by Bill Hedrick
From the time Karen Butts could hold a crayon, she wanted to be an artist. “I loved looking at pretty pictures and playing with crayons and paints. Being creative took me to a happy place,” she explains. Her gift for creating things was inherited from her mother who was a dreamer and creator of many things. Her father, on the other hand, was serious and all business and often reminded Karen that, “You can’t make any money being an artist!”
So, by the time she was in high school, Karen tucked away her dreams of becoming an artist and, being the obedient child that she was, took extra math and English in preparation for college. “My father thought I should be a nurse or a teacher, which was about all women did back then,” says Karen. But after marrying and raising three children, it was Karen’s turn to pursue what she had set aside for so many years and, in 2004, photography became her hobby. In that same year, Karen attended the Texas School of Professional Photography and her life was changed forever.
She vividly remembers the words of her instructor that year, Darton Drake, who told his class, “Your eyes are windows to your soul.” There was something in Darton’s words that spoke to Karen and she was inspired enough to quit her job as an elementary school registrar. So, instead of listening to her father’s words, she listened to her heart. “At the age of 55, I felt I had so much to learn in the time I had left on this Earth,” she explains, so Karen began photographing everything she could.
But it wasn’t long before she somehow began losing her passion for photography and eventually mustered enough courage to refer the jobs that did not satisfy her creativity to other photographers. “It was hard to turn away the money,” says Karen, “but when I did, my desire to create returned.” Her new goal was to become known as a fine art, portrait artist, specializing in children and newborns, with the final product being a painting. The journey continued.
“In the beginning of my photographic career, I was a people pleaser and didn’t know who I was as an artist. I had no confidence in myself and allowed others to control the direction of my sessions. I was frustrated, to say the least,” she explains. Karen realized that she needed more professional training and, since 2004, has never missed a year attending the Texas School of Professional Photography, taking courses under some of the finest instructors in the country, letting her own heart make the selection of her instructor each year. “Honestly, I am not sure where I would be without the education that I have received at the Texas School.”
Karen’s next bold step was to enter print competition on the guild level. “The Professional Photographers Guild of Houston is one of the most active guilds in the country and always has a great speaker lineup. For years, I only watched the print competition because I didn’t feel I was good enough and was afraid of failure. But now I understand that the competition is not about winning or losing, it is about growing as a photographer,” says Karen. Once over her fear, Karen soon began earning print merits in PPA competition and, in 2015, earned her Master of Photography degree.
“Learning the technical and business side of photography is indeed important,” she explains, “but so is discovering who you really are as an artist. I soon realized that I did not want to be like other photographers. I wanted to be uniquely me. I wanted to step out of the box and be different.” But she does thank her father for his good business advice. As a result, she built her business a step at a time, buying equipment only when she had the money. “Being frugal actually has a silver lining,” says Karen, “and has forced me to be more creative.”
Today, she looks everywhere for inspiration, often turning to other forms of art. “One of my favorite things to do is to go to Old Town Spring and wander through the shops and antique stores looking for inspiration. “It amazes me that an object, a color palette, or a scent can trigger a new idea. Once, while walking with my neighbor, I found an old, rusty tin can. To me, it was a piece of art, although my neighbor thought I was nuts! But I have that rusty, tin can on display in my office as a reminder of the power of nature.”
In fact, Karen makes many of her own backdrops and props that are uniquely her own which sets her apart from other photographers. The background in “Chocolate Vanilla Swirl,” which went in the PPA Loan Collection Book, is scrapbooking paper. The ice cream is upcycled from a rag doll that she bought at an antique store.
The tutu in “Maternal Instinct” was made from neon colored fabric that she manipulated in Photoshop for a more pleasing color palette. The child was sitting on a chair made from old doors. “This busy, little two-year-old finally settled down when I set a bunch of teddy bears on a chair with her. When I placed the small bear in her arms, she turned into a little mother. Using Photoshop and Corel Painter, I then removed the other bears and created the color harmony by painting in the colors from the skirt onto the back of the chair,” she explains.
