Appeared in the Summer 2012 issue of LINKS.
FOR THE PAST FEW YEARS the best-selling single item in the USGA’s merchandise tents hasn’t been a shirt or a hat—it’s been the official U.S. Open poster created by Lee Wybranski, an artist based in Flagstaff, Arizona. Wybranski’s distinctive style—sharp clean lines mixing with bold washes of watercolor—recalls the best of golf’s vintage art while also maintaining plenty of contemporary appeal. This balancing act has made Wybranski one of the most sought-after artists in golf today, landing paintings and logo work from top private clubs as well as special pieces like a new yardage book for the Old Course at St. Andrews.
Asked what attracted him to art, Wybranski doesn’t hesitate: “Spiderman.” Like a lot of kids, he simply drew to entertain himself. “I’d go home after school, turn on the TV, and draw. In the beginning it was comic book stuff, then sports figures or musicians like John Lennon.” His talent led him to the fine arts program at Syracuse University where he received a degree in art history.
Early in his career, he found work producing pen-and-ink portraits of some of the finer homes and estates around the Main Line. In the mid-1990s he began to look for a market where he could sell both his original work and reproductions. Wybranski and his partners sought out buildings to which people had formed a strong emotional attachment. Eventually, they landed on golf clubhouses.
A commission came from Winged Foot, and then he was off and running with work for Atlantic, Ridgewood, Caves Valley, and the National Golf Links of America, among others.
Wybranski’s big breakthrough, his first U.S. Open poster commission, came in 2008. “To have that landscape to work with and then that finish by Tiger—it was pretty damn special,” he says.
This year’s poster features The Olympic Club’s par-three 8th, a hole much lengthened (and not without controversy) since the 1998 Open but still demanding an uphill iron shot through a chute of cypresses.
Wybranski described his process from start to finish. “First, I go to the site. I always ask the USGA what they’re looking for, specific things to look at and think about,” he says. While on the property, “I sketch quite a bit with the camera. If I’m shooting a view of the clubhouse, I’m thinking about the type that might go in the sky above it. I pick out a couple of favorites, crop them for poster format, and drop in some rough mechanical type. Then [USGA director of licensing] Mary Lopuszynski and her team pick the one they like the most, and they’ll offer input as to what kind of feeling it should have in terms of the typefaces.”
Wybranski’s method then takes a modern twist. “I create a simplified digital rendering. I work with a stylus and a tablet, so my mouse is like a pen, and I literally draw the composition free-hand right into the computer. I create line art from the digital art, which I print out on watercolor paper and then work that pretty heavily with a pencil, refining all the shapes. To me, that’s where the rubber meets the road—when you're actually dealing with the material in your hands.”
After going through a dozen or more drafts, he finally begins laying in the washes of watercolor that transform the work into something identifiably his own. “I try to keep the aesthetic very simple, clean, and bold,” he says. “Part of watercolor’s charm is that it looks best when it’s freshest—the less you mess with it, the more magic happens. To use a silly golf metaphor, I try to get it done in the fewest number of strokes.