When Steve Penley was growing up in Macon, Ga., his mom would tell him over and over again that he was the greatest artist in the world. Sooner or later, he started to believe her.
“It became imprinted in my head and somehow helped me have the confidence to do what I do now,” the acclaimed painter told me during a recent interview at his home studio in Carrollton, Ga. “And my dad was a piano salesman, which I think helped me want to paint for a living and have a product to sell.”
Over the last two decades, Penley has made his mark by reinterpreting historical figures and iconography in his signature, instantly recognizable
style. One icon he has painted perhaps more than any other is the
Penley's path to a career as an artist included a few detours and a bit of serendipity. He started drawing when he was three years old, but didn’t pick up a paintbrush until his freshman year at the University of Georgia. "I never saw myself as an artist, but I think I've always been one," he says. "Art is so much a part of me; I don't even see it as me doing it any more."
When asked what advice he’d give to aspiring artists, he cited these three lessons learned during his 20-year career:
“But not just to crank stuff out, because you can’t do anything just for the money. There has to be something driving you or you’ll be miserable. There has to be something genuine behind it. At the same time, if I spent a month on a painting, I wouldn’t be in this business. I’d be doing it as a hobby.”
Penley describes his early work as “hyper-realistic”-- a hybrid of illustrations and paintings. “But I realized it took too long,” he said. “(Painting quickly) gives art spontaneity and intensity.” He learned this lesson first-hand when he was getting his start. After graduating college and spending a few years in New York City working as a shoe salesman, he returned to his home state with little money and little direction. "I had no idea what to do with my life," he said.
A phone call sealed his fate. A childhood friend who was opening a restaurant in Atlanta contacted him to produce 15 to 20 paintings. But the opportunity came with a catch: Penley only had a few days to fill the walls. So, after buying the cheapest enamel paint he could find, the lifelong history buff began painting iconic American figures. “I had no idea what my style, or even my subject, was,” he said. “I started painting Churchill, Einstein, George Washington and Lincoln… all the things I’m painting now. And I did them really quickly because I had to, which was fortuitous because I realized it was my natural painting style.”
“Do you want to do this for a living and support a family? If you do, there are some harsh realities you have to face," he said. "For me, it’s a natural fit because I’m energized by the job.”
“Never think you’re too good for anything. I built my customer base painting portraits. I talk to some artists who say, ‘I’ll never paint portraits… I want to have integrity.’ But then they’ll wait tables or bartend until 5 in the morning. And I say, 'Wouldn’t you rather be home watching Matlock and painting than sitting here at the bar with all these drunk people?' Painting portraits is a great way to learn how to see things, anything. It was great training for me as an artist. And I had to learn quickly just to survive.”