Ray Tennyson isn't on the Thunder payroll.
He only sounds like it.
“To me, the process is the most important part,” he says. “That's where you're got to focus to learn how to make the right strokes.”
And by strokes, he doesn't mean jump shots.
Tennyson is a painter, and a darn good one at that. His passion is pop-art portraits, and earlier this year, he started painting Thunder players.
It changed his life.
What used to be done around a part-time job is now Tennyson's full-time vocation. People are paying good money for his work, which is featured throughout this section.
“I never thought I'd be living off paintings,” he said.
He shook his head.
Tennyson always drew and doodled as a kid, but becoming an artist was never his dream. After graduating from Midwest City High School, he went into the Army wanting to be an engineer. Drafting and designing were his goals.
Instead, the Army sent him in a different direction and Tennyson found himself living at Fort Polk in central Louisiana, biding his time until he put in his three years of service.
In late 2010, he decided to try painting.
He devoted every spare moment to it, gravitating toward a graphic style and adopting a method where nothing is shaded. All the colors are separate, something that is noticeable up close but that appears more blended from a distance.
He showed his work to no one. Not his family. Not his friends.
“You don't want people to see your faults,” he said. “If I know it's bad, you won't see it until it looks good.”
Finally, after a year, he felt it was good enough to show.
The positive response reassured him that he was onto something. He returned to Oklahoma, moved to Moore and threw himself into his paintings even more, though he was still working a part-time job to pay bills and make ends meet.
A few months later, one of his followers on Twitter suggested that he do a portrait of Russell Westbrook. Tennyson is a basketball fan, so he jumped at the suggestion. But as he looked through photos trying to find the perfect shot of Westbrook — Tennyson usually combines images to get the look he's after — he realized what an interesting subject he was capturing.
“His attitude,” Tennyson said of what made Westbrook so intriguing. “I think it's because he's more aggressive than other people. He's more of a risk taker.
“Seems like he does what he feels.”
Tennyson tried to capture that full-speed-ahead attitude with a set-jaw, steel-eyed Westbrook.
Once Tennyson was done with the piece, he shared it with all of his followers.
“All the feedback,” he said, “made me do more.”
Kevin Durant was next.
At the suggestion of his mother, Tennyson decided to do the painting live in Bricktown on a Sunday afternoon last January. He sketched out the image on a canvas beforehand, took it and his paint to a spot on the sidewalk outside Harkins Theatre, then crammed what normally takes nine hours into two hours.
A serious, almost stoic Durant eventually emerged from the canvas.
With the Thunder off to a great start and everyone abuzz about all things blue, the painting generated attention on the internet and the local news. Not long after, Tennyson had sold enough of his paintings and was commissioned to do enough additional ones to quit his part-time job.
The 22-year-old marvels that he's now painting for a living, though he believes he still has much to learn.
“With any talent or any skill, it's always hard in the beginning,” he said. “I still think this is my beginning.”
This is where he starts sounding like works for the Thunder, a bunch that is forever talking about “ongoing process” and “player development” and “continued improvement”. The catch phrases make media and fans alike roll their eyes.
But as much as we hate to admit it, they're right. Even though the Thunder has done some amazing things — going to the NBA Finals only three years after starting the season 3-29 comes to mind — this is still a young franchise with a bunch of young players working to get better every day.
That resonates with Tennyson.
“People think you can become good in a month,” he said. “It takes years. That's why I look up to (the Thunder). They're doin' it, and they're young.”
The same can be said for Ray Tennyson.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at (405) 475-4125. You can also like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.
HOW TO BUY RAY TENNYSON'S ART
Want to own a piece of Ray Tennyson's work?
The Oklahoma native has originals, prints and T-shirts for sale on his website, RayTennyson.com. He paints commissioned pieces upon request, too.
He regularly posts videos of his paintings in progress on his YouTube channel, Ray Tennyson TV. He's also on Twitter and Instagram (@raytennyson).
His can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.