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Baseball, a Muse: Interview with Baseball Painter Graig Kreindler

Tomas Laverty

Tomas Laverty, frequent contributor to the MLB section, runs a Detroit web design company called Detroit Spaces.

I first noticed Graig Kreindler’s breathtaking work while wasting time on Facebook. It was one image of Ty Cobb that stood out to me because, well, it was in color. I’m not a huge fan of photo-realism, but I can’t think of a better subject for this type of creative work than baseball.

Everything we have is in black and white, and it’s often distorted because of film quality, age, camera technology, etc. To see baseball heroes in color does something to me. It creates a richer experience. Even though they are still images, seeing Jackie Robinson steal home with the grey and blue of a Dodgers uniform heightens the experience immensely.

Aside from his brilliant depictions of field action, Kreindler does a remarkable job capturing the pensive gazes of some of the game’s greats. I had a chance to ask Kreindler a few questions about his craft, and his love of the game.

TL: How did you start painting?

GK: I had been drawing my whole life, maybe since I was around 5 or so. But I didn’t really take up painting until about a year before I started my undergraduate education at the School of Visual Arts, which would have been in 1999 or so. At that time, it was with acrylics and mostly for studio work or classroom assignments, the majority of both were figure-based and representational. In the fall of ’99, when taking classes at SVA for the first time, things started to change quickly. I switched to using oil paints, and took the discipline a bit more seriously. It was my goal to become a successful illustrator in the fantasy and science-fiction genre, so once my education there began, the projects that I was working on, though mainly designed to teach me technique, were usually geared towards those motifs. It wasn’t until my senior year when I made my first baseball painting.

TL: Who are some of your creative inspirations in terms of painting?

GK: My inspirations run the gamut, as I’ve always been attracted to different kinds of art and artists, be they representational or not. Some of my favorites and most inspiring have been from the Golden Age of Illustration, which spanned the late 19th century to the early 20th. People like Howard Pyle, Maxfield Parrish, Frank Schoonover, N.C. Wyeth, and Dean Cornwell have always been high on that list. Certainly Norman Rockwell, too. Mead Schaeffer. Saul Tepper. There are few who visually tell stories better and smarter than those fellas. I also love John Singer Sargent, Anders Zorn, Joaquín Sorolla, Claude Monet, Rembrandt van Rijn, Diego Velázquez, Chuck Close, Johannes Vermeer, Childe Hassam, Alfred Sisley, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Franz Kline…yeesh…really, the list goes on and on.

Maybe my biggest inspiration over the years has been a good friend of mine, who also happens to have been my teacher for the past 15 years. Peter Fiore is a landscape artist who I’ve learned a lifetime of information from, be it about painting or life in general. He’s best known for his use of color and light – both things I really strive for. He paints in very different matter than I do…I feel like he actually attacks his subjects with a fury I could never muster. However, even though his choice of subject matter differs from mine, I’m able to take what I get from him – be it through our talks or watching him work – and apply it to my own paintings. He’s a pretty big reason why I’m as hard on myself as I am – and I mean that in a good way.

TL: What got you interested in baseball, and how did you end up painting historic baseball images?

GK: I got into baseball at a pretty young age, and like many kids, through my father. He is an avid Yankee fan, and raised both my brother and I to be the same. Early on, I was going to afternoon games at Yankee Stadium on the weekends, and looking at my father’s baseball card collection at all times in-between. A lot of his cards were from when he was growing up, so there were a handful from the late ’40s and early ’50s that were illustrated, rather than based on photography. Since I had started drawing at such a young age, I guess I made the connection that I could draw some of my favorite baseball players, too. At that time in the 1980s, though the Yankees were decent, they never won anything big while I was growing up. Because of that, I think the combination of the old baseball cards and the stories that my father used to tell me about his heroes really effected my perception of the sport early on.

As I mentioned before, it wasn’t until my senior year at SVA that I painted my first historical baseball piece. My portfolio class was given the assignment of illustrating a ‘relationship.’ The professor always kept it pretty general so that the students had freedom to follow whatever threads were in their heads. For whatever reason, one of the first ideas that came to my mind was the relationship between a pitcher and a batter. I decided to seriously consider it when I thought that I could paint one of my father’s favorite players, rather than just doing some generic scene –  it would be a gift, of sorts. So, his favorite player was/is Mickey Mantle. I kind of had it in my head that if I was going to paint Mantle, I wanted to do so accurately, and to put him in an environment that he would have been in while playing. It was then that all of the research started to happen, not only for composition, color, emotional content and the such, but also the particular game or moment that I though could turn into a beautiful piece. When all was said and done, I had settled on painting Mantle about to hit a home run off of Ken Lehman in the 1952 World Series at Ebbets Field. I made sure to not only study Mantle, but also study what the ballpark would have looked like that particular year, so little details like the color of the advertisements on the outfield walls became as important as the central action itself.

