Cortes turns hockey career into art

Tim Cortes is a sports photo realism artist operating out of Duluth.

Tim Cortes's created the above colored-pencil drawing this year to commemorate Notre Dame football's 125th anniversary.

Tim Cortes’s created the above colored-pencil drawing this year to commemorate Notre Dame football’s 125th anniversary.

Betsy Helfand

Tim Cortes admits playing at the University of Minnesota wasn’t the best choice for his hockey career.

After playing junior hockey for two years, Cortes rarely saw ice time with the Gophers in the late 1980s as he backed up future National Hockey League goaltender Robb Stauber.

But his time with Minnesota propelled him to what he is today: a nationally renowned sports photo realism artist.

Cortes is commissioned to draw a variety of sports-themed pieces using colored pencils.

He transferred to the Minneapolis College of Art and Design after two years with the Gophers.

“Back then I kind of flew by the seat of my pants,” Cortes said. “Whatever decision I thought was a good decision that day was the decision that was made.”

Cortes said he received offers to play hockey at Denver University and St. Cloud State, but he ultimately chose to play for the Gophers.

He said he had a “fancy idea” about playing against his brother, who was the starting goalie at Minnesota-Duluth at the time. But when Stauber became the starting goalie at Minnesota, Cortes’ idea fizzled.

Stauber won the Hobey Baker Award for the top collegiate player in 1988 before playing in the NHL.

Stuck behind Stauber on the depth chart, Cortes decided to leave for MCAD after the 1987-88 season.

Looking back, Cortes, 46, said the decision to transfer was harder than he made it seem at the time.

“I wasn’t doing very good in school, I was a little bitter that I wasn’t playing, so it was more of a snap decision,” Cortes said. “I said, ‘You know what? I’m done with this.’”

Start in art

Cortes said his interest in art started early.

He said his grandmother had pictures of him drawing and coloring in a corner while his siblings were playing.

“Just being able to create something with my own hands out of my own mind … really captured me when I was a kid,” he said.

He put art on the backburner while he pursued hockey, but his interest never strayed.

While at MCAD, Cortes worked at a bar called Station 19. He said he retained his friendships with his former Gophers teammates during that time.

The first piece he commissioned to do was a picture of Lou Nanne, a former Gophers player, NHL player and general manager.

Nanne’s son, Marty, was a teammate of Cortes’ while on the Gophers.

Cortes said the hockey world is small, and when he was first commissioned to do artwork, “it was mostly hockey, hockey, hockey.”

1992 was a big year for Minneapolis sports. The city hosted a Super Bowl and an NCAA Final Four, and the Minnesota Twins had just won their second World Series.

It was also a big year for Cortes, who switched from pen and ink to colored pencils. Cortes ventured into a sports-themed art gallery that year, and after talking with the owner and bringing in his work, he was told they wanted him to work in color.

He went home and found dried paint and a nice set of colored pencils in his studio. He hasn’t put the pencils down since.

Notre Dame calls

One of Cortes’ most important pieces isn’t hockey-related.

Cortes drew a piece this year to commemorate Notre Dame football’s 125th anniversary. The work incorporates important figures in Notre Dame football history such as Knute Rockne, Lou Holtz, the Four Horsemen and campus landmarks such as the Golden Dome.

Cortes said John Heisler, an associate athletics director at Notre Dame who oversees media and broadcast relations, contacted him about drawing the piece. Heisler said Notre Dame was looking for original art, which it hadn’t used in years.

Cortes didn’t hesitate to say yes.

The long, horizontal piece was turned into six different program covers, one for each Notre Dame home game this season.

Cortes had an idea what elements he would include in the picture but said he drew it as he went.

He said he normally plans out his pictures.

“I was pretty proud of the way it turned out,” he said. “I’d finish up here and I’d say, ‘What would look good next?’ It just kind of worked out perfectly that way.”
Cortes said he is known for his speed and detail when drawing. He said he finished the Notre Dame piece in a month and a half.

“Usually something like this would have taken five months,” he said.

Notre Dame contacted him early in 2012, but negotiations about the piece finally ended in mid-June, and he had to be finished by August.

“If somebody needs something done, I will get it done. I may go insane doing it,” Cortes said. “I get on deadline, and I work some crazy hours.”

Cortes took materials back to his Duluth home and worked tirelessly to create the final product. He would work for six to seven hours, take a nap and then work for another six to seven hours.

“The piece of art that he came up with was kind of a perfect fit,” Heisler said.

“Just a kid coloring”

Cortes doesn’t have a set process, but he said he usually sketches works out by hand first.

“The hard part is the sketch,” he said. “In my mind, adding the color is simple to me … just stay in the lines.”

He said with certain pieces he has free rein to draw as he wishes, but it depends on the client.

Three murals of his, which pay homage to the Minnesota’s Twins’ World Series teams, are located in the Target Field Champions Club.

He said Twins president Dave St. Peter was very specific about what he wanted in the murals.

St. Peter sent back the sketches with handwritten notes about the details he wanted represented in the murals.

Cortes said he typically draws a sketch and sends it to the client with a sheet asking them to OK it or suggest changes.

He said the hardest part of his work is devising the concept for the piece. The end is the easiest.

“I’m just a kid coloring again.”

Other works

Cortes spent time working with high school, youth and junior hockey teams. He spent two years as the goaltending coach for Minnesota-Duluth’s women’s hockey team in the early 2000s. He said he stepped away from the position because it was taking up too much of his time. It was a volunteer job, and he was still doing art projects on the side.

He said he was starting to get busy with commission work.

“When I get busy, I have to be able to be there for the client,” he said. “There wasn’t enough time in the day.”

Cortes has worked across many different sports for a variety of clients, including former NFL running back LaDainian Tomlinson, USA Hockey and the Twins.

His working partner, Chris McNelley, helped him earn some commissions.

McNelley works in the sports marketing field and has many contacts with athletes and teams.

Athletes come to him, and he reaches out to athletes. At other times, Cortes has the connections.

Cortes has made artwork for multiple book covers for author Ross Bernstein, who was Goldy Gopher for part of the time Cortes was in college.

Bernstein said the two struck up a friendship after college. He said because he’s one of the only sports authors in Minnesota and Cortes is one of the state’s only sports artists, they reconnected and began to collaborate.

Because Cortes played sports, Bernstein said he “understands sports and captures the emotion of what’s really going on.”

“He’s just the consummate professional,” Bernstein said. “Like other high-level athletes, he puts huge demands on himself via deadlines via perfection and he holds himself accountable.”

Cortes said one of the highlights of his career was creating a piece for late NFL player Reggie White’s family.

But he said his favorite pieces are the ones he’s drawn of his kids, Nick and Maddy.

Always an artist

McNelley said he and Cortes, who had worked together before, struck up a partnership with the Notre Dame piece.

“[We’re] working on building his brand as an artist,” McNelley said. “It’s starting to take shape. The more and more high-end athletes and teams that we’re working with, the more his name recognition gets out there.”

McNelley said each piece is a building block to develop the brand.

He said they are looking into composing pieces similar to the Notre Dame one for other universities.

“We’ve got a list of schools that are now getting in that same realm of 125 years, so we’re starting to approach them,” McNelley said.

Cortes said he gave up playing hockey last year.

He played on a team in Duluth, and he said he would miss it a little bit. But he let it go because it was hard on his body.

Next, he wants to open his own gallery.

“I wanted to take hockey as far as I could take it,” he said, “Always in the back of my mind knowing that in one way or another I was going to be an artist.”