My Humble Beginning As A “Professional” Artist


A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

I had completed my freshman year of college and needed a summer job. My brother-in-law, Larry, (a plumber in Kansas City) said I could come dig ditches for him. I had seen construction workers using ditch digging machinery called Ditch Witches and thought it would be fun to run a heavy piece of equipment like that. When I showed up for work, I asked Larry if he had a Ditch Witch. He laughed and said “I do now!” He handed me a shovel and I proceeded to dig ditches for him by hand.

After a week or so, my brother Doug called from Nashville and said, “Hey, you can get a job drawing caricatures at Opryland Amusement Park”. I told him I didn’t know how to draw caricatures, and he said “Don’t worry about it, they’ll hire anybody”… so I packed all my worldly possessions into my yellow Opel Kadett and headed for Music City.

The fellow who interviewed me was named Crockett Bernall (Doug later named a comic strip after him). Crockett looked at my calloused, blistered hands and said, “I can tell by your hands that you are a gymnast, you obviously do the rings.” I said, “No man, I’ve been diggin’ ditches.” Crockett laughed, gave me a caricature artist job and we became the best of friends that summer.

The Opryland caricature job was a straight commission gig. A caricature cost $3.50 and I got to keep twenty percent. If I did thirty caricatures, I made about twenty bucks, fifty caricatures, about thirty five dollars. Not bad money back in the day and a WHOLE lot easier than digging ditches. After a really fun summer in Nashville, I headed back to Missouri for my sophomore year of college.

I am from a large family, and the weekend before school was to start, the family decided to go to Silver Dollar City (another amusement park) and spend one last weekend together. While wandering around the park I noticed they had no caricature artists. Knowing how the management structure of an amusement park worked, I found the administrative building, marched in and asked to see the head of merchandising. The secretary’s eyes got wide, she called her boss, he walked out of his office, his eyes got wide, and off I marched into his office. I was thinking these people were apprehensive about me because I had long hair, was wearing a skin tight yellow Adidas t-shirt, a pair of really short, blue jean cut-off shorts, striped tube socks and red suede tennis shoes… but what they actually feared was that I was an irate park customer, which is why they had agreed to meet with me.

The executive sat down behind his large desk and asked how he could help me. I said, “I noticed you don’t have any caricature artists. I would like to draw caricatures in your park.” He sat and looked at me for a long time, then pushed a yellow legal pad across the desk and said, “draw me.” I took the legal pad, drew him and pushed it back across the desk. He looked at it for awhile and said, “how much would we get?” I hadn’t thought that far in advance, so I quickly flipped the numbers around that I had been working with all summer and said, “I’ll give you twenty percent of my take.” He laughed and said “Let’s give it a try next weekend.”

I drew over 100 caricatures my first afternoon on the job. Silver Dollar City was thrilled. I was a popular new attraction, they had absolutely nothing invested in me and I was generating a new revenue stream for them. Now instead of driving home at night with twenty dollars in my pocket (as I had done all summer at Opryland), I was keeping eighty percent of my earnings and driving home every night with a couple of hundred dollars in my pocket. I drew caricatures every summer for the rest of my college years…

…and that was my start into the “professional” world of commercial art.

6 Comments on “My Humble Beginning As A “Professional” Artist

  1. Hey Dennis… well you were definitely the smart businessman back in those days while I, at about the same time , was drawing caricatures at Disney World for Jess Rubio who had a set up in the Contemporary Hotel for pastels and overhead projector drawing on mats with pen and ink.I learned a lot in those college days but not enough about the money part it seems. He charged 1.50 for a b & W and we got a whopping .30 which was like the 20% you were originally getting… unfortunately i never got to swap numbers and by the end of the 6 years I was there i had gotten a huge .03 raise. IN 1980 I broke my arm on a motorcycle on my uncles farm in Kansas and I knew it was time to make changes. So that year i started Newstart Art and sometimes in that year wished that I was back making 20% again. Those days of quick sketch really have helped in the years to follow. To sit down in a restaurant with a client and quickly sketch out his idea on a napkin usually impresses the socks off these guys… sometimes i just want to say .. ” that’ll be a dollar fifty bub. “

    • Ha Ha! There are a whole bunch of us that started out doing the caricature thing.

      The other day a fellow at my church (a vice-president at Sweetwater Sound) asked if I would draw caricatures at some sort of corporate event thing they were doing. I told him I would do anything in the world I could to help him, right down to waiting tables, but I WOULD NOT do caricatures. Nothing worse than sweating out a caricature that’s not going so well and hearing someone behind you say, “that doesn’t look anything like him.” Those days are over for me… I hope.

  2. Great post Dennis! I really love reading about the early days especially from artists I admire. I first discovered your art when I found your “See With Me Bible” is a Christian Bookstore. I would love to hear how that project started and what you learned from the experience. Have you written anything or been interviewed on this topic yet?

    • …that was kind of an interesting story, too. I’ll see if I can’t write that up sometime in the future.

  3. Pingback: One For Old Time Sake – Dennis Jones

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