Developing Her Style Early
Brenda Dunn knew what she was doing way before her teachers did. As a youngster in school in Eastern Oregon, she drew all the time. “It was the only way I could focus,” she said. “I always got in trouble for it, but I was listening.” Her favorite thing to draw, then and now? Girls. “I started drawing princesses and mermaids as a little girl,” she said. “As a teenager, I drew skater chicks, Goth girls, whatever I was into at the time. The girls always kind of changed with me.”
Brenda got poor grades in art class, and one teacher told her that cartoons weren’t real art. “Another couple teachers wanted me to go in other directions, but I wasn’t open to doing it,” she said. “My whole time growing up I was working on my style.” One teacher gave her books on human proportion. Brenda responded by doing a completely realistic drawing, to show that she could.
Then she returned to her own style. Conflicts with her teachers continued in college. One teacher made Brenda, who is a lefty, draw with her right hand. Brenda regards these run-ins philosophically. “One thing that has helped me as an artist is I have a very, very distinct style,” she said. “Fighting with teachers kind of helped me with that.”
Two early muses influenced Brenda’s direction: her uncle and Jessica Rabbit. Brenda remembers sitting on the floor, watching Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and her mouth dropping open when she saw the curvy cartoon femme fatale Jessica Rabbit. “To that point I was still drawing little girls,” Brenda said. “It opened my eyes to that style of drawing.”
When Brenda was 18, her uncle showed her his pinup collection. “It was then appropriate to show me the style of art,” she said. Her uncle had always known that she’d appreciate his classic pinups, including books by Alberto Vargas, whose illustrations went down in history as “Vargas girls.” Art nouveau pinup artist Alphonse Mucha and painter Tamara Lempicka also inspired Brenda.
Brenda said she doesn’t want to sound cheesy, but she’s in awe of female beauty. “A sexy woman is a powerful thing,” she said. “The whole spirit of that.” In addition to being an artist, Brenda’s early career goal was to do makeup. She and her friends staged fake photo shoots as teens. Her friends still rely on her to make up their faces and pick accessories for special occasions.
Brenda considered art school, but it didn’t work out. The school tried to steer her towards graphic design or fashion. Brenda didn’t want to trade in her ink and Prismacolor pencils for a computer. “They said illustration was a dying art,” she said. There might have been some truth in that, she admits, but in the last few years she’s seen illustration make a come back. “Portland has a strong illustrative vibe,” she said. “It’s becoming popular again.”
In addition to pinup art, Brenda does branding and fashion illustration. She drew the look books, or drawings of a fashion collection, for Sofada, the first Portland designer to show her line in New York’s fashion week. Sofada, aka Alice Dobson, brought Brenda’s pinup pics as makeup inspiration for her models.
The Business End
Running her own design and art business has required Brenda to pick up lots of extra skills. She’s also curated art shows for businesses in Southeast Portland. “I’ve worked with both pros and flaky artists,” Brenda said. “And I’ve met a lot of other businesswomen. A lot of my friends have creative businesses, so we all learn from each other.”
Some of her skills were learned at the First Thursday Street Gallery, one of the first places Brenda showed her art. “I had this friend that I worked with at a restaurant,” she remembered of her early days. “She was a handbag designer. She was the first girl I met that decided to have her own business. I was in my early twenties and was impressed by her confidence. She said she was going out on the street to sell art. I tagged along for a couple of months.” Then Brenda started going to the street gallery on her own. “I think it’s a really cool idea and it’s definitely a place where people can always find me no matter what,” she said. “I’m always in same place.” She became more involved in the Urban Art Network, volunteering as a block captain.
Brenda likes the feeling of camaraderie between artists. “On the days when it’s super hot or raining, I think why am I doing this?” she said. “I look around and see other people doing it, too. It takes a special kind of person, the hardcore artists.” For artists that are just starting out, Brenda says the key to success is “being professional, not one of the flaky artists. Be just as business-minded as you are artistic.”
As much as Brenda loves her pinups, she finds herself wanting to branch out. One thing she’d like to do is learn to paint. “I can only draw intricate small drawings,” she said. “I feel like I’ve mastered that technique. But I have visions in my head of beautiful paintings I could do. I haven’t had time to make that happen.”
Brenda also wants to start a home ware line. She’s been designing textiles and wallpaper with a tropical plant and flower motif. She hopes to produce dishes, tablecloths and bedding, and have them in stores sometime soon.
Sandy beach vacations are another dream. “Being able to work anywhere and just bring a sketchbook and laptop,” Brenda said. “That’s what I really want. I think about it all the time.” She’s been to Central America and Spain, and would like to explore other warm beachy locales. “I’d like to go to one new country every year,” she said.
See Brenda’s Work Brenda is a hardworking artist, and it’s not difficult to find her illustrations around town. In addition to the Street Gallery, she has revolving art shows at Parts and Labor in Hood River, and in the East Side Deli’s various locations in Portland. You can also visit her online at http://www.etsy.com/shop/pinupbrenda.
—by Teresa Bergen