Russian-born artist Igor Babailov, who now lives in Brentwood, Tenn., meets with Pope Francis at the Vatican in the photo above. Babailov prefers to paint “from life” whenever possible, rather than using a photograph. His portrait of Pope Francis, a work in progress, will be his third official papal portrait.
Painter Igor Babailov has made his home in Brentwood, Tenn., since 2004, but the scope and reach of his work is worldwide.
Born in the Udmurt Republic of Russia in 1965, Babailov was a child prodigy at age 4, winning prizes in nursery school for his artistic talent. On request, he did a painting of his best buddy’s father, and since that early start, has created more than 2,000 portraits.
He is currently at work on the official portrait of Pope Francis which will hang in the Vatican, already home to Babailov’s commissioned portraits of St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.
“I’ve been fortunate in my life to meet a lot of interesting people,” said Babailov.
A humble statement from an artist who has captured the likenesses, characters and personalities of international statesmen like George W. Bush, Gen. David Petraeus, Hillary Clinton, Nelson Mandela, Prince Andrew and Vladimir Putin; entertainers like Regis Philbin and James Gandolfini; trophy winning athletic figures like Bobby Hull, Reggie Jackson and Boomer Esiason; and many other lesser known people who have commissioned Babailov to immortalize a moment in their personal histories.
In addition to the official papal portrait of Pope Francis, Igor Babailov also painted portraits of St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.
“First they are clients,” Babailov said. “Then they become friends. Painting portraits is a very intimate experience.”
To truly understand Babailov’s process and personal philosophy, you should know that none of these portraits were done from photos; each one began from a live sitting, which adds to that “intimate experience.”
“Every chance I get I like to paint from life,” explained Babailov. “I think that is the only way to explore the beauty and essence of God’s most perfect and complex creations, which you cannot get from copying photographs. Unfortunately, a lot of artists paint from photos because that’s what they’re taught in schools.”
Babailov’s schooling was an immersion in the work of the masters. At age 13 he competed against thousands of other young students for one opening at the prestigious Moscow Secondary School of Fine Arts, where he studied the classical visual arts. He graduated four years later with honors and was accepted into the world renowned Surikov Academy, which had produced many of history’s most influential painters, including the American artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler of “Whistler’s Mother” fame.
“To have the skill, you have to have the education,” Babailov said. “It’s like learning a language, or learning the alphabet from A through Z. If you don’t know the alphabet, you cannot write. It’s the same with art – there are certain rules, if you want to paint like the Masters.”
Now Babailov’s creations are hanging alongside the work of those masters.
His portrait of Pope Benedict XVI was included in an international exhibition, the “Vatican Splendors,” which celebrated 2,000 years of Vatican art and history and filled 10 galleries. Showcasing art and relics that align with each papacy, Pope Benedict XVI chose Babailov’s portrait of him to denote his contribution.
“Many masters of the Renaissance were included, like Michelangelo, Bernini, Guercino and Giotto,” said Babailov. “My portrait hung next to a Michelangelo, which was an incredible honor.”
That honor might not have transpired, if not for Babailov’s gorgeous work on “Believe,” the portrait of St. John Paul II, commissioned by the Canadian Office of Prime Minister and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of his pontificate and the 2002 World Youth Day held in Toronto. Babailov chose to surround the Holy Father, who is known as “the people’s pope,” with youth from a diversity of backgrounds, who, according to the artist, represent St. John Paul II’s humanity, as well as a hope for the future.
Babailov is well on the way to completing Pope Francis’s portrait, which will also incorporate images that are representative of the pontiff’s life and work.
In keeping with his desire to “paint from life,” Babailov did preliminary sketches of all three popes, which he likes to call, “a study of character and personality.” These are typically done in a black and white medium, often with just a graphite pencil. Then, to get the face color and other details just right, Babailov takes a series of photographs and researches other reference materials.
“Every Pope is very special,” explained Babailov. “There is some kind of magical and sacred aura around them. They’re all very different ideologically, because each is an individual person.”
When doing the initial live sketches, he prefers not to talk with his subjects, though he is able to ascertain their “character and personality” in other ways. “When I work with a person in front of me, even if we don’t talk, there is a conversation,” Babailov said. “An interaction, a communication can be without words. In fact, sometimes it is richer without words!”
Like St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI before him, Pope Francis does not know the exact nature of the final piece. “I am fortunate to have that freedom, to create what has to be done, based on my skills and expertise,” said Babailov. “There is a trust factor. This will not be just a likeness, or a photographic image. It will tell a story – with details about the person’s beliefs, the person’s interests, and where the person is in their faith.
“At the same time, this is my third papal portrait, so it’s a tremendous responsibility,” continued Babailov. “It has to be different than the other two, and it has to be better!”
For those who live in the area, Babailov loves to give tours of his home and studio, which is a veritable museum of his family and celebrity portraits, architectural sketches, landscapes and still lifes. “I’m not one of those artists who locks up, and doesn’t let anybody in,” Babailov said. “I like to discuss the idea of what I do. It’s part of my mission to share it with the people.”
Babailov also periodically teaches painting at Plaza Artist Materials in downtown Nashville. To make an appointment for a personal tour, to find out about his Master Workshops, or to see more images from his extensive and varied oeuvre, visit www.babailov.com.