Skip to main content

The City Journals

Painting the greats: artist finds a career by following her passion

Jan 13, 2020 11:31AM ● By Sarah Morton Taggart

Daniela Lopez poses between portraits she painted of LeBron James and Michael Jordan. (Photo courtesy Daniela Lopez)

By Sarah Morton Taggart | [email protected]

Daniela Lopez woke up one morning to her phone ringing. The call was from Houston, Texas and like most people, she let it go to voicemail. “I Googled the number, and it was the Toyota Center,” Lopez said. “I freaked out.”

The call was from Tad Brown, CEO of the Houston Rockets. He wanted to commission a portrait of Yao Ming, the nationally-recognized basketball star, to be presented at his jersey retirement ceremony. Lopez had 48 hours to complete the painting.

Lopez wasn’t a professional artist at the time. That would come later. This was 2016 and Lopez had recently had some time off from her job as a makeup artist.

“I had finished my Christmas commissions and wondered what I should do next,” Lopez said. “I wanted to do something that was exciting to me, that I could get hyped about. My family said what if you paint our team, on a giant scale? We’ll probably be the only ones excited about this.”

Lopez is huge fan of professional basketball, and her whole family cheers on the Houston Rockets together. She had a few large canvases ready to go and started painting portraits of Rockets players one by one. After posting just three paintings on Instagram, she got the call from Brown.

“I never could have imagined anything happening like that,” Lopez said. In the months leading up to that life-changing commission, Lopez was questioning her purpose.

“I would go through the motions of waking up extra early to catch the TRAX to work downtown, determined to save money and commute this way to further invest my paychecks into my art supplies, rather than gas and parking. Pulling an eight-hour shift on my feet, riding home tired, giving myself a little pep talk as I stared out the train window.”

Lopez would then get home and paint through the night.

“Through those long fall and winter months, I kept seeing the numbers 11:11,” said Lopez. “Literally everywhere. Receipts, clocks, train stubs, every time I glanced at my phone. It started to freak me out. I have a lot of spiritual friends who reassured me that this was good. That this meant confirmation from the universe that I was doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”

When the time came, Lopez was able to shut out everything else and complete the Yao Ming portrait in time. He stood next to it as his jersey was retired during the halftime of a Houston Rockets home game on February 3, 2017. The team flew Lopez and her mom to Houston to watch the game in person.

“Through that chaotic week of zero sleep to pull off that insane project, it hadn’t even dawned on me that 11 was his jersey number,” Lopez said. 

Then she entered the arena where red T-shirts with the number 11 were draped over each seat.

“I instantly crumbled,” Lopez said. “It felt surreal.” 

Rookie League

Lopez grew up in Midvale and participated in the Boys & Girls Club and Head Start. “I remember doing a lot of crafts and art at Head Start,” Lopez said. “My mom says that’s where it all started.”

She continued to draw while a student at Midvale Elementary School. “I always drew faces. Sometimes Disney characters. But always someone’s face,” said Lopez. “I had one adamant teacher in the third grade who planted the seed. She noticed that I was drawing in the corners of my homework and entered me in art contests.”

That teacher, Leticia Thomas, remembers Lopez as a very quiet, friendly and smart student. “Daniela always talked about being an artist when she grew up,” said Thomas, who is now a dual language immersion teacher specialist at the Jordan School District. 


Daniela Lopez works on a wedding portrait commissioned by Tad Brown, CEO of the Houston Rockets, for his daughter and her fiancé. (Photo courtesy Daniela Lopez)

 

“I am so overwhelmed with joy and cried with happiness upon reading all her accomplishments,” Thomas said. “I always remind my students that I truly believe each and every one of them had the potential to be successful and that success may look different to different people. I am always there rooting for you from the sidelines, silently cheering you on even if it’s a decade from now.” 

Lopez moved to West Jordan with her family after sixth grade and graduated from Copper Hills High School. She went on to study fashion design in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. She then used her eye for color and beauty to create art on faces as a freelance makeup artist for Chanel. 

“I love studying people’s faces,” Lopez said. “Studying their pores, the reflections, the warm light and shadows.”

Lopez had continued to draw portraits, but switched from pencil to paintbrush in 2010. “Best day of my life,” said Lopez in an Instagram post.

Going Pro

Lopez recently posted images of two of her paintings of James Harden, one from 2015 and one from 2017. The evolution of her technique is striking. The earlier image is artistic and skillfully captures the athlete’s likeness. But the later image is in a whole different category. Each hair, each bead of sweat looks authentic. Lopez captures the intensity of Harden’s eyes with her paintbrush. 

