Morning light floods the open, airy studio where Darren Gygi wields his paintbrush like a knife. A bright red beach cruiser is bathed in sunshine. Gygi deftly forms the handlebars of the bike on a prepared panel, then the delicate spokes of each wheel. All the intricate shapes make this painting more complex than others.
For Gygi, it’s a welcome challenge. When he paints, he is not trying to evoke emotion or make a viewer feel something special. He is trying to capture a moment.
The artist is visiting Lodi as part of a Northern California tour to promote his Home Collection. It’s a diverse series of simple but stunning prints priced for home decor and sold in boutique shops like the Antiquarium on Pine Street. The tour will also take the Gygis to Danville, Modesto and Carmel.
“His art is very pleasing and sellable. Our customers love it. When people are decorating their homes, they find a way to fit it into their decorating schemes,” said Carol, a store manager at the Antiquarium.
In addition to Gygi signing prints, owner Bonnie Snyder has arranged for the store to have live music and refreshments. Customers who have Gygi prints at home are invited to bring them to the shop so the artist can sign them. He’ll also be signing prints purchased that day.
But those prints are a small sliver of Gygi’s body of work.
“A lot of stores have no idea that I have this secret life as a figure painter,” he said.
The artist at home
Gygi, 42, lives in Orem, Utah with his wife Megan and their three children. His studio is on the ground floor, with large windows to let the light in. The artist paints with oils on quarter-inch-thick panels. He’s never been fond of canvas, as the fabric moves too much while he’s working. The work draws him in, and hours can pass while Gygi applies paint to panel.
Gygi has been drawing all his life. There’s one early memory he holds on to as a reminder of the first time he knew he liked drawing, and that people liked his work. He was in kindergarten in his Utah hometown and had drawn a cow. His teacher took a liking to the doodle and asked to keep it. Years later, the teacher still had the drawing in her possession.
“I’m sure it still looked like just a kid’s drawing, but I guess there was something about it,” Gygi said. “I guess it was not the kind of cow every five year old draws.”
Gygi grew up in Utah and graduated from Brigham Young University in 1996 with a degree in illustration. That’s also where Gygi met his wife, Megan, when they both moved into the same apartment building.
Megan Gygi, with her self-described head for business and eye for detail, manages the sales and business side of her husband’s work.
“That makes it a great working relationship for me and Darren,” she said.
Gygi had one major goal when he left university: To avoid the “starving artist” stereotype. He planned to work for magazines, and never imagined he would make his career in high-end artistry.
“I’m not an ‘artiste.’ I’ve never worn a beret,” he said. “I have never felt the need to express myself through paint. I like capturing things.”
To that end, Gygi has worked as a freelance artist, an illustrator, a graphic designer and, most extravagantly, a portrait artist.
That’s his favorite art style. He thrives on coaxing out the defining elements of a sitting subject and coloring them in with bright detail. His work has been exhibited in major galleries, and he’s painted portraits of celebrities as one-of-a-kind gifts or for private collections.
“I could see the potential Darren had; he was developing a nice gallery base of followers and collectors,”Megan Gygi said. But Gygi had just begun to enter his selling stride when the recession hit in 2008, and it was harder than ever to unload such high-priced artwork.
“I knew if we made his work more accessible, it would increase those followers,” Megan Gygi said.
Getting inside the buyer’s kitchen
Enter the Home Collection. Think delicate, beautifully lit still lifes of bread cooling on a kitchen counter, a bird’s nest full of robin eggs or a ripe, juicy pear. It’s the culmination of hours of brainstorming over how women want to decorate their homes.
When Megan Gygi suggested the idea to mass produce prints for women’s kitchens, Gygi didn’t waste much time thinking about whether or not he wanted to paint it. Instead, he saw it as a different kind of portraiture.
“This is a portrait of a hydrangea. Or a poppy. Or a golf ball. It’s just a different subject waiting to be painted.”
The project started simple.
Gygi had done some advertising work with a company selling pumpkin and sunflower seeds. The original artwork lingered in his home studio for four years. When Gygi brought in clients or friends to show them his portrait work, they all stopped to look at these small, simple pieces.
“It baffled me. I spent all this time on large, heavy portraits, and they loved this tiny stuff,” Gygi said.
But it didn’t baffle his wife, who picked up on the appeal of the small works.
Megan Gygi encouraged her husband to add a pear to the small print collection, and she took these to a few local boutiques. The prints caught on. Now the couple have a catalog of over 200 designs.
With the Home Collection, Gygi decided to treat each subject the same way he would treat a subject destined for a gallery show.
He carefully prepares his panel, then positions the subject to get the best look of natural light washing over it. He works in five- or six-hour sessions, or for as long as he can before the light changes too much. There’s no boredom or looking at the clock. Gygi is laser-focused on the details.
“It’s very intensive work. For that chunk of time, it’s the real deal,” he said.
Gygi generally completes his paintings in a single session. Megan Gygi can tell if her husband has really nailed the day’s work, because he will bring the painting upstairs out of the studio and look at it under different lighting.
Making it work
The work is a far cry from the caricatures or portraits Gygi was trained to create. But the intent is the same.
“I never would have though to paint a flower or a pumpkin,” Gygi said. “I would naturally want to paint a rock band and make them look cool.”
After Gygi finishes the beach cruiser painting, he will scan it and run the image through a quick color test for the printer. Then it goes to production.
The prints come out of a warehouse 40 miles south of Salt Lake City. Each image is printed on a roll of canvas. It’s cut, trimmed and glued onto a sturdy wooden frame, then sent to the customer.
These days, the couple is printing, selling and shipping about 2,500 prints a month.
It’s been rewarding for the couple to watch the project grow from two or three images being framed in their kitchen to a whole warehouse of production. Plus, they enjoy working with one another.
“We see each other all day long,” Gygi said. “For us, it’s been awesome.”