John Jansky's second career, as a speed painter, gains steam
CHAMPAIGN — Rock guitarist Kyle Gass knew he was in for a special surprise while performing with his band in downtown Champaign on his birthday.
He didn't know exactly what it was.
"Apparently it's a speed painting," the Los Angeles rocker told the audience July 13 outside the Cowboy Monkey. "I don't know what a speed painting is. I assume it's a painting that goes fast."
John Jansky of Danville turned out his portrait of Gass in seven or so minutes, while the Kyle Gass Band continued to play and a hundred or so people watched. And took cellphone photos.
For the job, or should we say performance, Jansky wore his paint-splattered black tuxedo jacket, shorts and sneakers.
He set up his easel on stage, just to the left of the band. Kneeling so as not to block the view of the musicians, Jansky attacked the white canvas, starting at the top to quickly paint a line to represent Gass' head.
Moving with the music, he swiftly added more strokes, using acrylic poster paint. Quickly a pop-art image of Gass emerged.
As Jansky finished up, he splattered red paint strategically on the 30x40-inch painting. Then, with product in hand, he went to Gass and like a victorious prizefighter, he and Gass raised the painting over their heads.
Stoked by the energy from the crowd, Jansky, who admits to stage fright, looked happy yet relieved as he put the portrait back on the easel, removed his supplies and left the stage.
Watching were Cory Kallembach and Michael Bentley, both 26 and lifelong friends from Monticello. They were impressed.
Kallembach called Jansky's performance really cool.
"Just because how quickly it was done and how accurate," he said.
Bentley noticed that Jansky seemed to feel the vibrations of the music while he was painting.
"Obviously, he knows what he's doing," Bentley said.
Jansky, a father of three who works as an operations manager for the AutoZone Distribution Center in Danville, is building a part-time career as a speed painter who often throws magic tricks into the mix.
He performs at concerts, festivals, conventions and corporate events. Most of the time his paintings are auctioned afterward for charity. Gass, though, will keep his.
Jansky discovered speed painting five years ago after seeing an online video of speed painter Denny Dent. Dent made a career speed-painting rock stars, sports figures and political leaders; he died in 2004.
Jansky, who loved art as a kid, didn't know if he could speed paint, too. He quickly discovered he was able to after he lost a bet in 2008 with a friend.
Jansky had wagered that Barack Obama would lose the presidential race, for lack of experience. To pay off the bet, Jansky set up a video camera in his basement to record himself speed painting, in four minutes, a stylized portrait of Obama.
The YouTube video at http://bit.ly/1bKot3V has received 3,652 views so far.
His son's teacher saw it and sent a link to WCIA Channel 3. As a result Jansky appeared on its morning show in early 2009. He did a magic trick and a speed-painting of Abraham Lincoln.
Someone with the Boneyard Arts Festival saw the program and invited Jansky to set up at the event. There he speed-painted another picture of Obama.
Then the calls stopped coming.
Fast forward, as Jansky says, to December 2012, when he meets Peter Blackmon, general manager of the David S. Palmer Arena in Danville. Blackmon asked Jansky to make a speed painting of Frank Sinatra at the Festival of Trees at the arena.
After that performance other people, mainly musicians, requested that Jansky do speed paintings at their shows.
Viewing Jansky as a performer as well as artist, Blackmon, operating as Tequila Mockingbird Productions, became Jansky's manager.
"When he goes on stage he's no different than a musician who walks on stage," he said last week of Jansky. "At the end of a two-hour concert you say, 'Man, that's amazing.' John does that in eight minutes.
"He makes a show out of it. That's the whole beauty of it. He's not just painting. He gets up there and it's not just a portrait — it's a very vibrant, colorful performance."
Jansky also does, at home, commissioned pencil portraits; those take an average of four hours to complete.
And he makes what he calls disposable art. Once, using chopsticks and working from memory, he created in chicken sauce at a Chinese restaurant a portrait of Steve Jobs.
He has made other portraits using pepper, salt, sugar, Hershey's Chocolate Syrup, and recently, the beard hair of Keith Souza, a friend from high school.
Souza grew his beard out for the Chicago Blackhawks playoff run, vowing to shave it if the team won the Stanley Cup. It did. He then asked Jansky to draw, using his beard hair, a Blackhawks logo.
"I did. It was difficult to work with ... but here are the results," Jansky wrote on his Facebook page, http://www.facebook.com/johnjanskyart. "I also added an image I made of Keith with the same beard hair. He didn't ask for that, but I thought it would be fitting as portraits are what I do."
Besides using unusual media, Jansky has used weird props at some of his performances.
At a Zombie Prom at the Palmer Arena, he pretended to use a chain saw to cut off the arm of an audience member. He used the "arm" to speed-paint a portrait of rock musician Rob Zombie.
During an X-Krush concert at the Temple Plaza in Danville, Jansky wielded an old electric guitar he had set on fire to speed-paint a portrait of Slash, formerly of Guns N' Roses. Jansky attached a brush to the end of the guitar neck.
Earlier this month Jansky created a more conventional speed painting at the national convention in Washington, D.C., of the Society of American Magicians. He first told a spectator to think of one of six famous magicians.
He painted that person — upside down.
"As I flipped it over, I could hear 500 people all clapping," the artist said. "I finished it off with red and put in some splashes."
Auctioned off, the portrait of David Copperfield raised $700 for a Wounded Warriors organization.
Early this fall, Jansky will speed-paint portraits of baseball's Pete Rose and former Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon at fundraisers in Champaign and Peoria for the Peoria-based Hult Center for Health Education & Proctor Foundation.
Considering his pace, Jansky obtains remarkable likenesses. He does not use projections, and he doesn't trace an outline first. What he does is study photographs. Using those as references, Jansky comes up with an image he likes.
"When I get it the way I want it I draw it on the canvas," he said.
He did that with the Gass portrait.
Other times Jansky does not do a sketch beforehand. Instead he memorizes his subject's facial features as if they are pieces of a puzzle. He did that before speed-painting a portrait of Roger Ebert outside the Virginia Theatre during the 2013 Roger Ebert's Film Festival.
Jansky credits his ability to draw things upside down to the late Francine Sinsabaugh, who was his art teacher at East Park Middle School in Danville.
She would have him turn subjects on their heads, with the admonition:
"Don't draw what you think you see. Draw what you actually see."
At Danville High School, Jansky took art all four years. He planned to attend the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale after graduating from DHS in 1988. Two buddies were to go with him to share living expenses. Jansky arrived a month early to look for a place to live. His friends never showed up. So he returned to Danville.
He decided then he didn't want an art career — he didn't want to burn out on something he loved. Other than making concert fliers and designing tattoos for friends, he didn't make much art back then.
"I didn't seize the time without children," he said. "I was busy growing up and going out."
About 15 years ago Jansky settled down after marrying Patti Gualdoni and having their first child, a son. He began to pick up drawing again and learned magic.
And people began commissioning him to make portraits, usually of their families. Among his clients were operations managers at AutoZone. They helped boost his confidence.
"They almost made it a part-time career for me," he said.
Jansky, who's 43, loves and appreciates his job at AutoZone but wouldn't mind taking his art and magic as far as he can.
"I'm really working toward putting together an extremely strong and hopefully entertaining mind-reading speed-painting act that nobody has ever seen before," he said.
Blackmon's there to help, and said he loves watching Jansky perform.
"We're aware of other people who do speed painting, and some guys earn thousands for these performance paintings," he said. "If John's happy with what he's making and doing, that's all that matters."