Vernon Wells Jr. in his studio at Keller, Texas. (Tom Pennington / For The…)
Reporting from Keller, Texas — Angels pitcher Dan Haren wanted a special gift for his wife, Jessica. Something personal and out of the ordinary, but not gaudy or sappy.
So, he thought, how about a painting?
"It is different," Haren decided, staring at the portrait he commissioned as he stood before his locker in the visiting clubhouse at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington earlier this month. "It's a unique thing to give someone a painting of yourself, your family. Pictures are one thing, but a painting is really interesting."
Photos: Portraits by Vernon Wells Jr.
It used to be that getting one's own portrait was mainly reserved for presidents, members of the British royal family and ruthless Third World dictators. Now all you need is an idea and access to Vernon Wells Jr., father of the Angels outfielder with the same name.
Wells Jr. has been painting remarkably lifelike portraits of athletes for more than 30 years, producing nearly a thousand in all.
The Chicago White Sox, Toronto Blue Jays, Minnesota Twins and Texas Rangers ordered paintings to celebrate retirements or individual milestones such as no-hitters and most-valuable-player awards. Several New York Yankees teammates commissioned a massive montage to commemorate Mariano Rivera's 500th save.
And then there are the players who order portraits for themselves.
"It's cool to have a painting," said the Angels' Torii Hunter, who actually has three. "You go into a nice home or whatever, you see a painting of a grandfather . . . and you say, 'Oh, this guy had to be someone special to have a painting.' And that's what I wanted in my home."
The first painting Wells did of Hunter was homage to the outfielder's spectacular catch in the 2002 All-Star game, when he climbed the wall to rob Barry Bonds of a home run. A likeness of Spider-Man, the nickname Sammy Sosa gave Hunter after the catch, appears in the foreground of the portrait.
"That's my favorite one," said Hunter, who hung his portraits in an entertainment room at his off-season home outside Dallas. "It's memories. You look at it and you kind of remember the year or whatever."
Wells' portraits stand out for their intricate detail.
"Look at everything," Hunter marveled. "The smile. The wrinkles in your face — if you've got wrinkles. If you've got a dimple, if you've got a mole. He has everything."
Not bad for an artist who never took a formal art class and who discovered he had a marketable talent only by accident.
A standout wide receiver at Texas Christian University in the mid-1970s, Wells was invited to the NFL training camp of the Kansas City Chiefs. There, he doodled drawings of teammates during meetings to keep from falling asleep.
"Guys were like, 'Man, guys will buy that stuff from you,' " Wells recalled.
After being cut by the Chiefs, Wells hooked on with the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League. A separated shoulder in his first exhibition game effectively ended his football career, but his time in Canada launched his art career when the team asked Wells to do a pen-and-ink drawing of its new helmet.
It was so good, the Stampeders put it on the cover of their media guide.
"So at that point I started doing stuff for players, primarily football," Wells said. "And that's really where it started."
As he talks, Wells is sitting behind a massive drafting table in the second-floor studio of his home in a gated community just outside Fort Worth. It's in a neighborhood of neat brick homes and well-maintained lawns not far from the exclusive Southlake neighborhood where his son lives.
To his left is a MacBook Pro. When the artist and a player agree on the concept for a portrait — Haren wanted to be depicted pitching for the four major league teams he has played for while his wife and two young children look on — Wells will scan in the photos, drop out the backgrounds and create different layouts. He then emails his client for approval.
His renderings are all done by hand yet are so realistic and detailed that it's sometimes hard to tell them from the photographs.
"Part of my brain, I think, is Xerox," said Wells, who charges between $6,000 and $20,000 a painting, depending largely on the size and complexity. "I do everything from photographs. And when I'm looking at the photograph, what I'm able to transfer from that photograph in my mind to the drawing board is the thing.
"It's really about the seeing. Everybody thinks it's the hands. It's really not about that. It's just seeing."
When he's seeing things right, the artist becomes an athlete again, settling into a groove that might keep him at his drawing table for stretches of 18 hours or more.
"I can't do it 9 to 5," he said. "It just doesn't work that way for me."
Like an athlete, Wells has learned to produce despite pain. The long hours hunched over a drawing board led to a ruptured disk in his neck that required surgery, a process that will soon be repeated. In the interim, he wears braces for his neck and back while he works.