A Brush With Life

For half a century Don Bachardy has drawn and painted some of L.A.’s most memorable faces. Gaze upon his legacy
Art by Don Bachardy

After Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy settled in Santa Monica Canyon, the famous writer saw how the young artist delighted in meeting the film greats, bringing Bachardy to social gatherings where the important introductions were made. The boy from Atwater Village had practically grown up in movie theaters and wanted at first to be an actor. Now he no longer seeks out celebrities—”There’s always that much more tension because all kinds of people are after them”—but in those early years he couldn’t get enough of them.

Of course he also drew the writers in Isherwood’s orbit, and fellow artists, too, some of them his neighbors and huge figures in the L.A. scene: David Hockney, Ed Ruscha, Richard Diebenkorn, Billy Al Bengston, Ed Moses, Laddie and Guy Dill. Their pieces fill the low-slung Spanish house that Bachardy has lived in for 50 years. “It saw Chris out,” the 75-year-old artist says of Isherwood’s death in 1986, “and I expect it will do the same for me.” Even as Bachardy went from true-to-life pencil drawings to more expressionistic oils, he used only live subjects (he dismisses any other process as photocopying). “I drink the person in,” he says of the hours-long sittings. “It’s even better than acting. I really feel like I’m the person I’m working on.”

For the past two years he’s been busy promoting the 2008 documentary Chris and Don: A Love Story and consulting for Tom Ford’s A Single Man, from the Isherwood novel. It made him pine to be back in his view-filled studio. “At least I can offer my sitters something pleasant to look at.”

Don Bachardy: Self-Portraits 1959-2009 is currently on view at the Craig Krull Gallery.