Career change is picture-perfect for Oakmont artist

Deborah Deasy
| Friday, Aug. 21, 2009

A midlife bout with short-term memory loss, ironically, helped Sue Donley remember her childhood ambition.

Donley grew up drawing portraits, but only recently turned her girlhood pastime into her adult dream job.

The woman who produced WQED's first official Web site now creates lifelike graphite, watercolor and scratchboard portraits of pets and people.

"I was pushing more pixels than pencils. I wasn't doing what I set out to do," says Donley, 56, of Oakmont, a studio art graduate of Westminster College, with a master's degree in museum studies from the University of Oklahoma.

Donley previously used her artistic skills to design educational programs for print and interactive media until health issues — including a midlife diagnosis of attention deficit disorder — prompted her extreme career makeover.

"She doesn't just do a picture of bassett hound, or any dog. She really captures your dog," says longtime friend and client Chuck Lang of Avalon. Lang has four portraits by Donley of his past and present dogs.

Susan Lephart of Hampton has two Donley portraits of late pets, and praises Donley's ability to depict an animal's soul.

"You have the feeling when you look at the portraits that you still are looking into the loving eyes of your pet," says Lephart. "She just really captures the personality. She connects with each of the animals that she draws.

"I think she has a unique gift," Lephart says. "Her background is so interesting. She's done so many other things. She brings a breadth of knowledge and experience that's reflected in her work. "

Lephart, who works with injured U.S. troops, believes Donley's career switch gives hope to people struggling with cognitive skill issues.

"We get so many (troops) who are coming back and they are not able, cognitively, to manage things they way that they were before," says Lephart. "To see somebody who can kind of re-create things, and find a way to continue using her gifts, and express herself in another way, I think it gives so many people hope."

Donley begins each portrait by "blocking out" the subject -- sketching the subject with scant detail. She then determines the lightest and darkest areas of the portrait. Donley then draws the subject's eyes. "If you don't have the eyes, you don't have the portrait," Donley says.

A gift portrait of her own black poodle Rosie inspired Donley to rediscover her own artistic skills. "Somebody gave me a drawing of Rosie that got my fingers itching, that made me want to draw," Donley says.

That year, Donley gave portraits as Christmas presents to a number of family members. When a friend's beloved beagle passed away, Donley gave the friend a portrait of the dog. The friend then ordered another portrait -- an launched Donley's business.

"From the time she was 8 years old, she was going to be an artist." says Donley's mother, Jan Donley.

In high school, Donley churned out portraits of the Monkees -- and other pop stars -- during study halls, and charged $2 per set of four pictures.

Today, she spends 20 to 30 hours on each portrait and charges about $17 to $20 per hour for her skills. Prices for her commissioned works start at approximately $325 for a graphite drawing.

Donley decided to resume her portrait work when she found it increasingly difficult to process large amounts of written material in the wake of battling a constellation of health conditions, including cancer and sleep apnea.

"It was very difficult. It was very scary," she says. "When you're in your 50s and you're starting out as a starving artist, it's very difficult to make a living."

But Donley remains optimistic. "I feel very blessed to be able to do what I always wanted to do in art," she says.

People can view Donley's work and learn more about her artistry at her Web site: .

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