Inside the photorealistic world of artist Terry Norman

Norman’s eye-catching charcoal drawings — 42 of them representing more than 1,000 hours of work — will be on display at Streetlight Guild beginning Friday, April 15

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Maya Angelou by Terry Norman

The 42 pieces artists Terry Norman planned to display in a new exhibit opening at Streetlight Guild on Friday, April 15, represent anywhere from 1,050 to 1,470 hours of labor, or more than two full months of around the clock work, with each drawing taking anywhere from 25 to 35 hours to complete.

And this is without accounting for the years that Norman has invested in his craft, particularly after giving up graphite pencils in 2015 in favor of charcoal, a medium that produced a true, deep black on the page without the distracting sheen of graphite, and which could be more easily manipulated by the artist, allowing him increased control in crafting his hyper-realistic portraits. 

“Every picture I started, I was learning,” Norman said on a recent Saturday at East Side art gallery Streetlight Guild. “I learned how to get different textures with the charcoal. Then I used a dry brush to blend the charcoal. And then eventually I started taking the charcoal and putting it on another piece of paper, building it up, almost how you would use a charcoal powder, but then I would take my blending stumps, dig into that and start drawing that way.”

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As a means of accelerating his learning process, Norman would select certain source photos in order to create challenges to overcome. The pictures he used to create portraits of rappers Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G., for example, were selected largely because the pairs’ hands featured prominently, and hands were something Norman had never spent time drawing. Furthermore, the rappers’ hands presented contrasting challenges: Tupac’s in their intricate detail, tendons stretching beneath the skin from his knuckles; and Biggie’s paw in its lack of clarity, his outstretched palm a ghostly blur in the foreground.

“And so, I challenged myself to draw this one out of focus,” Norman said, directing me toward his portrait of Biggie, where, sure enough, the late rapper’s hand mirrored an out-of-focus photo, a sensation heightened by the sharp, expressive detail given his face in the background. 

Norman has developed his skills through a combination of experimentation, trial and error, and YouTube tutorials, sharing that he has logged more time watching online instructionals than films or TV — and not all of them related to drawing. “I just like learning how to do things,” said Norman, who has dabbled in everything from fish tank design to painting shoes, some of which will be on display at Streetlight. “And I’m kind of a perfectionist. … I’m my own worst critic, in that way. People look at this stuff and go, ‘Oh, this is great.’ But I can look at each one and point out the flaw that I see.”

These perfectionist tendencies inform and shape Norman’s artwork, but often not in the ways one might expect. Take the hat worn by Maya Angelou in one drawing, for example, where the realism comes from the way Norman fully embraced how his eye took in the details, rather than how he knows the object to be. “This was more creating a bead effect in her hat without it being overly detailed,” he said, tracing a finger across one strip of patterned fabric in his drawing. “Some people’s stuff is super-realistic, and mine is to a point, where it kind of plays a trick. But at the same time that’s what I’m seeing. That’s the way I’m seeing how that light is hitting certain areas and bending off of it. Some of the most subtle things, like, I didn’t put the line in the seashell right there. Some things it’s just left how it is, because it’s more me drawing what I see than drawing what I know.”

Thanos by Terry Norman

When starting a portrait, Norman always begins with the eyes, allowing that if he nails that detail the person will generally spring to recognizable life. “It gives you the feeling of them,” he said. “It gives you the essence, and if I can catch that… That’s why it’s the eyes. If you can catch that, you can catch the person.” 

He’ll then work outward from there in sections, allowing the source photo to guide him through the work. As he finishes each section, he’ll use an eraser to clean up smudges and loose embers, like a barber sweeping up between each customer, helping preserve the whiteness in the paper, which Norman described as essential to drawing out the contrasts in the finished piece.

In addition to the celebrity portraits of everyone from Gene Wilder to “Avengers” villain Thanos, whose helmet shimmers with carefully applied gold leaf (another technique mined from YouTube videos), there are also outliers on display in the gallery: a close-up of a human eye, a flower, a stark, black bird perched against a background of billowing storm clouds. These works not only break up the mundanity of drawing portraits, but present new challenges and learning opportunities for this artist, with Norman taking the blending techniques he’s learned in drawing clouds and later applying them to noses, ears and brows.

Though largely self-taught, Norman has art in his blood: His brother is a full-time artist and painter living in California; his aunt graduated from CCAD; and his mother paints ceramics. 

“That artistic side just goes through the family,” said Norman, who started drawing as a child, eventually taking weekend art classes at CCAD, though he never pursued it academically beyond high school courses. “It was just something I did for fun; it wasn’t like, ‘I’m going to college to do this.’ … It helps me clear my thoughts and takes away any stress that goes on in my life. For me, the art has just always been there.”