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Stroke of genius

Faith. Family. Friends.

Add strokes of contrasting colors and blend the soul of the artist with the soul of his subject until the two merge on an oversized canvas.

Then you have the portrait art of artist Frank Korb. Korb is a Burlington, Wis., resident and Waterford Union High School art teacher.

Korb opened a show April 12 at the River Arts Center, 105 Ninth St., Prairie du Sac. A number of portraits, and a selection of preliminary sketches and color studies, will be on display through April 28.

Korb’s foray into his signature portrait art – one of his biggest challenges – started about seven years ago.

“I always remember portraiture as being very difficult,” Korb said.

“Faces are hard. But that’s what I paint.”

He took on the challenge, anyway, sketching the concept for a large-scale portrait.

Unsure of which direction to go, he let the project sit for an entire summer.

Then, inspired by the works of Chuck Close and Alex Katz, Korb started playing with colors and techniques, using the large canvas, bright colors and broken-up shapes reminiscent of the 1960s pop-art movement.

Korb’s style, at the time, was looser than his more recent works – “the shapes were not real well-defined,” he said.

Now, he said, his portraits tend to be “very fussy,” using specific shapes to create the whole image.

“I think the final picture is very full of depth and form, but it’s broken up by these very definite shapes,” Korb said.

“It’s fun to see things evolve like this.”

Korb spends a lot of time on preparation before paint ever touches the canvas.

A piece starts with a photo of a particular subject. To date, almost all of Korb’s subjects have been family members or friends.

“I think the fact that I know the people makes the paintings better,” he said.

He likes to make his own photos, because doing so gives him more control of the finished piece.

He prefers catching his subjects in candid moments that reveal their personalities and expressions.

He makes 20 to 30 photos, then sorts through them until he finds a favorite.

Next, he creates a detailed sketch of the image; then he traces that image on thin paper, creating the shapes that will form the final painted work.

Korb sometimes uses colored pencils to fill in the shapes and get a sense of how the finished painting will look.

He puts the tracing in a machine that projects a giant-sized image onto a prepared canvas, and then sketches the shapes that will be filled with paints.

Oils are Korb’s medium of choice, although he has used acrylics. “I like the smoothness, the creaminess (of oils),” he said.

Most people look at the portraits and assume they are acrylics, because the colors are so flat, he said. He mixes his paint colors on a palette before they touch the canvas, whereas many artists mix oils right on the canvas.

The River Arts show features a video of Korb’s start-to-finish progress on a paint-ing, to better demonstrate the work behind the work.

Korb said that is the teacher part of him coming through – he takes every opportunity he can to educate people about art.


Korb also makes abstract art, using familiar shapes and forms to help people understand complex concepts like faith, life and death.

“A lot of the abstract work that I started with…was a reflection of my faith,” he said.

“I started with the Bible as a source to build things on,” he said.

He used Bible pages as the base for a number of paintings, as well as for “Trinity,” a mixed-media series.

The viewer can’t necessarily read the pages, since he generally paints over them.

“But I’ve continued to use the Bible as a ground,” he said.

The abstract works are a way of “trying to share my beliefs, (though) I certainly don’t want to shove anything down anyone’s throat,” he said.

He uses circles, squares and house-shapes throughout the works as well.

“These are things that we see (in art) through history. All cultures have circles, have a house,” he said. “They’re recognizable shapes.”

He specifically uses the familiar to illustrate the abstract, hoping to give the viewer a key to understanding a piece.

Korb’s daughter, Abby, 8, provided a bit of input on his abstract art.

One particular piece hangs in the Korb family kitchen.

“I drew the circles when I was little. I can draw circles better than that now,” Abby said, pointing to the fluid oval shapes she drew at age 5. Her contribution creates an interesting contrast to the angular grid in the painting.

Abby has her own space in Korb’s basement art studio as well, where her cheerful, smaller-scale drawings and paintings commingle with her dad’s on softly sunlit walls.

The painting pair recently worked together at the Art Bar in Milwaukee, where an artist or artists work for six to eight hours on any given Sunday, painting a giant canvas. The Art Bar displays the painting until the next artist paints over it the following week.

Korb said he uses the same concept for his WUHS art students. A canvas hangs outside his classroom door. A student has a week to paint the canvas in his or her free time. The painting is displayed for a week – then the next student artist takes over.

It gives other students the opportunity to see what goes into making a painting, Korb said.

“I think involvement in or at least appreciation of the arts makes for a more well-rounded person,” Korb said.

Korb said he teaches his students that hard work and perseverance are the keys to success – and it helps that he is a working painter.

“I think for myself it’s equally important – or maybe more important – that I am a painter who teaches.”

He upped the ante a bit last June, challenging himself to make one painting a day for an entire year.

The fruit of his nearly year-long effort will be displayed at the Daily Brew in Burlington in May.

“I paint every day,” he said. “It’s a commitment and practice and (I) just have to do it.”

“There are days I don’t want to paint,” he said.

“So often people want the muse to come to them, to come inspire them. You have to just do it.

“That’s the frustrating thing for my students,” he said.

Korb wouldn’t have it any other way. “I love what I do,” he said. “I’ve got a family that loves and supports me. I grew up with parents who supported everything we did.”

“I am blessed.”

To see more of Frank Korb’s artwork, visit



I'm a writer, editor, photographer and artist living in rural Southeastern Wisconsin. I grew up in Chicago, made my way to the deep woods of Northern Minnesota and then landed here among the cornfields and cows. It's quite simply my happy place.

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