In the end, the painting was received very well by my professor and even my class. And it felt like something had opened up, as the whole process was just FUN. All of the research I did, all of the painting, it was just such a joy to tackle a subject matter that I was truly passionate about.

TL: How do you choose which images you’ll use as subjects?

GK: My choice of subject doesn’t necessarily follow specific criteria. If I see an image that might interest and inspire me, the chances are that it has something to do with the way light falls on the subject itself. The design of the picture can augment that tremendously. But at the same time, I’m very much into more traditional portraits of ballplayers. And in that case, the subject can play a major part in selecting it for being a painting. For the most part, the players I paint don’t need to be stars. More often than not, I jump at the chance to paint players who are more obscure than your Ruths and Gehrigs, as I feel that they’re just as integral in the tapestry of the game as the fellas that everyone knows. I’m not saying that they’re necessarily at the same level of abilities as these guys, but I think that each man or woman has a role to play with the team. It just so happens that a lot of glamor is thrown at the power hitters and strikeout kings. It’s really my goal to, pardon the expression, paint a more complete picture of the sport’s history.

TL: Talk about your experiences with the great game.

GK: Playing the game has never been my forte. I was in tee ball and little leagues for many years when I was younger, though I never really showed much promise. I’d say that over the course of around 4 or 5 years, I hit safely in no more than five games. Take that, DiMaggio! At the time, I think I enjoyed fielding much more. Named after Graig Nettles, I always felt that it was my destiny to be this great defensive third baseman. And, some of the games in which I had the chance to play the position, I did well. But yeah, I think my place is behind the easel, rather than behind the plate.

TL: Do you draw any similarities between baseball and painting, or art in general?

GK: In terms of similarities between art and baseball, there are literally thousands. There are so many, that it’s pretty hard to even pinpoint an example and articulate it, especially ones that haven’t been said before. Some that always have hit home with me revolve around the fact that I think the game is an absolutely beautiful thing to watch. There’s an art to the body languages of these players when they swing a bat, slide into a base or turn a double play. But there’s also something artistic about the quietness of the old game – that stillness and tension between pitches. And then the release of that tension, only to have it start up again. But on a different level, to me, there’s something about treating this subject matter AS art that’s important. In other words, though it’s not necessarily an ‘elevated theme’ in the grand scheme of art (in fact, some might even consider it mundane and trite), I find that it elicits emotional responses from viewers in the same ways that the best art can. It does that in spades, even. It can be about (but certainly isn’t limited to) bleacher friendships, your grandfather, team loyalty, outdoor excursions, or even wasting time. That idea is that it can be transcendental to people, just like your favorite painting, sculpture, book, or piece of music.

TL: Have you been able to turn your hobby into a career, or do you also have a dayjob?

GK: I am incredibly blessed and lucky in that I am able to paint baseball players full-time. It’s not necessarily an easy life being an artist (especially here in NYC), as there’s constant pressure to not only make a living for yourself and your family, but I also find it just as important to continue challenging yourself with your creative endeavors. In other words, keep asking for more out of what you do. Set the bar higher. Truly, it’s a maddening thing, but I don’t know any other way. I truly hope that it’s something that I can continue to do for the rest of my life.

TL: Some of your work, especially the portraits, tends to bring out character in the players through the use of light and color — something we’ve never seen before as all the photographs are black and white? Is it your goal to give viewers a sense of what these players may have looked like in the flesh?

GK: Capturing a player’s emotion is an important part of the process to me, but it’s not necessarily something that’s my first concern. Sure, there are some moments that I’ve painted in which a player’s face has to tell a story as well as anything else in the picture (like Lou Gehrig’s farewell speech), but it’s not necessarily something that will inspire a painting. Actually, I take that back. I do have a photo of Lefty Gomez walking off the field at Yankee Stadium after winning a game. It has beautiful light and design within the image, and you can clearly see his face, which interestingly enough, was VERY forlorn. It turned out that before the game, he had learned that his mother passed away. He still pitched. And won. And not having that information makes the image a lot less interesting to me. But now that I know the pathos behind it, I’d be all over it.Heck, maybe you just need to stick an image of a baseball player in front of me and I’ll get inspired somehow.



Watch Kreindler bring Ty Cobb to life in this time-lapse video.