RAVENSWOOD — Lots of people doodle during business meetings. Phil Thompson is the rare person to turn those scribblings into a career.
Six months ago, Thompson left his job as an international trade consultant — he helped Swedish companies figure out how to crack the U.S. marketplace — to focus full-time on his love of drawing.
The resulting venture, Cape Horn Illustration, sells prints of the various maps Thompson has designed — Chicago’s Beer Bars, a marathon map — but at the heart of the enterprise are the custom portraits the self-taught Thompson creates of homes and buildings.
“I’ve always been interested in architectural drawing … the built environment,” said Thompson, whose passion for art is no longer confined to the margins of his notebooks.
His first portrait was of wife Katie Lauffenburger’s childhood home, which her father built.
“It was good for memories,” said Lauffenburger, who, like Thompson, grew up in Pennsylvania, though they hail from opposite ends of the state.
Thompson next turned his eye toward capturing the diversity of Chicago’s two-flats, found in abundance near the couple’s Ravenswood condo. He was attracted to the seemingly limitless variation on a similar theme.
“They have different styles, different brick,” Thompson said. “It’s an interesting study in Chicago architecture.”
A speculative illustration of three two-flats immediately became all-consuming.
“I stayed up until five in the morning, I was so into it,” he said.
Having developed a taste for entrepreneurship in his consulting role, Thompson decided to gamble that, between his love of residential housing and the portrait drawn for his wife, he had the makings of a successful business.
“All of those things came together at once,” said Lauffenburger, who works in video production.
Since October, Thompson estimates he’s received approximately 50 portrait commissions from homeowners in Chicago — mainly the Wicker Park, Bucktown, Ravenswood and Ukrainian Village neighborhoods — as well as the suburbs. Out-of-staters are even beginning to discover Cape Horn.
Thompson typically works from photographs provided by clients, who are often particular about details they’re keen to have highlighted in the portrait, like a “cool stained-glass window” or terra cotta feature, he said.
Landscaping is important to other homeowners, said Lauffenburger. She recalled one client who specifically requested the inclusion of a large fir tree that hid half of the house’s façade.
“It gives the house personality,” she said. “It makes it look shy.”
Fences and porch railings are the most difficult elements for Thompson to replicate. “You want to make sure all the lines are straight,” he said.
But his biggest challenges come from “people who want features that aren’t on the house anymore,” he said, like the client who commissioned a portrait of the Joliet Victorian she grew up in as a girl, the porch of which had long since been demolished.
“We recreated it from her memories,” said Thompson. “That’s where artistic license helps.
It takes Thompson two days to produce a single 8-by-10 portrait, or longer for larger, more complicated pieces. Each illustration is drawn by hand — actual pen and ink put to paper.
“It’s all about the control you have, the careful attention to detail,” Thompson said of his chosen medium. “I really love being able to get in there and do really tiny detail. You really get an appreciation for masons and craftsmen.”
Clients have an opportunity to review his work at various stages, including the initial pencil sketch.
“Some people say, ‘Oh, I forgot this…,’” said Thompson.
After he’s inked the drawing, making changes gets a bit trickier.
“I kind of describe it like a haircut,” he said. “Once you’ve spun around in the chair, you can’t put hair back on.”
One homeowner asked him to remove a tree, which Thompson accomplished by scanning the illustration into Photoshop, deleting the tree, printing the scan and then re-inking the portrait.
Luckily he has his wife to consult on technical issues. Lauffenburger holds a master’s degree in computer art from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, with a specialty in animation.
“She has the digital know how,” he said of his spouse, who’s produced her own stop-motion animated films, creating the puppets and miniature sets from scratch.
“We share that sense of detail in our work,” she said. “It just comes out in different ways.”