Ukrainian Refugee portraits by Rich Wilke. | Credit: Courtesy

 After 25 years of working in animation, Rich Wilkie, a former illustrator for Disney and Netflix, recently moved to Santa Barbara full-time and returned his artistry to the physical canvas. But his latest project is a far cry from Disney magic and animated adult sitcoms.

“I’m used to drawing movement and emotion,” Wilkie said. “But things for me started slowing down about two years ago. So I started doing portraits of people, while really trying to focus on expressions.” 

“And then Putin invaded Ukraine; millions of people had to flee the country,” he continued. “And … just seeing all those pictures of refugees. Well, that’s really expressive. So I started painting them, and I got really into painting them. At some point, I had a bunch, and thought, ‘I should just do 100 of these.’”

Wilkie is donating all of the profits from the sale of those 100 portraits to aid Ukrainian refugees. So far, he’s done about 80. 

He has no personal ties to Ukraine. But, Wilkie said, “the helpless expressions of the children fleeing the fighting, and watching their fathers taken off to war, compelled me to do something.” 

The former animator uses oil paint to portray the heartache felt by those displaced from their homes. Part of Wilkie’s artistic process includes exploring the subject’s feelings, a technique he picked up from studying acting for his work in animation. “I find an image, and then I write down the emotion that I am trying to portray,” Wilkie said. “Then I try to think of something in my life that relates to that.”

Reflecting on this process for refugee portraits, Wilkie found himself choking up. Many of the images he paints depict expressions of sadness, confusion, and fear. And many of those expressions are worn by children. 

“I spend three to five hours on each painting,” he said. “It grates on you after a while. It gets dark, so I had to try and do something fun as well. So I paint smiling, happy children to try to focus on that. Sometimes you have to mix it up,” said Wilkie, who began painting at 9 years old but ended up creating for the screen. His name can be found in the credits of Disney classics like Pocahontas and Hercules, as well as television shows such as King of the Hill and Scooby-Doo

Now that he’s found time to pick up his paintbrush once again, he incorporates techniques learned during his time in animation to breathe life into his portraits. As part of what he calls “a constant learning process,” Wilkie taps into emotion, smears the edges in his pieces to give them vitality and movement, and never skimps on life-giving color. 

So far, he’s only sold a few paintings. Every penny, though, has gone to refugee relief efforts, specifically the International Committee of the Red Cross’s response to Ukrainian refugee needs. His work can be viewed at, and on Sundays in the Santa Barbara Arts & Crafts Show. 

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