Sullivan trades in glove for paint brush

Former Braves lefty fulfilling dream as artist following MiLB career

Richard Sullivan (right) spent five seasons in the Minors before becoming a watercolor artist. (Carl Kline/MiLB.com)

By Danny Wild / MiLB.com | July 6, 2016 10:00 AM

Richard Sullivan worked a scoreless eighth inning on April 23, 2012, getting a called third strike to wrap up his fifth outing of the year at Double-A Mississippi. It would be the last of his Minor League career.

Sullivan, drafted by Atlanta in 2008, was released by the Braves two days later. He saw action in a handful of independent league games the following year, but never again in a Braves uniform.

"I played indy ball the season after and then I went back to school," Sullivan said. "After that, I knew baseball was done."

Then a 26-year-old reliever, Sullivan wasn't sure what direction to head in.

"I think that's the hardest thing I've ever done," he said of his decision to stop playing. "The game is a part of you for so long, you really doubt who you are after baseball. That becomes all you know."

Sullivan, an 11th-round pick out of Savannah College of Art & Design, did know at least one other passion, though. While he played baseball at SCAD, he was also into, appropriately, art and design. Four years later, his contributions to baseball are coming from his watercolor brushes and unique perspective on painting.

"Once I got drafted by the Braves, for three or four years it was all baseball -- that was everything," he said. "But I felt like there was a transition, that baseball didn't give me everything I needed. I needed to explore something else."

Seeing his pitching career dry up turned out to be the opportunity he'd been waiting for. Now 29, Sullivan's art is emerging in the baseball world and beyond. He's painted a variety of former and current Braves stars and teammates as well as icons such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., NBA MVP LeBron James, horse-racing champion American Pharaoh and, more recently, Bryce Harper. His colorful take on the Washington slugger even caught the eye of the Nationals, leading it to be auctioned off for charity.

"It's awesome, to know something I can do, something I can create can impact other people that I might not have been able to help," he said.

Sullivan, who now resides in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, has fully transitioned from pitcher to painter, from starting every five or six days to painting every afternoon. He also started an artist agency, Sullivan Moore, with his girlfriend, Kate Moore. The couple founded the agency while in school, and it now boasts 17 illustrators with work appearing in a variety of publications, including The New Yorker, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Smithsonian and Rolling Stone. 

Sullivan's painting career got a jump-start when he created a portrait of former Braves lefty Tom Glavine. The first-ballot Hall of Famer's wife wound up seeing the piece through a friend and purchased it.

"That was a big confidence boost for me," said Sullivan. "I thought, 'Oh, I need to keep doing this.'"

Out of baseball, Sullivan went back to school in 2014 and focused on watercolor, and his Glavine portrait inspired him to go deeper in that direction.

"I was painting portraits, more illustrative things. It wasn't primarily sports. After I graduated, I sat back and thought about what I wanted to do," he said. "I had all these contacts, and sports has always been a passion, so I started painting players I had played with. I did illustrations and started sharing them on Facebook and Twitter, and they were like, 'Oh, this is great.' I just started doing more of it."

The Washington Post asked Sullivan to paint a portrait of Harper this past November for the cover of its sports section. The Nationals saw it in print and bought the original with plans of auctioning it off in their annual Dream Foundation Gala. Harper autographed the painting, and it ended up raising $18,000 for charity.

"There was a lot of buzz around him signing it," Sullivan said. "I thought it was awesome, the whole process, how organic it was. I was really proud it helped a lot of people."

Many of Sullivan's watercolors follow a similar look, with athletes in white uniforms popping against a blank white background. The former left-hander uses a variety of sometimes unexpected colors to create shadows and depth -- a portrait of former Indians slugger Jim Thome, for example, uses green and teal brushstrokes in a white jersey, though the image is unmistakably the burly designated hitter eyeing a fly ball.

"I love putting movement and emotion into the players. The emotion I felt when I was playing, I try to put that into it," Sullivan said. "They're realistic but a little bit abstract. I don't know if I'd classify it as an artistic style. It's not realistic painting. It's figuratively abstract."

The paintings are decidedly more realistic than those of LeRoy Neiman, perhaps the most famous artist among sports fans. Neiman's expressionistic work was known for its colorful and abstract themes with athletes like Sandy Kofax, Muhammad Ali, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams. His images often employed brilliant yellow and red backgrounds, while Sullivan keeps things cleaner, using only small splatters of color to evoke the energy and movement of his subjects.

"I want to get into all sports -- kind of like what LeRoy Neiman did with all sports, get into the stadiums," said Sullivan, who said he often visits ballparks and photographs or draws what he sees. He then turns his sketches and photos into paintings.

"Whenever possible, I take my own photographs," he said. 

Measuring success

Sullivan finished his baseball career at 18-33 with a 4.42 ERA in 124 games. He struck out 320, walked 129, earned three saves and threw a pair of complete games over 405 1/3 innings, working his way up from Rookie-level Danville to the Double-A Southern League, where he was teammates with current Angels shortstop Andrelton Simmons.

Those numbers are easy to absorb as a baseball fan, but for Sullivan the artist, his new career is no longer one of statistics and trends. He has a painting of Craig Biggio on display at the Louisville Slugger Museum, and another of Nolan Ryan is part of the 47th annual Watercolor West International exhibition and the Northstar Watermedia Exhibition. Even his old employer, the Atlanta Braves, bought pieces that now hang at the team's All-Star Grill in downtown Atlanta.

Simmons, who was at short for Sullivan's final inning four years ago, has since bought a painting, as have other players like Mark DeRosa and Brian McCann. Another of Sullivan's works was accepted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame's permanent collection.

"I've got two huge projects in the works," Sullivan said. "I like my originals, and if my originals went to players and collectors and stadiums, I think my prints -- I think the fans would connect to the prints, having something to take home. I want to integrate into the process of the sport. It's cool to have a connection to baseball, but the fans connect when they see I played and I do this now. There's a full circle." 

Sullivan said he draws daily and aims to complete at least one painting a week. He's hoping to attract larger corporate clients in addition to genuine collectors and sports fans. It's a new world where the former athlete utilizes both his old contacts and teammates and tries to spread his art via galleries and social media.

"All last year I tried to paint something small every day. It turned into a larger thing. Last year was me trying to develop and get my style down," he said. "I paint now when I have a commission or an idea. I paint because I need practice, but I also have more confidence."

Sullivan's baseball works include Willie Mays, Nolan Ryan, David Ortiz, Chipper Jones, David Justice, Yogi Berra, Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez. He's made plenty of current, younger players, too, with Yasiel Puig, Julio Teheran, Kenshin Kawakami, Craig Kimbrel and Jace Peterson dotting his collection.

Sullivan admitted he misses baseball and being part of a team, but he's happy with his current journey.

"I miss the players and friends and being around my teammates. Painting is a lonely job," he said. "Having that peer group on a team instantly is something I'll always miss about baseball. But I like the lifestyle as a painter -- it's more consistent. With baseball, you don't know where you're going to be in five days. While I was doing it, I loved it, but it wears on you."


More information: Sullivan's 12x16 prints are available at richardsullivanillustration.com. You can check out more of his work, including projects still in progress, on Twitter and Instagram.

Danny Wild is an editor for MiLB.com. Follow his MLBlog column, Minoring in Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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