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The Pro Game

The color of football

About the Author

Tom Danyluk
Contributing writer

Recent posts by Tom Danyluk

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By Tom Danyluk

In Matisse and Manet you get only the flower; in Cezanne you get the flower and the root as well. And what counts is the way he goes from the root to the flower; there a whole life is summed up — George Braque, painter (1882-1963).

I want a red to be loud, to ring like a bell; if it doesn't turn out that way, I put on more reds or other colors until I get it — Pierre August Renoir, artist (1841-1919)

It's the colors that grabbed Chicago artist Al Sorenson, years and years ago. How they looked next to each other, and on top of each other, and how they looked standing naked and alone. That's how the real naturals, early on, find sense in the world. For them shapes only bind the book; colors spell the meaning. The next step, however, is the draining part — what the naturals choose to do with it.

What Sorenson has done is splash his colors over the glossary of sports, to any figure or place or scene that looks ripe for it. Football included. He's put them to Butkus and to Lombardi, and he's swirled them around Larry Csonka, and he's exploded them all over the old Green Bay Packer sweep. Sports, in its greens and golds and reds. The fireworks of humanity.

"When I was a little kid I always enjoyed coloring, all the different choices you had in that box," says Sorenson, now 42. "Early on you follow the lines, you paint and color the way kids are taught to, but it was always a little more fun for me to do it outside the norm, to go outside those lines.

"Then, I remember seeing this poster. It was during the 1976 Olympics, and there was this promotional thing going on with Burger King. On the wall was a print of five or six runners, bursting off the blocks at the gun. The wild colors, the imperfect, implied structure … I was just mesmerized. I thought, 'Wow, someone actually does this kind of stuff.' "

The someone was LeRoy Neiman.

Sorenson eventually closed the crayon box and all the colors were shoved away. He still admired what hung in the galleries and museums, and the older he grew the more he understood it.

"Particularly Monet … Manet, the style of the impressionists. But I really didn't pick up my own paints until I was about 25 or 26. What was my style? I needed one, my way of doing it. At first I tried to reproduce Neiman's work directly, just to teach myself the kind of brush strokes he used, how to spread those colors across the canvas. It was a way of practice for me, of decoding his method. The first one I copied was his cover of the Sinatra Duets album, Frank in his hat. Eventually I got a good feel for it. I started doing my own paintings, of photographs."

Feel surged into confidence. People, sports collectors, began to notice Sorenson's work … and swapping dollars for it. In a rush he typed off an enthusiastic letter to Neiman, something like, "Dear LeRoy, I've cracked the code …!"

Neiman read it and wrote back.

Dear Mr. Sorenson:

I received your most complimentary letter regarding my work and appreciate your enclosing two reproductions of your own painting.

The artist must avoid becoming dependent on photographs. Most probably all representational artists from Winslow Homer through the Impressionists up to the present day dealt with the photograph some more than others. The purpose always to seek or arrive at their own personal expression, their own style or look if you will.

It is the artist's right to use what serves his aims, as it is the final result that counts. To imitate is not the way to go. To be influenced is acceptable and intelligent.

The main thing is always to be selective in your choices, so when you sign your name it means it has been done by no other hand but yours.

This results only from being productive and experimental. Your art can dazzle, seduce and entertain but must always be the truth by you only … your way.

Just let yourself go.

"Neiman's letter? Wow …," Sorenson says. "It woke me up as an artist. It made sense. The message was, don't be held by the content of a photograph; don't get trapped within another artist's style.

"But on the other hand, I can't sketch like Neiman — he paints directly off his own sketches — so in that way I'm still tied to photographs. I've just learned to re-sketch them in my head. I can close my eyes and get an interpretation of how the photo will look in paint, on a canvas. Sometimes it's completely by accident how a painting turns out; other times I can envision the finished piece before I even pick up a brush. I can perceive people, the whole concept of their motion, in color.

"For example, I did one of Larry Csonka carrying the ball in that rhino style of his, against the Redskins in an old Super Bowl. I envisioned all the bursts of color around him. They appear to me. The delicate part was capturing him physically, the way he bent his legs and pumped his arms, the hunch of the shoulders … for people to recognize that's Larry Csonka, regardless of the uniform."

Then there's the dark soul of his 1958 NFL title scene — the Colts against the Giants. Raw swashes of black and violent blues and poison greens. A page from Beowulf … the brave Unitas, cloaked in white, thrusting his spears at the vile fiends of Gehenna.

"The ’58 game, clearly a much different palate involved there," Sorenson says. "I wanted a battlefield feel to it, doom … foreboding … the threat of clubs and swords.

"It's much easier for me to paint an action scene than a still shot. Stadium shots, someone posing — they're flat to me. For example, think of a photo of the Cubs' Aramis Ramirez just after he's smacked a home run. Even though it's a still picture, in your mind you still interpret the process he went through — the anticipation, swinging the bat, the motions involved. Writers can translate that motion using words; I imply it through color.

"My young daughter recently asked me, 'Daddy, when are you going to teach me to do that?' I didn't know how to answer her. I don't know what she sees in her head.

"I thought, sweetie, I can really only show you how to hold a brush."


To see samples of Al Sorenson's pro football work, click here.

Tom Danyluk is an award-winning freelance writer based in Chicago. His book on pro football, "The Super '70s," is available at You can contact Tom at

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