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Painting "Billy's Breakthrough"

Artist Andrew Yelenak describes the steps taken in creating this painting.


My first step in creating this painting was to ask Bill Rodgers about his favorite moment from the 1975 Boston Marathon. He described turning the final corner, so I came up with a thumbnail sketch establishing good point of view.
 To create an accurate setting, I went to Boston and photographed that corner of Hereford Street, focusing on the firehouse on the corner and it's architectual details.  I had taken a photograph of Bill Rodgers a few years ago that would be a good pose for the painting, I would just have to adjust his "look" to 20 years earlier.  That would include his 1975 race outfit, which was a cheap pair of shorts and a strange, hand-lettered, mesh t-shirt that Bill originally found in a trash can. (Bill was "economically challenged" at the time.)

The shirt and shoes were on display at Bill Rodgers' Running Center in Boston, and I photographed them for detailed reference.

Color photographs of that 1975 race were hard to come by, but I was determined to be accurate.  Charlie Rodgers (Bill's brother) came through with a color slide of the finish.  Jeff Johnson, a Track & Field News photographer and the first Nike employee ever, provided black and white photographs of the race.  These were indespensible to show the style and type of clothes worn by spectators that day.  (Especially those plaid bellbottoms!)  Jeff's photos also provided invaluable shots of the 1975 police motorcycles and uniforms.
Shooting Friends

The most difficult part of the process was next.  I had to photograph models for the crowds lining the street.  I used friends and family as subjects, the final painting would have approximately eighty-five people visible.  Armed with these reference materials, I created a more detailed sketch.
Composition, the pattern of light and dark, and the scale of the image were established in this drawing.  I sent a copy of the sketch to Bill, who approved and said he looked forward to seeing the final piece of work.  That would take nine more months.

The Actual Painting

The new sketch was projected onto the final 24" x 36" board and traced.  Using the reference photographs, I created the full-size base pencil drawing, adding details and sharpening the image.

Over this pencil drawing I blocked in the color and value pattern with airbrushed color dyes.  The base drawing stays visible through the airbrushed color.  My technique involves drawing with color pencil over the airbrushed dyes, rendering a detailed image.  On a painting this size it becomes quite time consuming.  I could complete four of the people in the crowd per day.  Every brick in the firehouse was drawn, in the same pattern as on the real building.

The Last Detail

One important detail had escaped me.  There were unusual symbols on the official race number Bill was wearing that day, and I could not identify them.  All the photos I had just showed small blurs.  Finally, on the cover of the April 1996 issue of Running Times Magazine, Rodgers appeared wearing his 1975 race clothes and number.  Those odd symbols on his number were clear as day!  It turns out they were chosen by  BAA Vice-President Gloria Ratti, who explained they were from her days working at the CIA, where they were used to identify Top Secret files.  You just never know.
Detail of Bill's race number
from the print.

With the final piece of the puzzle in place, I touched up the white highlights of the painting and sprayed it with fixative.  It was ready for reproduction as the lithograph you see here.

Andrew Yelenak has also painted the official 1997 Boston Marathon Poster.

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