BIGFORK – At age 9, when most children are learning basic multiplication and division, a Spanish portrait artist was teaching Diana Neville how to grid and draw the intricacies of the human body down to one-sixteenth of an inch.
She took her first portrait order at age 12, and since then Neville, now a Bigfork resident, has completed more than 20,000 portraits, including paintings of several American presidents and celebrities.
“I remember my grandmother’s friend asking me when I was just a little girl what I wanted to be when I grow up,” Neville said. “I just said, ‘I am an artist.’ I was a snotty little kid, but I knew. I always knew what I wanted to do.”
Neville had only a few deviations from the path she chose as a little girl. Her high school art teacher guided her away from her penchant for drawing animals rather than people by asking, “How many mother deer and mother horses will pay you to draw a picture of their babies?” And, at age 19, Neville, feeling she had been pushed into art by her mother and grandmother who were both artistically talented but unable to pursue art as a career, vowed to give up drawing for 12 months to see if she missed it. She was miserable by week two, but completed her self-imposed year of abstinence.
“It ended up being such a valuable thing for me,” Neville said. “I gained a new enthusiasm for art and such respect for my mother and grandmother. They weren’t pushing me to do it for them; they were smart enough to realize how important it was to me – maybe before I even did – and willing to sacrifice and push me to help me get better.”
Neville’s reputation grew steadily as she accepted portrait commissions from celebrities in sports, entertainment and political fields. She started big: Her first celebrity commission came in her early 20s when she was asked to paint Frank Sinatra, Johnny Carson, Sammy Davis Jr. and several other entertainment stars for a fundraiser. But, the portraits were never auctioned off – Sinatra’s portrait was stolen during the event and the director of the halfway house kept the remaining portraits for the charity’s dining hall.
Neville’s other subjects have included Presidents Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter. Her portrait of Patricia Nixon hangs in the Smithsonian, while Joe DiMaggio’s likeness leans against a wall in her workspace at home.
Montana doesn’t seem a likely location for Neville, who grew up in New Mexico, spent her early career traveling from big city to big city, and who still receives most of her workload from southern states. But, it was a portrait that brought her to Bigfork in the early 1990s when she was commissioned to paint members of the Averill family, owners of Flathead Lake Lodge. A three-month commission turned into seven months as she enjoyed the area, and Neville later returned to be married near Glacier and to live in Bigfork.
She continues to paint portraits by commission and teaches pastel portraiture classes at Kalispell’s Northland Hobbies. Her next class will begin the first week of March.
Neville taught her first workshop 30 years ago in Laguna Beach, Calif., based on an alteration of the original grid method she learned as a child. It was an experiment that has since proven successful for her small classes, which include beginners to professionals.
“Most of the students have the talent,” she said. “I try to teach them the discipline for making things exact. It’s similar to what I learned as a child, but I try to make it less tedious and a little more user-friendly.”
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