An Interview with Karlee Patton, The Bad Portraits Artist

The groom admires an illustrated portrait of his sisters. Bad Portraits by Karlee Patton

When I photographed Kimberly & Dan’s wedding at Youngberg Hill this past September I was blown away by the detail and beauty they manifested for their day. Their intimate wedding was not only gorgeous, but super fun for their guests. This is where Karlee Patton comes in…

Karlee had a cute little table set up in the corner with a sign saying “Bad Portraits”. She stayed for the full wedding reception and illustrated wedding guests + chatted with them about themselves and the newlyweds. Her corner of the room was filled with laughter and joy all night long while the portraits she illustrated circled the room.

In this interview Karlee talks about how she got started, what inspired “Bad Portraits”, the types of events she caters to, what the experience is like, and where you can find her around the web. Karlee is one of those “good people” you just can’t help but love.

Bad Portraits by Karlee Patton

Hi Karlee! So… Bad Portraits – I love the name! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what inspired you to start Bad Portraits?

Thanks Briana! 

All my friends would agree it makes perfect sense that I’d start a project all about sitting with people, paying attention, and having a conversation. That’s who I am, whether I have a pen in my hand or not. I love to learn about people, and I think there’s something sacred about moments of undivided attention, especially today with all of our distractions.

I had a professor in college who required his design students to fill a blank notebook with ideas and sketches by the end of the term. That practice stuck with me and I’ve carried a journal with me since. For years it was mostly poems and thoughts, but inevitably I began sketching people’s faces in staff meetings and coffee shops, sometimes secretly and other times during conversation. The portraits were rough and sometimes terrible, but that wasn’t the point. I fell in love with drawing people as we spoke. It allowed me to look even more closely and remember that moment of connection. 

A few years ago I felt compelled to share the experience with total strangers, so I packed up some art supplies and drew people on the street, offering a portrait as a gift, which was really just an excuse to share a moment with someone new. The positivity that has consistently exuded from this practice gave me the courage to offer my services at events. For my business I decided to stick with the original name of the project, Bad Portraits, because it felt honest, and now it constantly reminds me not to lose sight of what this practice is really about–sharing an experience, not trying to control the end result. My first paid gig was a wedding a little over a year ago, and it went so well that I just kept going. If I didn’t love this, there’s no way I could do it. The work is very emotionally charged for me and I want it to always feel sacred.

Karlee illustrates portraits of wedding guests in Portland, Oregon. Bad Portraits by Karlee Patton

I had the privilege of working with you at Kimberly and Dan’s wedding and it looked like everyone was having so much fun with you! What sort of guest experience do you provide at weddings? How do people typically react to Bad Portraits?

I just want people to have fun and feel special. When someone approaches my portrait table, I know that’s a brave step for a lot of personalities! The thought of someone staring at your face for a number of minutes can be unnerving, so I try to make people comfortable right away. My goal is to create an experience that feels more like a chat than a portrait session. At weddings I like to ask guests for their thoughts and advice about love. Tidbits from these conversations make it onto the portrait, which guests get to keep as a gift and party favor, and I save a digital copy for the newlyweds. 

I play off each person’s energy, so the experiences range from light and playful to deep and vulnerable. I find that guests are surprised at how they feel while being drawn. They laugh a lot, or get emotional. We don’t realize how rare it is to receive such attention. It’s very powerful.

Wedding guests have a great time getting their portrait illustrated by Karlee. Bad Portraits by Karlee
Beautiful wedding details and custom illustration create a great guest experience at this Portland, Oregon wedding. Bad Portraits by Karlee Patton

If someone wanted to hire you to illustrate at their wedding, what would that look like? What do your packages include?

People’s first step is usually to fill out a form on my website to tell me a little about their wedding. If they want to work with me, we decide the best time frame and a good spot for me to set up my table at the reception. I’ll usually draw for the entire reception as soon as the ceremony ends, between 3 and 5 hours. Inevitably, there will be a rush of people at the end who finally work up the nerve to get a portrait, so drawing until the end is important.

There are two variables to consider: the duration of time that I draw, and whether you want the illustrated guestbook, which is a very special project I do afterward. For weddings, I think the illustrated guestbook is essential to the full experience and almost every couple gets it. The portraits are for your guests during the wedding, and the guestbook is for the newlyweds afterward. 

I’ll explain the guestbook because it’s not something couples even think to search for, but it’s my idea of the perfect keepsake. I compile copies of all the portraits from the reception, along with messages that guests write in a book. Finally, I design a cover and do some extra illustrations based on scenes from the day, which makes the book feel like a story. I’m obsessed with every book I make and I wish I had my own copy of all of them.

That said, there are endless creative ideas for how to incorporate portraits with your wedding day, and I love to collaborate with couples if they have their own idea.

Wedding guests admire their Bad Portraits by Karlee

We all know we can hire you to illustrate at weddings but I’m guessing that’s not the only event type you cater to. What other types of events do you work with?

I go wherever this practice will take me! Any event where a community is being celebrated. I’ve done a number of company events and holiday parties, a wine club members picnic, a 50th wedding anniversary party, you name it. Right now I’m doing a regular pop-up at a hotel downtown on Tuesday nights, and it’s my first time having a regular space almost like an artist in residence, which feels very meaningful to me. 
I’m hoping to be hired to draw portraits at a festival or somewhere people are in costume. I think that would be amazing.

Bad Portraits by Karlee Patton - Illustration of wedding guests at a Portland, Oregon wedding.
Bad Portraits - Custom coaster of bride and groom plus illustration station.

What is your favorite thing about Bad Portraits?

My favorite thing about Bad Portraits is meeting new people and feeling genuinely connected. I believe we’re all connected, and it’s like magic when we recognize it. It’s also beautiful to see people learn about themselves through the questions I ask. That happens a lot.

If you could illustrate anyone in the living world, who would it be? Why? What would you ask them?

Oh man, this is such a tough question! There are a lot of artists I would love to talk to. I’m inspired by Marina Abramovic’s performance piece at MoMa, The Artist is Present, where people came to sit across from her one-by-one and she looked into their eyes. I would love to experience sitting across from her and drawing her face and just feeling the energy of someone who believes in the power of undivided presence. I would ask her how she maintains a sense of home within herself as someone who opens up to the public in very vulnerable ways through her performance art.

Because it’s hard to say just one person, honorable mentions would be Queer Eye’s Jonathan Van Ness, the mindfulness author Byron Katie, or the Irish poet Michael Longley. I think sitting with any of them would be life changing and wonderful.

Karlee Patton - Owner and Illustrator of Bad Portraits in Portland, Oregon

Where can people learn more about your offerings, follow you on social media, and generally stalk you around the web?

My website is bykarlee.com and my Instagram is @bykarleepatton. Whenever I’m drawing portraits at an event that’s open to the public, I try to post about it on IG so people can come and say hello!

general inquiries