“When I was in Houston for the playoffs that year, the team invited me in to watch their morning shoot around and we chatted about the piece,” Lopez said. “James was really excited about it. It would end up going to his mom as a Mother's Day gift.” 

Since most of her subjects are professional basketball players, it’s virtually impossible for Lopez to paint from life. So she uses reference photos. “I like to use little-known photos,” Lopez said. “I find two or three favorites and take details from each one so the painting is not an exact copy of any photo. The finished art uses different details to make it unique.” She signs her childhood nickname, Yella, on each finished work.

Lopez also paints portraits of celebrities and musicians. She uses acrylic paint, which is surprising to most people. “There’s a misconception about (acrylics),” she said. “I find the paint easier to blend and layer when it’s fast-drying.” She likes to spend a month or two to complete each painting, which adds up to around 300 hours of painting.

“People don’t realize how big they are until they see a picture of me next to them,” Lopez said. Her largest canvas has been nearly 4 feet tall, and most are around that size. The massive scale is needed to fit the incredible amount of detail. A common response to social media posts of her paintings is, “I thought that was a photo!” Her realistic style resembles photographs, but also reveals an artistry that a camera can’t create.

“If working on a commission, I like to research as much as I can about my subjects and find a connection,” she said. “If I’m going to spend weeks with a face I need to feel something. In turn, the goal for me is when you see one of my paintings in person, you too will be able to feel something.” 

Some of Lopez’s art is available for sale on her website, www.iamyella.com. Prints cost as little as $55 while original paintings can command upwards of $10,000. Her work has been displayed in New York City and Miami Beach, Florida. A permanent display of her work can be seen at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas.

Lopez took the leap to leave her job and do art full-time in 2017, but still freelances as a makeup artist. “It’s so much fun,” Lopez said. “I would not change how things are.”

Team player

Lopez says her parents and grandmother are her biggest inspiration. “Through them I’ve learned strength and dedication,” Lopez said. She continues to live in West Jordan and maintain ties to Midvale. Each year Lopez helps organize the Cinco de Mayo celebration at Midvale City Park that was founded by her grandparents more than 30 years ago.

Lopez didn’t enjoy the festivities as much as a kid because she got lost in the chaos. “But as we grew older, it was cool to see how much our family has invested to keep it going,” Lopez said.

“I do whatever they need help with, especially social media.” She has kept in touch with childhood friends from Midvale Elementary. “They come to Cinco de Mayo and it’s like a big reunion every year,” Lopez said.

While Lopez is the visual artist of the family, her siblings are all musicians. Older brother Jesus Lopez and younger brother Alejandro Lopez both play drums and percussion. Jesus is a professional musician while Alejandro recently started a career in banking. Their sister, Sonia Lopez, is a successful singer and composer who goes by the nickname “Sonialoxo.”

“My kids have all worked very hard to reach their goals and are truly amazing adults,” said Lopez’s mother, Dolores Pahl. “I was a very, very young teenage mother at 14 and knew I had to work extra hard if I wanted to be successful and provide for my kids.”

Pahl attended night school and worked at her parent’s restaurant in Midvale until she was old enough to live on her own.

“My kids were equally determined to succeed,” Pahl said. “Each one is unique in their own way, yet they are all very compassionate and always willing to help others and give back when they can.”

Keeping her eye on the ball

Three years after that phone call from Texas, Lopez has over 6,000 followers on Instagram and thinks of Brown like part of her extended family. “He’s my biggest support,” Lopez said. “So supportive, down to earth. He invites me to their suite when the Rockets are in town to play the Jazz.”

Brown recently commissioned Lopez to paint a portrait of his daughter and her fiancé that stood at the entrance to their wedding ceremony. Lopez frequently paints commissions for families that have ties to professional sports teams and a Jazz player recently commissioned a portrait of himself as a surprise Christmas present for his mom.  

“These projects have become so special and I’m so grateful I get to be a part of these special life moments,” Lopez said. “But mainly, I am inspired by people. People defying the odds and doing extraordinary things. The everyday people around us. Sitting across from someone and watching as their face lights up as they talk about the things they’re passionate about.”

Bright and early on Dec. 11th (note the significance of the date), Lopez received another phone call that will change her life. She was offered an exclusive job as the resident painter at Louis Vuitton’s busiest store in North America. She will be one of fourteen artists in the world hired to represent the international luxury handbag company. Lopez will move to Las Vegas in January to tackle this latest opportunity.

“It’s been a long journey,” Lopez said. “I’m lucky. Life happens and it teaches you everything in its own time.”