Nomi Wagner Portrait Artist

My Third (and Final?) Life

by Nomi Wagner

The 1980’s was a good economical time for portrait photography because it was before the advent of digital cameras. The public didn’t yet have access to so many cameras. For fifteen years, I had steady work and became a well-known portrait photographer for celebrities, corporations, and thousands of families.  It was a great life!

I loved capturing important moments in people's lives.

However, by 1992, I had gotten too successful and lost the passion and creativity that had driven me for so long. I was ready for a new creative outlet.

When the digital graphics age began in the early 1990’s, my husband Gerry suggested I might be interested in the brand new field of computer graphics. I was amazed at what the new software could do with photographs, I figured that my career would now be manipulating photographs and swishing some color around. I was excited, but I had no idea that I would end up a portrait painter!

Since childhood, I had harbored a secret desire to become an artist. At age 47 I had finally begun to take Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain at Cal State Long Beach and UCLA, and of course I had all my training in photography, but I didn’t even know how to turn on a computer. I figured out what classes I would need and enrolled at a UCLA extension in art history, color theory, graphic design, and Photoshop. In those early days, Photoshop was extremely difficult, and it took about nine steps to achieve an effect that now takes one click. I remember sitting out on the curb behind the Photoshop class, crying in frustration. But I wanted to learn Photoshop and Painter so badly that I forced myself to sit at my new computer at home and go through all the software manuals, taking notes and figuring things out. It was extremely difficult for me, so I popped homeopathic Calm pills to overcome my anxiety! 

When we moved to Oxnard, in 1994, I found some classes in Ventura where they were teaching Photoshop and Painter. In the Photoshop class, we had to complete a project, so I did this montage of my mother’s life for her birthday. At first I was going to put a photographic portrait I had taken of my mother in the center; but, then I decided to try drawing her portrait with the Painter software, using the photograph as a reference. Well, doing the art on the computer was much more fun than manipulating photographs, so I decided to change direction and become a computer portrait artist.


Back to school I went. Are you seeing a pattern here? This time I went to art school to concentrate on painting and drawing portraits. My goal was to learn how to paint and draw traditionally and then figure out how to do it with a computer stylus and graphics tablet rather than regular charcoal or paints. When creating a portrait, making corrections or experimenting is much easier with a computer than with traditional paints. I studied at California Art Institute in Westlake Village, learning from the wonderful traditional artists on the faculty, and from other artists at many week-long workshops. Then I was on my own, painting and drawing with the computer. I scanned in some paintings from a favorite artist and figured out how to achieve the same look with the computer brushes. It was about a two-year learning curve, and I still discover new things each day.

With the Painter software, I have customized all the computer brushes I use, simulating traditional brushes. I am able to plot the location of a person’s features from the reference photograph onto a blank file for an accurate likeness, and then I paint or draw every stroke from scratch. People don’t believe me when I tell them that my work was done on a computer.

In 1998, I was able to sell my photography studio to one of my employees, who is still running it today as Mary M Photography. I have been a full-time computer artist ever since. I love doing this work because it is thrilling to paint someone’s portrait and see their character emerge as I proceed. Each new stroke is a problem to solve, feeding my love of learning and need for challenges. So here I am in a new life, with work that fulfills all my creative needs, and I can’t imagine ever tiring of it or desiring a different life!

PostPost by Nomi Wagner and Paige Miller