Former Professional Baseball Player Flourishes as a Visual Artist
Writer / Jessica Able
Since he was a young boy, Richard Sullivan has had two loves – baseball and art.
Admittedly, baseball took up most of the Louisville native’s time, but art was something he returned to again and again. Sullivan says his love of expressing himself through doodling or painting always came as natural as breathing.
“I think it just came naturally to me when I was younger,” he says. “Whenever I was bored, or supposed to be studying or in class, I always had a pencil and paper. It always made me feel at peace and relaxed. There was never any pressure. It always made me feel really good.”
Earlier this year, Woodford Reserve representatives tapped the Louisville artist to design the artwork for the company’s 2020 commemorative Kentucky Derby bottle. His elegant watercolor design depicts galloping thoroughbreds beneath the twin spires of Churchill Downs as they race toward the finish line.
“There is poetic beauty in this year’s bottle because Richard Sullivan, the human athlete, is celebrating the equine athlete,” says Woodford Reserve Master Distiller Chris Morris.
With the design, Sullivan, 32, says he hoped to convey movement and action.
“The Woodford Reserve label is very horizontal, so it was a challenge because I like to paint very large-scale,” he says. “It was challenging and fun.”
Before spending his days in a studio where he paints athletes, both human and equine, Sullivan spent most of his time on a baseball field. He attended Ballard High School where his natural ability on the baseball diamond made him a standout.
“When you are naturally good at something, you like that positive attention that comes with that,” he says. “You want your parents or teachers to say ‘Oh, that’s a good job.’”
Sullivan had the chance to bring together his two passions when he signed with the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), the only art and design school in the country to have a sports team.
He was able to hone his artistic ability while also playing for the school’s baseball team. It was the first time, he says, that he felt truly able to be himself.
Sullivan was drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the 2008 Major League Baseball (MLB) draft. He spent the next six years playing in the minor leagues, and baseball took over nearly every waking moment of his life. His artwork had to be pushed to the back burner.
Professionally, he was living his dream career.
At some point in his baseball career, Sullivan says, the excitement he’d always felt for the sport wasn’t there. He wanted to grow as an artist more than he wanted to be a baseball player. He was released from his contract and found himself pondering what to do next.
He began by returning to SCAD to complete a degree in illustration, and began painting athletic portraits.
His skill at painting athletes, both equine and human, comes from his extensive knowledge of the human form as a baseball player.
“There is a connection to my past as a baseball player, especially with pitching,” says Sullivan, who accepts art commissions. “Every athlete gets into a flow – you get in that flow state. You are so focused, so present, that time kind of stops. You have to be so totally focused in that moment. That’s what it’s like for me when I’m painting.”
Inspiration for Sullivan’s artwork flows from all areas of his life. Two watercolor artists that have heavily influenced him are John Singer Sargent, the renowned American painter, and Charles Reid, an American watercolor artist who passed away in 2019.
Though his work might not reflect it, Sullivan is inspired by nature and by simply getting outdoors.
“I love being in nature, being outside – just being free and being able to let your mind go is refreshing,” he says.
Much of Sullivan’s work centers around a topic he is familiar with – Major League Baseball. In 2017 he was commissioned by his former team, the Atlanta Braves, to paint 18 original paintings that now hang in Truist Park, where the Braves play. Another one of his paintings was accepted into the permanent collection at the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He also recently finished a collaboration with Topps trading cards.
Sullivan recently became an officially licensed artist with MLB and is now able to paint any active player. His goal is to expand his audience by selling prints of his work in MLB stadiums across the country.
Sullivan must balance his time between being an entrepreneur and an artist. Sometimes, he says, it’s hard to stay focused on painting when he must attend to the details of the art business.
When he can spend an uninterrupted day in his Portland studio, Sullivan often cranks up music and starts by drawing. He’ll design a composition in Photoshop and transfer it to large-scale watercolor paper. The last step before painting is to sketch a little on the paper. The process of painting itself doesn’t take that long, he says.
Now that Sullivan has been away from baseball for several years and devotes his time to his art, he wants others to hear his story and to let people know that they can forge their own path.
“I want kids to know they can have more than one passion,” he says. “Playing a sport and being an artist were two very different things when I was a kid. I thought I could only focus on one thing. Life is not just black or white. There are so many different avenues.”
To learn more about Richard Sullivan’s artwork, go to richardsullivanillustration.com.