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Ernie Barnes (Paints the ‘Good Times’ in Color)

Written by  //  October 25, 2010  //  Art Category  //  10 Comments

Remembering Ernie Barnes




Ernest Eugene Barnes Jr., is known as one of the country’s foremost figurative painters. His dynamic depictions of African-Americans celebrating the “good times,” is his trademark.

 Barnes’ colorful paintings often illustrated African-Americans with elongated figures, engaging in various activities including sports and entertainment. Barnes is referred to as the father of the Neo-Mannerist style and the leading African-American artist of his generation. At one point in time, Barnes was a professional football player in the NFL.

He exemplifies his genius by incorporating his love for sports and displaying African-Americans in a positive light. The painter created beautiful vibrant paintings of people in motion. During his career as a painter, Barnes was named the official artist for the American Football League and the 1984 summer Olympics in L.A.

Many people have taken a liking to the Durham, N.C., native’s unique sense of style. In the 1970s Norman Lear, an American television writer and producer of the hit TV series “Good Times,” hired Barnes to create paintings that were displayed during the show, as J.J. Evans’ artwork. Barnes most famous painting was “The Sugar Shack,” it was included in the credits of the “Good Times,” sitcom for four years. The painter’s life and love for art was the foundation of “JJ’s” character. “The Sugar Shack,” painting was also the cover of Marvin Gaye’s “I Want You,” album.


 Elaine Woo, a veteran LA Times reporter describes “The Sugar Shack,” as a painting full of emotion and movement. “Sugar Shack” shows a Brueghel-like mass of bodies, writhing and jumping to the rhythms in a black jazz club. There is joy, tension and despair in the canvas, which Barnes once said, was inspired by a memory of being barred from attending a dance when he was a child,” said Woo in the article.

The writer went on to say, as in nearly all of his paintings, the subject’s eyes are closed, a reflection of the artist’s oft-stated belief that “we are blind to each other’s humanity.”

Rapper/producer Kanye West was also fond of Barnes’ artwork. He commissioned the artist to paint a picture of his remarkable recovery from a near fatal car crash. According to reports, the painting titled: “A Life Restored,” is a 9ft x 10ft illustration and it hangs on display in West’s dining room. Barnes always had a love for art as a child. He used to sketch and read art books. He was overweight and constantly picked on and beaten up by his peers due to his obesity and introvert personality.

“When I was at home and drawing, I was happy. My senses addressed themselves naturally to the discovery of what I could make happen on paper. It was so easy. From the shrouded mists of my sensitivity, I made friends with lines, allowing them to flow into things belonging to my immediate environment; the trees, clouds, birds and people. In school, nobody laughed and made fun of me when I was drawing. They just watched in silent awe.”

-Ernie Barnes, “The Black Art Depot”

Barnes grew up at a time when segregation was at its peak; despite the fact the painter still pursued higher education. He attended North Carolina Central University, (formerly North Carolina College for Negroes & North Carolina College at Durham) on a football scholarship and majored in art. While attending the university, Barnes’ mentor, Ed Wilson, chairman of the arts department educated him on how to transform everyday life experiences into compelling pieces of art.

“If you’re going to be an artist, you’ve got to work from your experiences, whatever they might be,” said Barnes as he recalled advice from his mentor according to a Black Art Depot article. “When you’re on the field, check out what’s going on around you in that muggy conflict. Feel the solidity of those bumps; pay attention to what you’re going through, then tell me about it. When you’re walking around, what do you see? What moves you? I want to know your opinion about it,” he added. Barnes credited Wilson with teaching him to understand the art and athletic process as one combination.

“…I knew that I did not stop being an artist when I was on the football field,” said Barnes in an article.

In 1959, the artist was drafted into the NFL by the former Baltimore Colts. During Barnes’ first year of experiencing the ups and downs of the NFL he created his first major piece of artwork titled: “The Bench.”

During his football career he was an offensive lineman for the Denver Broncos and the San Diego Chargers. His artistic talents were discovered in 1965 by Sonny Werblin, the owner of the “New York Jets.” Werblin cut a deal with Barnes and offered him $14,500, a $2,000 bonus and a rental car to focus only on painting for six months. Back then Barnes’ contract with the NFL for one season was $13,500. One year later Barnes held his first solo exhibition and retired from football.

-Jaya Franklin

 For more information on this artist:

Ernie Barnes – American Artist and American in Focus

10 Comments on "Ernie Barnes (Paints the ‘Good Times’ in Color)"

  1. v roberson May 2, 2012 at 5:16 PM · Reply

    I love ur work , where can I make a purchase?

  2. Tee Bigbee June 10, 2012 at 11:56 AM · Reply

    I’m looking 4 a pool player tHt JJ painted on the show tHt Ernie painted. Can U please help me find it??

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  7. Amanda Gayle September 22, 2013 at 7:07 PM · Reply

    Doing a research paper on Ernest Barnes Jr.’s and I want to know what type of materials he used for his art work, in particular what materials he used to create the painting named “Sugar Shack”. Can anyone give me an answer please?

  8. archie December 10, 2014 at 10:16 PM · Reply

    i love yo work. so much life and so much movement

  9. Jayr January 15, 2015 at 10:48 PM · Reply

    I have a signed sugar shack lithograph by Mr.Barnes without the Marvin Gaye banner can somebody tell me more about thank you

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