BLAIR — A part-time job airbrushing T-shirts at Myrtle Beach opened up a world of opportunities for local artist Dru Blair.
Though he was using the money he earned there to pay his way through graduate school in art at The University of South Carolina, in hindsight Blair said he learned more about art by painting T-shirts on demand than he ever did in school.
“You never knew who would bring what kind of picture to you next and request it go on a shirt,” he said.
He held that job from 1981 to 1989 in the days before laser printing and screen printing of images were available on T-shirts.
The customers craved realistic renderings and in time Blair realized he was drawn to realistic portrayals of art. He found a niche in the area of photorealism. Though his professors were critical of the choice and favored more abstract modernist expression in art, Blair stayed true to his beliefs. That passion for art and for an art history elective at Furman University inspired him to change majors from pre-medicine to earn a bachelor of arts degree in art.
For Blair, photorealism is about judgements about shapes, textures and colors. Eventually he branched out to produce prints using an airbrush and made some novel covers. The covers caught the eye of a New York agent who began marketing Blair’s services.
Soon he was working for Fortune 500 companies such as Coca-Cola and Budweiser. They tasked him not only with replicating an original photograph of the product, but the companies wanted his rendering to look better than in real life.
Those specifications were a natural fit for Blair who aspires to bring back the traditional methods of painting and drawing that result in “quality craftsmanship and the beauty of art.”
He worked as a commercial illustrator for TV Guide, Turner Broadcasting, Continental Airlines and did novel covers for Star Trek novels.
From T-shirts to prints
In 1989, he described the print sales business as robust, so he diversified his ventures and sold lots of prints. The business was so lucrative that by 1999 he stopped working as a commercial illustrator so he could focus on his own art and on the art school he founded in 1997.
As print sales remained steady, he invested in a school to teach techniques for airbrush art to others, first in Raleigh, then at Wake Forrest and by 2004 at the 120-acre Blair plantation where his school currently resides. He and his family moved there permanently in 2008.
Student classes he currently offers include portraiture, general realism like landscapes and wildlife. Other offerings soon to be added include cake decorating and make-up artist classes as well as watercolor classes.
Blair offers one-day introductory classes, three to four day weekend retreats and longer apprenticeship opportunities ranging from six months to years in an open-ended arrangement. He renovated old group homes formerly used by the Babcock center and created a hotel style lodge, complete with a library and the main attraction, the workshop areas where students immerse themselves in airbrush art.
“My techniques largely were self-taught and refined through trial and error and mistakes of the past,” Blair said.
From prints to school
He credits tenacity and an unwillingness to give up as reasons for his success to this point. Timing and a little luck played a role, too, but a big part of his success was his willingness to follow his passion and make his own way in life.
Blair’s passion for art is shared by his wife, Cris, and his daughter, Samantha, a senior at Richard Winn Academy who is herself an artist.
Cris helps with the day-to-day operations of the school which frees up Dru to teach. As part of his study in the 1990s, Dru Blair traveled the world studying art in Italy, France and other countries. In time his reputation grew.
He was commissioned to paint the King of Denmark and was entered into a realism contest in Japan. A Japanese photograph expert believed he could tell Blair’s work from photographs. With the gauntlet laid down, Blair began to work air brushing a picture of a mush melon.
In a result Blair called fascinating, the expert chose a real photograph — one he thought was Blair’s work — so Blair won the contest. He said the Japanese want a rematch.
In the 1990s he represented the United States at an airbrush show. And 2010 saw him share work in Germany, Italy, Spain, France, Belgium and the United Kingdom. This May he will teach a stint in Vienna and said he estimates he spent about a third of the past three years in Europe.
For now the Blair School of Art is an academy, but Blair dreams of expanding it into a fully accredited college. He has friends and family in the area, so he is determined to establish the college in Winnsboro as a way, he hopes, to stimulate economic growth and improve the area.
For more on his vision for an art college, look for the second in this series of articles in an upcoming edition of The Herald Independent.