(This article first appeared in the September 13, 2017 issue of The Independent Newspaper)
When she was only three, Denise Franzino began copying Disney characters with a crayon in hand. Like most children, her first artworks were debuted throughout the walls of her home as curated by her mother, the household favorite being Mickey and friends. She later discovered her passion for art as a teenager growing up in Bellmore. Now, she has worked as a professional portrait artist for over 25 years, capturing her subjects in beautifully-depicted backgrounds with a surreal likeness.
“The one key to painting a portrait is to work from big to small,” Franzino explained. “Drawing is paramount in portraiture. If you go off the slightest bit you lose the character of the sitter. Even if you paint every feature perfectly and you go off on the outside shape of the head, you’ve lost the likeness.”
Franzino earned her bachelor of fine arts degree, with honors, in illustration from the Rhode Island School of Design, consistently listed as one of the top five art schools in the country.
“The school had a very good reputation. I also chose it because it was next to Brown University,” Franzino described. “I wanted to be near a school that offered football games and an eclectic group of people. I never fit in with the so-called ‘art crowd.’ I was more conservative and felt Brown would fill in that gap. I also liked the reciprocity program they offered. If Brown students wanted to take classes at RISD and if RISD students wanted to take classes at Brown, it was encouraged.”
Upon graduation Franzino landed an illustrious position as an illustrator for The New York Times. Additional resume mentions include Doubleday Books and Harlequin Books, with several other publishing companies. However, not everything was as easy as it seemed. Lacking confidence in her skills led the 26-year-old Franzino to answer an ad in the paper to learn how to paint like “the Old Masters.” Her instructor, John Frederick Murray, changed the course of her life.
“I walked into his studio and felt like I was transported back in time to the Renaissance. The drawings and paintings looked like Michelangelo or Leonardo Da Vinci had done them. Right then and there I said to myself ‘I don’t care what it takes, this is what I aspire to do one day,'” Franzino said.
She studied with Murray for 11 years, and upon her completion segued from illustration to portraiture. “His unending guidance and patience gave me the tools to become the artist I am today. I think of him every day, and owe all my accomplishments to him.”
With a style best described as American Impressionism, the artist works on both toned and white canvas, depending on the subject at hand. Formal drawings are posed with the subject looking at the viewer. For interiors, a professional photographer is hired to adjust lighting. Informal portraits are figure impressions, such as playing on the beach with a spontaneous connotation, and typically have as many as 250 pictures taken. The plethora of options allows for composite paintings, taking the best version of individual fragments and blending them into a seamless image. Upon the selection of the best photos, Franzino paints an intricately detailed 8×10 of the blended fragments, allowing clients to physically see her vision and provide any feedback before the final, larger portrait is done.
Whether it’s local or at a home away from home, Franzino will travel to locations of sentimental value to her subjects. “I love using locations on Long Island as backdrops for the paintings. There is such a beautiful abundance to choose from. My clients’ happiness is my number-one priority. It’s their painting that they are going to have forever.”
The process of a typical portrait takes as long as three months to complete, from photo shoot to finished product, with price points ranging from $2500 to $20,000. “Most of my work I utilize photographs. No one can sit for days to complete a portrait from life, especially children.”
For something a little less pricey, the artist sells Victorian style prints of her fine art work in stores throughout the island. “I really do feel I lived back in the turn of the last century. I relate so much to the art and literature of that era. The way people dressed and the craftsmanship of that period are a lost art.”
In her spare time, Franzino enjoys strolling through the Metropolitan Museum of Art, making a beeline for the American Wing.
“My fiancé laughs at me when I take a few days off and take a painting workshop. The beauty of my career is that there is always something to learn. It’s a blessing to love what you do.”
Art aside, she and her fiancé are avid travelers with an affinity for the outdoors, and she also enjoys time spent with her dog, Penny. Recently, Franzino was a finalist in the prestigious Portrait Society of America’s members-only competition where there were over 1100 entries, quite the artistic achievement.