“It all came together when I discovered my father's baseball card collection:” An Interview With Baseball Artist Graig Kreindler
Graig Kreindler has been painting baseball players for almost 20 years but has been interested in the sport for much longer than that. According to his biography, “To Graig, no other sport embodies the relationship between generations and the sense of community like baseball. His goal is to portray the national pastime in an era when players were accessibly human, and the atmosphere of a cozy ballpark was just as important as what happened on the field.”
To that end, he paints portraits of baseball players from every era of the game. His style brings to life players who are both well known and those who are not. But for every portrait, the lifelike colors and level of detail help bridge the gap between the players of the game today and those who played, even however briefly, a long time ago.
A portrait gallery can be found after the conclusion of the interview.
Tell me about yourself. Have you always been an artist and a baseball fan? Did your art come first, or your interest in the sport?
It's hard to be certain which came first - baseball or the artist. I think that it was probably the latter, as I could always be found with a pencil in the my hand when I was younger, going back to age 3 or so (or from what my parents tell me). I remember starting to be more serious about it when I attempted to replicate characters or scenes from my favorite cartoons - He-Man, G.I.Joe, Transformers and the like.
And of course, at a young age, I was into baseball. Being named after Graig Nettles, I guess it was only natural that I would have some involvement with the sport. Granted, my on-the-field exploits didn't really inspire much confidence in my Little League coaches, but the thirst for knowledge about the game was seemingly never quenched.
I guess it all came together when I discovered my father's baseball card collection. Growing up a Yankees fan in the late 1940s and early 1950s, he amassed a large amount of cards of his heroes that somehow escaped my grandmother's spring cleaning tirades (well, not ALL of them). He managed to keep a lot of the first cards he had ever owned, the early Bowman and Topps issues - many of which were illustrated. I took an interest in them, and began asking questions about the players: Why did my dad have so many Mickey Mantle cards? Who was this guy with the funny name - Yogi Berra? The stories my father told me on his proverbial knee seemed just as real as the Don Mattingly-led Yankees I was watching on television with him and my older brother. But for whatever reason - maybe because of all of the World Series wins - my dad's heroes seemed more special.
What team (or teams) are you a fan of in real life? Does a particular ballpark stand out to you? What do you enjoy the most about baseball?
Despite the Mets-crazy baseball climate in my part of New York during the mid-1980s, I grew up a Yankee fan. Sure, the Bombers were very successful during that era and had plenty of All-Stars, but it was the club from Flushing that appealed to most of my friends. The World Series victory in 1986 didn't hurt that. Neither did the rock star personas of Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden. But I was fine rooting for a team that had Mattingly as their core, and a rich history to look back upon. I guess my father's stories really had an impact on me.
When thinking about ballparks, I always go back to those summer afternoons at Yankee Stadium with my family. My mother has told stories about taking me to my first game while I was still an infant, and from there we'd pretty much see a couple every year the first decade or so of my life. I don't remember too much about what I saw on the field (with the exception of some vivid memories of Claudell Washington crashing into the outfield walls), I remember what the place felt like. The sounds of the ballpark still stay with me - not just the buzz of the crowd, but also the sound of Eddie Layton on the organ and Bob Sheppard over the public address system. The smell of beer, popcorn, and in some cases, urine, never leave you. And some of those fondest memories involve the food we would get. I was big into the hot pretzels you could get there (still am), and to this day, still feel that the best ones were purchased outside of the ballpark, but still on the premises. Vendors would heat them up on hot coals, giving them a smoky flavor that was severely lacking in the pretzels inside the place. Or maybe that flavor came from bus fumes?
That's partially what I love about the game. You can mention a team or a stadium and those kinds of memories can come flooding back to you. The rich history of the sport is incredibly appealing, make no mistake, but those are the kinds of things that are just a part of you.
What made you want to begin painting portraits of baseball players specifically?
When I was younger and had discovered my father's baseball card collection, I must have made some sort of connection to that fact that people had actually illustrated those images on the old Bowman and Topps cards. And I drew, so why couldn't I try my hand at the same thing? With Mickey Mantle being my father's hero, I think I just always tried to draw the great slugger to make my dad smile. And it was always important for me to get it 'right' for him - Mickey Mantle had to look like Mickey Mantle.
As I became a teenager, baseball kind of went to the back burner. I discovered comic books, video games, and girls. By the time high school was in full swing, drawing itself even became a bit less important to me - it was something that I didn't enjoy as much, regardless of how 'talented' I was. I kinda figured I'd go to college and major in something art-related, but felt that I was doing so because of my abilities, not my passion.
I ended up attending the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, majoring in illustration. I had planned on becoming a sci-fi/fantasy illustrator, which was a path I had chosen because of an apprenticeship I had undertaken around that time (I had always been a fan of the genre). It was at school that I met a ton of wonderful professors and students. I learned so much about art history. I learned how to paint. And, I learned that I didn't want to be a sci-fi/fantasy illustrator.
