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VICTORIA -- Merle Fager has been drawing since he was a Hays High School student.

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VICTORIA -- Merle Fager has been drawing since he was a Hays High School student.

At Fort Hays State University, he started in the communications department majoring in theater.

It wasn't a good fit.

"I was working my way through school, and they kind of wanted you to spend the afternoons working on sets and stuff," he said.

Someone suggested he show his design sketches to an art faculty member.

He did and was offered a scholarship.

"Fine art isn't the easiest to make a living at," Fager said.

So he turned to graphic design as a career, keeping painting and drawing as a hobby.

His first sale, a commissioned oil painting of a hunting dog, came while he was a student.

"I threw out a figure of $300," he said. "It paid for my books that semester."

That led to other commissions. His work has found homes as far away as Florida.

At first, he painted mostly landscapes and paintings or drawings of houses.

Then his pencil drawings, some of them caricatures, started getting noticed.

Though he still works in both oils and pencil, because of the increased cost in money and time for an oil painting, most of his work now is pencil drawings.

While his commissioned pieces come mostly from someone who's seen his work, he does some for close family, like the one of his granddaughter, Reanna.

"I took the picture and did a drawing of it," Fager said.

He prefers to take the photos himself, but sometimes it's not possible when the piece is meant to be a surprise. Then he works from others' photos.

"I always ask them not to use a professional photographer's photo because it's always posed," he said. "The lighting isn't the way I want it, and there's copyright issues."

Even if someone else takes the photo, he asks to meet the person he's drawing.

"If I can do them in three dimensions, I have a better idea, otherwise I'm just doing a drawing of a photo," he said. "Proportion is difficult, but human beings are experts on human beings, so we know when something's not right."

Photos are portable and accessible any time.

"When I draw, it's 11 o'clock at night, so they're not coming to my house to pose anyway, and if it's ... children, they're not going to stay posed anyway," Fager said.

He enjoys trying different smudging techniques and playing with lines and blending.

"I'm always experimenting," he said. "I don't see that I have a distinctive style in my stuff."

He can get a pencil drawing out and work on it for half an hour, then put it away. The work also goes quickly.

In eight to 12 hours, "working evenings over a couple of weeks, and it's done."

It takes more time to get out the necessary tools and complete a painting.

"Every time you get it out, you've got to clean your brushes, so there's a little more to the time involved," Fager said.

After it's painted, it takes a couple days to a couple months to get it dry.

"When I'm doing something for other people, they'll want something for Christmas, and they're calling me in October."

Painting landscapes in oils gives him a chance to experiment with technique, though.

"When you're doing portraits, you're worried about likeness and making them look real," Fager said.

A current project, a painting of St. Fidelis Cathedral, is one he's had in mind for a long time.

"I walked around town and kept taking (photos of) it at different times of day," he said.

The light changes in the course of a day, but he's found it appears very dramatic at twilight when the shadows start turning blue and purple.

Fager has shown his work at a few events and welcomes commissions.

However, he isn't likely to make the leap to full-time artist any time soon.

"My family's always come first, so this is a hobby in my spare time."