Quick on the draw
Arlington native Rob Surette touts himself as the art world's fastest portrait painter in the west, and also in the east
Backed by electronic music and bathed in spotlights, Rob Surette began with a broad swipe of peach-colored paint on a 6-foot-high black canvas.
The students at Miriam McCarthy Elementary School in Framingham sat wide-eyed on the cafeteria floor as Surette scurried toward the canvas to make long, graceful strokes, then bounced away to get a better look at his handiwork. At times throwing paint with his hands or jumping to reach the corners, the Arlington native quickly began adding features that made the long, craggy face recognizable.
Though the students had been told by the principal to be quiet, they turned to each other and said, ''It's Lincoln! It's Lincoln!"
After a few deft strokes to fill in the eyes, Surette dipped his hand in white paint, then jumped and slammed his handprint on the upper left corner on the completed portrait of the nation's 16th president.
Time from start to finish: six minutes.
Surette, who calls himself ''the world's fastest portrait artist," annually churns out 4,000 paintings of everyone from Beethoven to Jessica Simpson and does it in front of live audiences around the country.
For years, Surette has been talking with the Guinness Book of World Records to be included in the record book. But he said that with no category existing for speed painting, there is no one to compete with.
''Oh well," said Surette, shrugging, ''I think I deserve it."
Born in Arlington, where he lived for 27 years, Surette recalls two main influences for his love of painting and artistic creativity: his grandfather and a Saturday morning children's television show.
''I remember being 3 and giving him my Sesame Street books," Surette said. ''He would look at a drawing of Big Bird and be able to draw it by hand just by looking at it. I couldn't believe it!"
Surette, like his grandfather, had no formal art training.
Another inspiration for him was the kiddie show ''Captain Bob," which taught children how to draw a different animal each week. Every Saturday morning, Surette would wake up early with a sketchpad in hand.
''Most kids would get frustrated," he said, explaining that the host would start drawing slowly, but soon pick up the pace. ''But it was the highlight of my week."
''I don't know if I was born with a talent or just had an early interest or fascination," he said.
Surette's livelihood of putting on shows at schools, corporate events, and other locales came about rather easily for him. With his love of drawing faces, Surette strived to become what he called ''the master of drawing people."
In 1995, Surette, then in his early 20s, was running a youth group for teenagers through St. Eulalia Church in Winchester. As an inspirational tool, he would paint figures ranging from Martin Luther King Jr. to Jesus, using theatrical lighting and music to add to the effect.
One night, recalled Surette, he performed outdoors on top of a hill, with about 30 teenagers watching in awe. ''The reaction was unbelievable," he said. The combination of lights beaming, music booming, and paint spraying, he said, made for quite an experience for those watching. Surette explained that one thing led to another, with churches and schools more than eager to have him appear before them.
Now, after 11 years of performing, Surette is glad to have found his niche, not to mention a full-time job. His studio and office, named Amazing Hero Art, is in Andover, where he now resides.
A bonus for being the fastest portrait artist is the publicity. Surette recently wrapped up his second appearance on ABC's ''Good Morning America" on the Fourth of July, when he painted a 6-foot portrait of the Statue of Liberty in five minutes before an audience of 6 million television viewers. The hosts welcomed any challengers to one-up Surette; no one took up the offer.
During his first ''Good Morning America" appearance, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year, Surette painted an upside-down, 6-foot portrait of the civil rights leader in one minute and 37 seconds.
''Being the fastest is more of a marketing tool title than anything else," said Surette, who added that he enjoys the freedom of not having an agent.
''I don't have an agent telling me what shows to do and what not to do," he said. ''I was able to get on national TV without needing one. I'm proud of that."
In addition to the media publicity, Surette enjoys quieter forms of recognition. His name will be included next month on the Wall of Tolerance in Montgomery, Ala., which recognizes citizens who have taken a stand for tolerance and justice.
''While I love entertaining, I try to make the world a better place," he said.
That optimistic message was a clear theme at his recent show in Framingham. Surette began by speed-drawing the United States freestyle and quizzing the kids as to what he was drawing. ''I'll give you a hint: It's a place that I love," he said while drawing.
After Lincoln came mural-sized paintings of Mother Teresa, Albert Einstein, Beethoven, and Gandhi. He finished by painting an upside-down portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. Surette said he likes ending his school shows this way because he confuses both students and teachers until the painting is flipped over.
Along with painting these six portraits, Surette also drew Mickey Mouse and Shakespeare on a smaller canvas.
Six mural-sized paintings and two drawings. All in an hour-long show.
At the end of his show, principal Joan Vodoklys told her students to follow Surette's advice to ''be somebody" and use their talents to help others.
Surette explained that painting Mother Teresa is especially important to him. Her successor, Sister Nirmala, called and wrote to him, thanking him for his efforts to ''shape the minds of today's youth."
''I could easily make $50,000 in one weekend by doing a show for a business expo or for a strictly entertainment show," said Surette, who said he does one or two of these high-paying jobs per year. ''But every year, I do about 100 shows for schools," where he charged $1,000.
Surette has met some of his heroes, from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Steven Tyler to Ray Bourque, who hired him to perform at his retirement party. He said he is in talks to perform at Patriots quarterback Tom Brady's annual fund-raiser in Hyannis.
And to show that no good talent ever goes to waste, Surette was even asked a few years ago to become a sketch artist for the Woburn Police Department. But he turned it down because the job required him to study forensic science.
Amazed at how word gets around, Surette said he was surprised to get a phone call from the Princess of Samoa last year to get him to perform an inspirational show for the people of her country. ''I don't know how the heck she got my number," he said. ''But I told her, 'One day, I will come over there.' "
That's just one of his lofty goals.
''I want to perform at the White House," he said. ''It doesn't matter which president is in office." Surette also wants to put on a running show painting musical icons in the theater district in Boston.
With so much to accomplish, he sees himself painting and performing well into his 50s, if he stays in shape.
''All I want to do is paint and perform," he said. ''Theater should be a captivating, dramatic experience. It should make you go, 'Whoa!' "