During my senior year, I was still just trying to figure out what I was going to do with myself and what was going to happen after I graduated. I was in a portfolio class in which you attempt to make a somewhat cohesive body of work that you can eventually start developing a career from. My professor gave us a general assignment, to illustrate 'a relationship'. For whatever reason, the first thing my mind went to was the relationship between a pitcher and a batter. It had been a very long time since I had created any art that depicted baseball, and with the assignment, something just clicked. I got into the process like I never had before. The research component became just as important as the technical execution, as I knew how anal baseball fans and historians were. I went back to what I felt when I was younger, drawing for my dad - Mickey Mantle had to look like Mickey Mantle.
So, with that outlook in mind, the result was a painting for my dad of his hero. Mickey Mantle was shown batting against Ken Lehman at Ebbets Field during the 1952 World Series. In the end, the piece was very well received by the class and my professor (I even got into the annual Society of Illustrators Student Scholarship show with it), and my father loved it.
Since then, I've wanted to paint nothing but scenes from this great game.
Walk me through your process. How do you pick your subjects and make sure your paintings are historically accurate? Do you ever paint contemporary players? From start to finish, about how long do your paintings take to complete?
My process usually starts with some sort of spark, be it a photograph, a name, a story, or even a time period. When I’m not commissioned, I’m always gravitating towards somebody or something I haven’t done before. That could be a player with the AAGPBL, Pacific Coast League, an obscure 19th century player, a lesser-known Hall of Famer - really whatever I think could make for an interesting painting.
From there, I’m on the lookout for imagery. That can be taken as a single photograph, a composite of photographs, or even stills from a home movie. And said imagery doesn’t have to be just of that subject, for it can include things like a jersey style that’s specific to the year, scenes from the particular ballpark in similar lighting, landscape paintings that illicit a certain mood or atmosphere - all of it comes relative.
Over the last decade and change, I’ve accumulated a large library of images, books and other such things to aid me in my research quests. Luckily, I have a lot of friends who own memorabilia or are historians themselves, so they can be helpful in my pursuits for accuracy. It doesn’t hurt that I live in Brooklyn, so the great libraries of Manhattan aren’t far for my microfilm needs. In the end, it just takes an awful lot of diligence and patience to make sure everything is ‘right’ in that sense. I’m also one who’s easily satisfied in that regard, (which may or may not be an asset or liability, depending on the quandary).
I don’t specifically keep away from modern players, but I’m more often attracted to the stuff we only know as black and white. I think that there’s always something to be said for the idea that Babe Ruth didn’t hit home runs that way - the dreary world were accustomed to from newsreel footage and photography isn’t true to life. In other words, these guys breathed the same air that we did, and it’s important that people are able to understand - if not learn - that from my work.
The time it takes to see a piece through from start to finish varies with the subject. The size and complexity are all deciding factors, as it may take a few weeks to paint a single 12” x 16” portrait, but a larger painting of an entire team can take many months to complete. In the case of my 1927 Yankees team painting, it’s years. More often than not, I’m also bouncing from painting to painting, so that can always lengthen the amount of time it takes. I like to have a lot of different pieces going on at once to keep things fresh, otherwise I risk not seeing these things with fresh eyes - that’s the best time to notice if something isn’t working.
What have been some of your favorite portraits to paint? Have any Chicago baseball players stood out to you?
As much as I love painting the Lou Gehrigs, Jackie Robinsons and Ted Williams of the world, I also find a LOT of fulfillment in tackling players that aren't necessarily household names. To me, those players are just as important in the overall tapestry of the game's history as the top-tier Hall of Famers.
One of my favorite players I've painted over the years was the great George Van Haltren. Mostly known as a star for the National League New York teams in the 1890s, he's still considered a borderline Hall of Famer who has erroneously been looked over for too long. Amassing over 2,500 hits and batting .316, he was also one of the finest center fielders of the Deadball Era. When I first saw an image of him, he was depicted with the Giants in 1903, towards the end of his career. A huge mustache covered seemingly half of his face, and you could see the years of sun damage across his face. He just looked like a ballplayer from that era. Truly a remarkable sight.
In the realm of Chicago baseball, there have been tons of players who have tugged at those same heart strings. Certainly those great White Stockings teams of the 1880s are super appealing, with "Cap" Anson, Ned Williamson, "King" Kelly, Jimmy Ryan, John Clarkson, Jim McCormick, and then later in the decade, a young Van Haltren. Moving a little forward into the 20th century, I'm in the process of finishing up portraits of "Three Finger" Brown, as well as those of Tinker, Evers and Chance. The White Sox also had some great faces from that era, like Doc White, Nick Altrock, Ed Walsh, and Fielder Jones. The same can be said once we move into the 1910s, 1920s, 1930s and so on.
I find my biggest problem is just trying to fit all of those paintings into a lifetime of work - there's no shortage of inspiration, just a limited amount of time to get it all done. I guess I'll die trying!
Click the portraits below to open the slideshow. Images courtesy Graig Kreindler.