By Melissa Arnold
From his early days, Bill Graf was laser-focused on becoming a professional artist. And while he didn’t come from an artistic family, they were still eager to support him.
“When I was a little kid, I always drew — my mom was a voracious reader and would bring home stacks of books from the library, and I would draw in the margins,” said Graf, 61, of Huntington. “The librarian called our house and that’s how I was found out. My mom bought me two big pads of paper and pencils, and after that, it opened the floodgates.”
That deep love for creating has taken Graf from an art degree to a successful career and, more recently, sharing what he’s learned with others as an art teacher. He has also traveled the world in search of new vistas to capture.
This fall, the Atelier at Flowerfield in Saint James will exhibit more than 50 of Bill Graf’s paintings from the 1980s to current times. The solo exhibit will highlight Graf’s great skill in a variety of media and the beautiful places he’s been fortunate to paint over the years.
After high school, Graf wanted to use his artistic skills in a practical way. He chose to pursue an associate’s degree in advertising art and design from SUNY Farmingdale, but was initially turned down for the program.
“I met with the director of the program to sort of plead my case, and outside the office were these photorealistic pieces from the second-year students,” Graf recalled. “I told the director that I could do that. He doubted me, but he said, ‘Okay, I’ll give you three days to draw something in that style.’ When I came back, he looked at my work and said, ‘You’re in.’”
He went on to work in design, illustration and advertising, and studied in his free time at the Art Students’ League in New York City, where he learned the Frank Reilly system of painting. He also had the opportunity to study in Italy at the prestigious Cecil-Graves Studiomin Florence, Italy. Those experiences made a huge impact not only on his art, but on his career as well: Graf would spend more than 20 years illustrating the covers of various Harlequin novels.
“I would have a description of the hero and heroine, along with a synopsis of the book. Then I would work with models who would serve as references. We would set up the lights and backgrounds that I had chosen, shoot some pictures, then I would take those pictures home with me. I would have about a month to complete the final painting,” he explained.
Ultimately, as Harlequin switched over to photographed covers in 2015, Graf returned to his old passions as a way of coping with loss of his major client. He found renewed joy in watercolor and oil painting. A friend even suggested he try leading a casual paint night, which was a great success.
“I came away from that event with a sense that I could pass on what I’ve learned to others,” he said. “Seeing the enthusiasm of the people that were there, it felt like a good time to start paying it forward.”
Since 2016, Graf has taught a number of workshops in drawing and painting throughout Long Island, including at the Atelier.
“When we first met, I was blown away by Bill’s talent. He’s been able to pick up and excel in so many different media, with an incredible level of detail and a very high standard,” said Gaby Field-Rahman, administrator for the Atelier at Flowerfield. “Bill was also an instrumental part of getting the Atelier online and offering virtual classes during the height of the pandemic. In that way, he was truly a lifesaver for all of us.”
Carol D’Amato of Sound Beach first met Bill at one of his watercolor classes. She was newly widowed at the time and struggling to navigate life without her husband of 58 years.
“My doctor told me very seriously that I needed to make some positive changes or I was going to die of a broken heart. He asked me, ‘What is something you’ve always wanted to do but never had the chance?’ I admitted that I wanted to try watercolor, and he broke out into this huge grin,” she recalled. “He immediately said that he knew just the thing — that I needed to go to the Atelier and study with Bill Graf.”
During the first class, Graf gently observed that D’Amato didn’t really know how to draw, and told her that if she could learn to draw, he knew she could learn to paint.
“I really was the worst drawer ever! I never knew that I had the capability. I just needed someone who cared to come alongside me and teach me,” D’Amato said. “No one teaches like Bill. He has the ability to make you feel good and find good things in your art, even when you’re doing things wrong. I started with simple shapes and now, amazingly, I can paint nudes.”
As for Graf, he is always striving to grow as an artist and has never lost the passion he found as a young boy.
“It was my lifelong ambition to become a painter. I still have the same enthusiasm for a finished piece as I did with those first drawings when I was a kid,” he said. “I can lose so much time in my art … it’s almost meditative. I’m not looking to be the greatest of them all — I just have a love for seeing ideas come to life and sharing what I’ve learned with others.”
Bill Graf’s solo exhibit is on display now through Oct. 21 at the Atelier at Flowerfield’s Atelier Hall, 2 Flowerfield, Suite 6 & 9, Saint James. A reception will be held Sept. 23 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. For more information, call 631-250-9009 or visit www.theatelieratflowerfield.org.