Shayla Thompson likes to get her hands dirty. Her friends include shady characters, or at least shaded ones. Her tool of choice isn’t anything threatening, though. For the 18-year-old budding artist, it’s simply a pencil.
With this in hand, Thompson finds her calling: releasing the light and whimsy of people through photo-quality sketch.
"I’ve been drawing since before I can remember," said Thompson, who graduated from high school in Montana and resides in Magna. Like many art-friendly children, she got her start finger-painting the walls in her mother’s house, although she prefers pencil and paper now. Her supporters say her art is special because of its exactness: With no formal training or tracing, she sketches portraits that look nearly identical to their subjects. "I think she’s incredible. … Her stuff almost looks like photographs," said Kassidy Beckstrand, a freshman at Utah Valley University and Thompson’s best friend. "It’s the one thing that she loves [most] to do."
Thompson derives inspiration from the unique influences of her life, and not all of them have been happy. Four years ago, her mother, Nicia LePaine, passed away after brain tumor surgery, leaving Thompson without her greatest support in life and art. Although her mother is physically gone, Thompson says she is still very much alive in guiding her art.
"She always really believed in me the most, always wanted me to pursue it," said Thompson. "She’s kind of my drive behind it all, besides the fact that I love it."
Thompson’s devotion also makes her stand out, says aunt Katherine LePiane of Lolo, Mont.
"She really puts her heart and soul into everything she does for a picture," LePiane said. "[She’s] her own worst critic."
Beckstrand also noted that Thompson excels because she invests herself fully.
"When she puts that pencil to the paper, it’s like she’s completely gone," she said. "She won’t even look up."
Admirers often ask Thompson how she does her work. For her, art is intuitive, and it starts with discovering light layout.
"It’s all about looking at the positive and negative spaces, [and] once you do that it’s pretty easy," she said. "I usually start with the eyes: Once you get the eyes down you can build from there." A portrait takes up to a dozen hours, and her subjects include friends, Disney princesses and Old Hollywood muses such as Marilyn Monroe and Lucille Ball. Thompson also does watercolors and hopes to learn charcoal.
She dates her desire to be an artist to a specific childhood episode, when the artist son of her mother’s boyfriend guided her.
"He used to sit and draw with me … and really inspired me," she said.
Her other tutelage consists of a high-school art class, and she hopes to pursue formal training when it’s financially feasible. To garner funds and publicity, she recently created a Facebook page, where she accepts art prompts and displays her work.
She also welcomes clients, but her business experience so far disappoints. Her first customer, a Montana peer who wanted a portrait for his girlfriend, took the drawing without paying and hasn’t been in contact since.
"I’m still learning," Thompson said with a laugh.
As for the future, she says she has considered avenues from tattoo design and opening a studio to illustration and becoming a Disney animator.
For now, she hopes to inspire her four younger siblings to pursue their dreams and to keep creating. Thompson said she doesn’t have a particular philosophy or artistic idol.
Like her pencil, it’s simpler than that: "I don’t really know how good I am," she said. "I just want to create beautiful things."
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