Austin artist creates watercolor portraits of musicians to sell at ACL

Paige Atkinson

Sitting on a large drafting table is a watercolor painting of George Strait. The painting is almost finished, but the artist is concerned about the eyes. “Does this do it for you? Can you feel it in the eyes?” he asked eagerly. 

William K. Stidham, a visual artist, has been making original watercolors for the last 13 years. He specializes in portrait paintings of other famous artists. According to Stidham, music festivals are the perfect place for people to discover his work. For the past eight years, he has set up shop within the confines of the ACL Art Market.  

“It’s my biggest show, and I do the biggest music festivals in the country,” Stidham said. “It’s like a homecoming for me.” 

Stidham is from San Antonio and graduated from UT with a degree in radio-television-film. He moved to Hollywood after graduation but did not have the fortitude to succeed at his age, he said. He ended up selling insurance until he quit at age 28. His next five years were spent writing a novel, which was never published. He said his failed attempt at publishing a book left him devastated with a lingering creative energy.

He started painting watercolors after buying a novice paint kit at Walgreens. He uses watercolors exclusively and develops depth in his paintings through layers of paint and a technique of pouring water straight on top of the paper. 

“I am considered a master watercolor artist,” he said. “And no one in the world paints like I do — you know why? Because I taught myself how to paint.”

Stidham is known mostly for his series of Sacred Heart paintings. According to Stidham, the Sacred Heart series draws people to his ACL booth. In his booth, there are portraits of musicians from many different genres, but in each portrait, there’s a heart emblem on the chest. 

“The heart represents that heart energy — that emotional milestone that we experience when we hear our favorite musicians,” Stidham said.

According to Stidham, a music festival is an appropriate venue for his work because of the communal aspect of experiencing music.

“There are people who come back year after year; there’s friends,” Stidham said. “Me being here for so long — everybody comes by the booth.”

He painted for a few years, mastering his technique before debuting his first Sacred Heart portrait of Willie Nelson. In the portrait, Stidham uses red, black, gold and white. His concert was Stidham’s first concert and also the first of many musicians that Stidham has painted.  

“My passion for rock ’n’ roll, my passion for the music, my passion for the people I was painting were really exhibited in these paintings,” he said.

Stidham’s studio is full of paintings, but not all of them are portraits of musicians. People commission Stidham to paint other popular figures who exist within the collective unconscious — Andy Worhol and Robin Williams, for example.

“I’m all about thriving,” Stidham said. “There’s no starving artist here; I don’t believe in it.”