Portrait artist Michael Varoudakis, 53, has a knack for making likenesses.
It started when he was 5 or 6. He would get up early Saturday mornings and watch New England television personality “Captain Bob,” aka Robert Cottle, teach viewers to sketch animals.
Michael’s first drawing was a horse. His grandfather Nicholas Dedes saw it and raved to the boy about how good his art was.
“It gave me such a good feeling, I kept doing it,” said Varoudakis, who grew up in Newburyport with his maternal grandparents.
Varoudakis went on to draw and paint in high school and for four years at Montserrat College of Art in Beverly. He has drawn throughout adulthood, doing some commission portraiture, but his art would often take a back seat to work and family responsibilities.
Last week, Varoudakis sat in a booth at the Rhythm Café in Merrimac, flanked by likenesses he has done.
The walls are hung with more than a dozen of his large and colorful watercolor pencil works. The portraits include Eric Clapton, Bob Marley, The Clash, David Bowie, Queen, Keith Richards, Jerry Garcia, Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana.
The likenesses are bright and vivid and give the viewer a sense of being onstage with the musicians.
In several works, the guitarists’ picking hands are accentuated, made bigger.
“They make the guitar look small in their hands,” said Varoudakis, who lives in Haverhill.
Varoudakis refers to his works as paintings. They are vivid and bright, and since the pencils are watercolors, he can wipe the surface clean and start over if he doesn’t like what he has done.
His art exhibit of rock ’n’ roll icons will remain up through July 21.
He’s hosting an artist reception at the café this Saturday from 2 to 3:30 p.m.
In a productive stretch between March and April, he did five of these portraits.
For the past 14 years, Varoudakis has been a union carpenter. These days, however, he has a lot of free time as he is awaiting knee surgery. His art is therapeutic, helping him cope with the downtime.
Art was also therapeutic several years ago, he said, when he and his wife were going through difficulties in their marriage. The couple are divorced and have two children, 22 and 18.
Varoudakis said that he had always hoped to transition to art as he got closer to retirement age.
It’s funny how what people said to you, or what you saw them doing, during your formative years can have an influence on you later in life.
Varoudakis remembers a piece of advice he got as a teenager from a next-door neighbor in Newburyport, artist Christopher Gurshin.
Gurshin is a longtime artist who now lives in Connecticut. He has made a living from his art and is especially known for his country folk art and Americana paintings.
Varoudakis remembers Gurshin encouraging him to find a niche with his art.
Gurshin, contacted through email, remembers his neighbor as a teen and being impressed by his work, primarily action figures.
Gurshin recalls advising Varoudakis to make of his life’s path doing that which he likes to do.
“As I told my two children early on, also, ‘Believe in yourself, suffer the pains of discipline ... and do it,’” Gurshin said.
Varoudakis is also grateful for the lessons he learned from longtime Newburyport High School art teacher Evangeline Laganas and Montserrat art teacher George Gabin.
Laganas taught him how to work with oil paints and gave him carte blanche to work on his art in her classroom.
“She taught me how to draw the human figure,” he said.
He learned about composition and perspective from Gabin’s life drawing and life painting classes.
Varoudakis likes making rock ’n’ roll star art for a couple of reasons.
“It appeals to a broad scope of people,” he said. “Everybody loves music. These people are household names. And for the most part, I love all these guys.”
He just finished doing an Elvis Presley work that went sideways on him. He ended up putting three Elvises in the work, making a collage.
Making likenesses of recognizable people lifts Varoudakis’ spirits.
“To get out of the doldrums, I do faces,” he said.
If you go
What: Rock ’n’ roll art by Michael Varoudakis
When: Through July 21. Reception this Saturday from 2 to 3:30 p.m.
Where: Rhythm Café, 12 School St., Merrimac
How much: Free
More information: 978-346-0444 or www.rhythmcafe.net