Las Vegas Artist of the Week: Realism Illustrator Neal Portnoy

in addition to his artistic achievements, he’s also a humorist, calling himself 'Don Rickles with a pen'

Neal Portnoy describes himself as “a jock that just happens to be able to draw,” yet his remarkable renderings prove he’s a legend in the making, dubbed as “Illustrator to the Stars.”

Neal, a Massachusetts native, began his career as a semi-professional baseball player before becoming a well-known caricature artist in Las Vegas. He’s a self-taught illustrator whose medium of choice is a felt-tip marker, a medium that cannot blend like paint or be erased like pencil; instead, it acts like a stain, with every pen stroke leaving a permanent mark.

The Massachusetts-born artist has captured the essence of various politicians, athletes, and entertainers, including the Goodmans, Deryk Engelland, and Rod Stewart, in lively illustrations. To be added to the “Portnoyed” Wall of Honor essentially means you’ve made it to the big leagues. His latest artist showcase will be at the Park West Fine Art Museum and Gallery, a free exhibit opening on Saturday, April 8, at 4 p.m.

Rod Stewart / Artwork by Neal Portnoy

Neal talks with Off The Strip about his creative process, how he combined his love of sports with art, and how he’s given back to the community through his work with the Tyler Robinson Foundation.

How do you feel when you are creating artwork?

It’s my passion. I tell everyone, in any kind of employment, if you don’t have a passion for what you do, find something else to do. So when I sit down at a drawing board, I’m in my world, I can block everything out. I treat everything as a former athlete. Athletes don’t like to lose, we like to win. So when someone asked me what’s the best piece you have ever drawn? And I answer it the same way every time. The next one.

What’s your favorite brand of felt markers when you are drawing, and why?

Well, I predominantly use Chartpak Ad Markers. I’ve been using them for years. But since coming to Vegas, I’ve worked with a number of different brands. I’m always experimenting, working with neon markers, working with paint markers, anything that has a felt tip, I’m very comfortable using. You put a brush in my hand and I’m useless. Can I paint? Of course, I can paint, but it’s not my forte. My forte is felt tip markers.

When you’re in artist mode, what is the most important step of your creative process?

Educating and studying. We learn something new everyday, and if we constantly work inside a box, we’re not going to get any better. So I’m always thinking outside the box, always experimenting, trying different techniques with the markers.

Years ago, I did pen and ink work. Pen and ink work is cross hatching, which is crossing lines left and right, going horizontal and vertical, making those lines darker. Marker is a very tricky medium because unlike oils, acrylics, and watercolors, where you can mix and change colors, marker is a stain. Once you put it down, it’s down, so you cannot make mistakes.

People will say to me, ‘Well what happens when you make a mistake?’ And I always say to them that with my caricature background, every line is an expression. I just change the mistake into something else.

Hummingbird / Artwork by Neal Portnoy

What is something that most people don’t know about you?

My baseball background. I tell people that I’m a jock that just happens to be able to draw. So, I’ve done a lot of sports artwork over the years, I’ve probably illustrated over 500 Media Guide and game CRO (Conversion Rate Optimization) programs for NCAA schools across the country.

So, when I’m drawing a basketball player, for instance, that’s taking a jumper from the corner. I’ve taken that shot. Now mine may not have gone in, but at least I know how it looks. I’m able to draw it and illustrate it. I know sports like the back of my hands. So that’s my real passion over the years to illustrate athletes. I’ve illustrated athletes for a number of years. I think it was four years I was the official artist at the Basketball Hall of Fame. So for every enshrinement class at the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass, they would do a meteor guide and a commemorative lithograph. I was commissioned to illustrate those for four years to the Basketball Hall of Fame.

It’s incredible how you found a unique way to merge two things you’re passionate about: sports and art.

I am blessed. You know, I have no other way to explain it other than my passion for sports, my passion for illustrating. For 50 plus years, I’ve been able to do what I try to do every day and that’s put a smile on somebody’s face.

How did you become an illustrator for the Las Vegas-Review Journal?

I once met Sheldon Adelson at the bagel cafe on Buffalo Drive. And I gave him an original drawing, and it put a smile on his face. 

“Well, what do you want?” he said.

“I want to be the illustrator for your newspaper, the Review-Journal,” I said.

He immediately made a phone call to the publisher, came to my gallery, walked around for five minutes, and said, “Yeah, we can use you.”

I was published 197 times in the newspaper. Then they made the decision to go in a different direction. And I still say, to this day, that it’s the worst decision they’ve ever made. But it kind of gave me a kickstart. Because people started asking about me like where did he come from? That came from being published. The key for any artist is to be published.

Wolf / Artwork by Neal Portnoy

What is a cause you support and why?

My wife Dorothy and I run the Portnoy Gallery here. We both have a passion for helping children. For instance, I did an illustration for Imagine Dragons for their charity the Tyler Robinson Foundation. I illustrated a beautiful rendering and we auctioned off the original drawing at their gala, printed a thousand signed and numbered lithographs. And one hundred percent of the proceeds from the lithographs supported the Tyler Robinson Foundation.

Celebrate the opening of Neal Portnoy’s latest free art exhibit at the Park West Fine Art Museum and Gallery on Saturday, April 8, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. The event includes live illustration, a meet-and-greet, and Q&A. The art exhibition will be on display from April through June.

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