Saved by the pencil: How teacher who lost his job took up painting

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By THOMAS RAJULA
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At 34, Seth Odhiambo is giving his passion a second, more driven attempt. Last year, he lost his job as a Kiswahili and social studies primary school teacher.

He decided to set up base in Kitengela, Kajiado County, where he concentrated on growing his art studio. His pieces include pencil portraits, digital cartoons with urban and hip hop themes, graffiti and other sorts of illustrations.

Although Odhiambo has always loved creating images, being a public primary school teacher meant that he could not teach art.

He calls his talent “God-given”. His art talent was identified in primary school. His GHC, music and art teachers would call on him to help them draw illustrations on the black board during lessons. He would also help his classmates do the same.

After completing his high school in 2001, he started working on sketches to improve his skill.

“I would watch television shows and see artists being interviewed. They were creating great works and earning a living. I believed I could do the same,” says Odhiambo.

In his mind, he thought he wasn’t good enough yet, and he lacked the resources to buy good drawing pencils, drawing books and other material to improve his art. He did not have a job yet. He tried signwriting, but its earning was paltry.

He always set a part of his income aside to buy the material he needed. He also started attending art functions around Nairobi to meet people and promote himself. They would ask him to draw their portraits and this is what encouraged him to pursue the course further.

Odhiambo’s major break came when he joined Facebook in 2009. He started making friends, some based abroad, who were good artists.

“They gave me good advice and tips on how to improve my skills,” he says.

He practised on cartoons and portraits. Even as a teacher trainee, he found free time to work on his skill. Visitors to his institution would always tell there was an artist there as displayed his works. He did portraits ‘cheaply,’ selling them at Sh2,000 each. They were not well refined and the frames were not good.

In 2014, demand for his works started rising. Friends who had introduced him to pencil art started moving away from this form of expression. They referred their clients to Odhiambo and advised him to vary his shading tones.

His pencil portraits are mostly copied from high resolution soft copies that his clients e-mail to him. He prefers drawing from observation, either on his phone or laptop. Starting from the outlines moving in, he finishes by setting the tones depending on the complexion of the subject. The work takes anywhere from five hours to a week, depending on the size of the paper.

In 2015 he met First Lady Margaret Kenyatta during the Kenya Art Fair.

“I had a piece I was working on of the President and First Lady. A friend who had seen it encouraged me to show it to her. I had only began working on it, but I had a photo of it on my phone.

‘‘After introducing myself to the bodyguards, I got to shake hands with her and show her the unfinished piece. She complimented it but I regret that I couldn’t give it to her.”

His art has exhibited at Naiccon 2014, Kenya Art Fair 2015, Kenya Arts Diary and Portraits Africa: Essence, both in 2016.

He also does oil, soft pastel and water colour paintings, and has airbrushed scans on walls with Elijah Mutua, who inspires him when it comes to graffiti art.

He socialises with other artists, especially through social media. This has enabled him to spread to the other art forms. Richie Njogu introduced him to pastel painting. He was inspired to do cartoons by his love for cartoons, especially the hip hop cartoon Boondocks. He creates his own cartoons using SketchBook Pro illustration software, using a graphic tablet and a stylus pen. He has even done cartoon drawings for international hip hop artists such as Comet, DJ Tray and Dro Pesci, as well as local rapper Beka Boy.

“I like going out of the box. I tell my friends who are simply into pencil art to widen their areas of specialisation. At some point, people will be looking for other things,” says Odhiambo.

He doesn’t like to be rushed as this will compromise the quality of the final product.

“Love what you do. Money shouldn’t be your first motivation, or else your work will be shoddy. What I’ve done so far, and plan to in the future, is because of the fun I derive from art,” he says.

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