Portrait artist Diana Neville reflects on art, love

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Bigfork artist Diana Neville has painted more than 20,000 portraits throughout her illustrious career. They hang on walls as far off as Russia and Argentina depicting wealthy influencers, past presidents and musical icons. But upstairs in her window-lit studio hangs a simple, but elegantly done, pastel portrait of her now husband, Chuck Knowles, and his late dog, Buddy.

It’s not her favorite piece from a technical standpoint, but it was this picture that started a marriage.

But let’s rewind.

Diana Neville started painting as a child when she was given an oil painting set for her ninth birthday. From her home in Texas, she’d travel by a bus and then streetcar to the Dallas Museum of Fine Art for art class every Saturday. Under the tutelage of various instructors in her youth and teen years, Neville’s talent flourished. And while at first she resisted painting anything other than animal subjects, her high school art teacher George Gray convinced her otherwise. He knew she could do portraits and do them well, so he served as her agent, bringing the young student four to five clients per week. The deal was simple: earn nothing less than a B-plus in all of her studies and the clients, and their dollars, would keep coming.

“It’s gotten me into the minds and souls of so many beautiful people,” Neville said of portraiture. “That’s the reason I love it to this day and always will.”

Her career eventually took her to the Hilton San Destin Beach Hotel, where she painted portraits of patrons in the lobby.

“I was painting one day and this gentlemen showed up — that one,” Neville said, pointing to Knowles sitting in the living room. “He said hello and I thought well, he’s new.”

The artist, having overcome her girlhood shyness, spotted Knowles in a cafe shortly thereafter, sat down and introduced herself. She learned that he’d come to Florida after retiring from his career as an executive to rent out wave runners to the vacationing public. Knowles soon began stopping by the lobby where Neville was painting regularly to smoke his pipe. Friends of his told Neville that Knowles was interested in getting to know her better and sure enough, one day he stopped by to commission a portrait of his German Shepherd, Buddy. Knowles returned some time later and requested that he be added into the portrait, prompting the pair to spend even more time together.

He asked her on a date not long after, but Neville had to refuse, having already made plans to take her son out for oysters. But as luck would have it, the pair ran into each other at a local department store.

“I said well listen, I’ll take a raincheck,” Neville recalled.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

The pastel, completed in 1990, hangs in her upstairs studio, joining other samples of her work, including oils and watercolors. In it, Knowles wears a smile looking off to the side.

Downstairs in real life he wears one too — this time, looking at her.

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