jones – all with mixed results. But for most drawings I do, it’s mostly inspired by characters or actors I like, personally, and that’s what keeps it fun and enjoyable for me.
With so many celebrity portraits under his belt, I dared to put DiBiase on the spot to narrow down one or two portraits that were his favorite. Here's what he decided on:
That’s a tough one. I’m pretty picky about my own work. I seldom really like a drawing of mine. I love that others like it; that is what’s most rewarding to me, but I am my own toughest client. Most drawings I do, I hope I’ll like them completely when I’m done – but I seldom do. But if I absolutely had to pick one, it might be a colored pencil drawing I did of Indiana Jones from The Last Crusade. It’s tough to say though.
My favorite drawing as of right now, though, is a drawing I did of Evangeline Lilly – but mostly because it’s signed by her (with a really lovely message from her, too). I hung it in my basement where I can see it while I draw, which is an encouragement. An Etsy client graciously got my drawing signed by her and sent it back to me, and it’s been one of the coolest things to see (to me) – especially as a LOST fan.
Drawing intricate and realistic portraits has earned John many fans, including some of the subjects of his drawings. I asked DiBiase what it's like to grab a celebrity's attention:
Incredible and humbling! Every time it happens, I completely freak out inside! It’s a mixture of excitement and maybe a hint of horror – because so many people then scrutinize the work because it’s been spotlighted by the subject. BUT I find it comforting that, obviously, the subject liked it enough to share with all of their followers – so that’s just huge to me.
The most recent acknowledgement from a celebrity was actress Olga Kurylenko – from the James Bond film 'Quantum of Solace' and the Tom Cruise film 'Oblivion' (that movie’s awesome!) – and the more I thought about it, the more I’d wished I’d done a better job on the portrait or had chosen a different picture to draw. But I’m still thrilled she liked it enough to share it! And even though it’s been a few months, I still get a kick out of the thought that Wonder Woman’s Gal Gadot shared my drawing of her on her feed. It’s such an honor! But probably the most meaningful reaction, to me, was from singer/songwriter Steven Curtis Chapman who said some truly kind things in response to a sketch I did of him recently.
What's In Store
Perhaps you are looking at these amazing pictures and feeling inspired to pick up the pencil. DiBiase has some advice for any artist:
I’d say to practice every day. Every single day – just something. And no matter what art medium it is. If you draw, draw daily – even if it’s just a doodle on a napkin or something. But you can’t practice enough. And definitely don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone and push yourself. I love drawing in graphite pencil first and foremost, but I’ve slowly gotten more and more into colored pencil – even though it was kind of scary at first. But I love it now, and I’m really glad I did.
One of my favorite quotes I heard in college was this one by Chuck Jones (and I can’t agree more): “Every artist has thousands of bad drawings in them and the only way to get rid of them is to draw them out.”
As far as what the future holds for John DiBiase, an exciting opportunity from a galaxy far, far away has presented itself:
And I’m over the moon to tell you that I just found out this week that I’ll be doing sketch cards for Topps Star Wars Masterworks trading card set that will release this fall. I received the cards in the mail two days ago to start work on. The cards I draw will be randomly inserted into the packs people will be able to pick up in stores. I’m just super stoked about it! (and a little scared, to be honest. Haha) It’s also super cool that artwork on Topps cards originally inspired my artwork and here I’ll be creating art for them now. It’s so surreal!
A quick survey through John's pictures show he's up to task for this undertaking:
It's been great to get to know John and discover the incredible work he's done. If you'd like to check out some more of his portraits (or even buy one) here's how you can support him:
I have prints of my work for sale in my Etsy shop, as well as some of the originals. You can find it at www.JohnDiBiaseArt.com You can also find me on Instagram, where I post progress shots of new projects, at @johndibiase, as well as Twitter @johndibiase and Facebook at http://facebook.com/johndibiaseart .
I wish John continued success in his artistic endeavors and encourage you to show him your support!
Which portrait or artwork is your favorite?