Strong, thick digital ink lines give Robert Generette III’s sports figures shape, while comic book-bright colors bring them to life. They’re not just sketches on an Instagram feed, but bodies in motion, pitching, shooting baskets, running, punching, yelling. Often at full-tilt.
This is sports as it should be depicted and as masters like the late LeRoy Neiman have done before him. But where Neiman’s sports illustrations were bright, splashy and chaotic. Generrett’s are concise. The energy that Neiman tended to splash out is contained inside of Generette’s works, so that they vibrate with a barely-contained energy.
It’s the power of those images, virtually all of them drawn with an Apple Pencil on an Apple iPad Pro running Adobe Draw, and Generette’s virtuoso talent that got him and his work noticed over and over again. Now he’s creating arresting sports illustrations for not one, but two leading NBA teams, the Warriors and the Wizards, which happen to be facing off on Tuesday in Washington D.C.
And to top it all off, Generette’s drawing is a side-hustle, something he does in his spare time, mostly at night while he’s watching games. “If I’m sitting down watching sports, I need to be drawing at the same time,” he told me.
During the day, the 43-year-old Maryland resident is a high school photography teacher. “Darkroom, 35mm, old-school,” he said with obvious pride.
Generette, though, has been drawing since he was a little boy. He says his mother first noticed his skills when he was just three. By the time he was in grade school, teachers would know his schoolwork by the drawings he put in the upper right corner, in place of his name.
Like many who started drawing digitally in the years before Apple unveiled its first iPad in 2010, Generette used a MacBook Pro and the vector based Adobe Illustrator. When the iPad came along, he picked up the first version (he calls it “iPad 1”) and started drawing on it, first with his finger and eventually a Wacom Bamboo stylus. He started with Sketchbook Pro, but eventually switched to Adobe Vector, now called Adobe Illustrator Draw. I asked him if he tried the powerful iPad illustration app Procreate, but he told me “It does everything. I kind of like limitations, so I can push those limitations.”
Unlike bitmap drawing applications like Sketchbook and Procreate which let you edit and draw at a bit-level and easily recreate traditional media, vector-based apps maintain the math behind the lines and shapes, making them endlessly mutable.
Scrolling through Generette’s Instagram feed you can see his progression from someone who only occasionally shared glimpses of his art skills to a feed that’s now consumed with his bright, arresting sports imagery.
Generette got his start drawing sports pros a few years ago, after attending a talk by designer Aaron Draplin. Generette was multi-tasking, listening to and drawing Draplin at the same time.
“Robert presented me with this image that just knocked my socks off, of Dad, my dog Gary and myself. And, oddly enough, I get a lot of fan art, but when I went and looked, his stuff had this energy to it.,” Draplin told via email.
Freelance artist Ben Mahler, who was also in attendance, told me via email that he was killing time scrolling through his twitter feed and hashtags related to the event when he spotted Generette’s sketches.
“It suddenly clicked — he was a perfect fit content-wise, and his gestural style was really fresh, something I hadn’t seen done right in vector illustrations before,” Mahler said.
Mahler asked Generette if he’d liked to pitch in on some work he was doing for the local pro soccer team, DC United.
While not his number one sport (“Baseball is at the top, then basketball, then hockey, then soccer,” he said), the drawings Generette did soon got him noticed by the Washington Wizards pro basketball team. The team, which contacted him via LinkedIn, wanted him to create player images that could be used on the big screens during games. They’d have animations appear behind the players and then Generette’s vibrant illustrations would pop in from behind each player.
Adobe came calling when they noticed Generette’s Instagram feed, where he goes by the name Rob-zilla_iii. They asked him to do something for one of the Wizards’ cross-country rivals, the Golden State Warriors.
For them, he’s creating t-shirts and cheer cards. The plan is not to do exact replicas of the team’s five starting players, but to recreate a look Generette loved from the 1980s: NBA t-shirts featuring players with exaggerated features or over-sized heads “It’ll be something like that, but with my own flavor.”
Drawing these images, Generette explained, can take anywhere from two to five hours. Generette uses a combination of reference, transparency (in which he starts the drawing over a photo – the iPad Pro 12.9 inch he uses has enough screen real estate to host both a drawing app and the reference photo) and freehand. But the method is usually determined by the timeline and budget.
“If client has short timeline, it’s gonna be reference and a little bit of transparency. But never let the reference photo dictate what you do,” he said. He uses photos just to build the foundation. However, Generette’s image selection is critical.
“I try to select the photo that best captures my perspective of the person. I want to show everyone how I see this athlete,” he added.
Generette juggles these projects with his full-time teaching duties, a fact that still impresses his friends and collaborators.
“When I learned he was a teacher fighting the good fight, I just wanted to push him that much more. This awesome work of his, it was on his free time,” said Draplin.
Generette manages his time by do something he calls a “mental dance.” Throughout the workday, he draws and redraws a project in his head until, when he finally sits down with the iPad Pro that night, he can “do it rapidly with no mistakes.”
Before I let Generette get back to drawing sports figures, I asked him if he has any tips for aspiring digital artist. He quickly rattled off four:
Don’t deviate from your current process. Find ways that you can import your process into working digitally. If you’re accustomed to drawing on paper, keep doing that. All apps have ways of importing and digitizing
Every time you approach a drawing using your device, try something new.
One thing I make clear to most of my students is that the level of artistic skills isn’t based on how realistically you can draw things. Don’t compare yourself to anybody else based on realism. There are some artists who can do very photo realistic work, but, not to knock them, you might as well just use the photo.
Don’t be afraid to share your work. If you’re looking at this to begin a career, you’re going to have to have a demo ready. Let your social media be your demo. There are ways to watermark, so you don’t have to worry about someone stealing.