“Forest Nymph,” which also went in the PPA Loan Collection Book, is not necessarily the typical color palette used for a newborn portrait, but Karen found the scarf with the complimentary colors while on one of her shopping excursions. “The basket was made from two grapevine wreaths from a hobby store. I added a cardboard bottom and filled it with batting to make the soft palette for the baby, then hot-glued the moss onto the wreath to finish the set.”
Inspiration comes in many forms and from some unlikely places. While her lawn man was spraying for weeds one day, he accidentally killed Karen’s beautiful Honeysuckle vine. As she was angrily chopping down the remains, it dawned on her that she could make lemonade out of lemons and fashioned a headpiece used in “Mother Nature’s Heiress.” She also used a bird nest she found in her yard and, in post processing, played around with texture overlays, something she learned from Jen Hillenga.
Obviously, Darton Drake made a huge impact on Karen’s life and career as a portrait artist. “Twelve years after I took his class, he finally commented on one of my images just a few months before his death,” relates Karen. Darton remarked that he “could not stop looking into her eyes.” It was a comment that, to Karen, meant as much to her as earning her Master of Photography degree. That image, “Engaging,” was another Loan Collection image and was a portrait of Karen’s own granddaughter who asked her if she would “take her picture.” The session evolved as a game of “dress-up” while granddaughter and grandmother rummaged through a stash of old scarves. “I had her sit on my door chair on the front porch,” she explains, “and shot only with natural light. This special spot has beautiful light about 80% of the time and I’ve used it for many, many portraits.”
The precious child in the image, “I Miss My Daddy,” was placed in a Crepe Myrtle tree in Karen’s backyard with the mother holding onto his legs for safety. “I used only natural light when capturing this image and then painted it in Corel after manipulating the straight lines of the tree trunks into meandering curves to frame the boy. I also took away some of the contrast in the bark so the area of greatest contrast was between the child’s face and hair and his eyes, not the tree.” Since we normally read from left to right, Karen flipped the image so the lines of his arm/shirt created a leading line to the center of interest… his face.. which is in a power point. “I would like to think that Darton would have liked this image, too,” she comments.
When Karen turned 65, she made a decision to give back to her generation by offering a complimentary portrait session and print to senior citizens. “I think seniors deserve a little special treatment,” she says. The idea was the result of observing a beautiful, little lady every Sunday in Church. “She was always dressed from head to toe with matching shoes, purse, and outfit, topped off with a hat.” Because of a persuasive, mutual friend, Yolanda finally decided to take Karen up on her offer for the complimentary session. “While working with her, I discovered that she was a Katrina transplant from New Orleans. She had raised three children as a single mom and had put them through college all on her own. Then, after they graduated, she went to college herself and became a social worker. What a heart-warming story!”
After photographing the lady in several of her outfits, including the hats, Karen had her remove her hat and then draped her in a scarf that complimented her skin tone. The portrait, “Refined Indigo,” was taken with natural light on Karen’s front porch. “Yes, I broke a rule by having her looking out of the frame without giving her room to look, but it just felt right.” In fact, the judge who later critiqued the image commented, “You broke a rule and did it very well.” Karen would be pleasantly surprised while attending IPC Judges’ School in 2016 when this image was shown in a power point presentation used to charge the IPC jurors.
Karen’s most recent endeavor was inspired by Tom Hathcock, who was Executive Director of the Professional Photographers Guild of Houston at the time. He encouraged her to start doing programs. “I explained to him that I was very shy and insecure but he would not leave me alone!” So, with just a bit more encouragement, Karen finally agreed to present a workshop titled, “Fine Art on a Shoestring Budget.” In her presentation, Karen explains all about being frugal and how she uses her crafting and sewing skills to create unique props and backgrounds.
“I worked hard on the program and was shocked that I was not at all nervous and rather enjoyed myself! It felt good to share my knowledge with others,” she says. Since that time, Karen has taught various workshops and presented programs throughout Texas and Louisiana including a Super One Day class and two Texas 10 Workshops. “It feels great to be doing what I think I was born to do… create artistic images,” she adds.
In January of 2017, Karen Butts received her Photographic Craftsman degree and has set her goal to earn her Master Artist degree. She is living testimony that, “It’s never too late to follow a dream!”