Ernie Barnes

About the Artist

Early Life and Education

Ernie Barnes

Ernie Barnes

Ernest Barnes was born in Durham, North Carolina in 1938. His father was a shipping clerk and his mother a housekeeper for attorney Frank L. Fuller Jr.. Fuller was a member of the Durham Board of Education and encouraged young Barnes to read books on art when he accompanied his mother to work at the Fuller home. The books formed the basis of his art education, during a time in the South when he was not allowed to enter museums in North Carolina.

Barnes was a shy child, who preferred to draw in his sketchbook while other students were playing sports. A masonry teacher, who was also the weightlifting coach at his high school, discovered Barnes secluding himself with his sketchbook and encouraged him to train and participate in sports. With the teacher’s encouragement, Barnes became the captain of the football team at Hillside High School and the state champion in the shot put.

In 1956, Barnes graduated from Hillside and was offered more than two dozen athletic scholarships. He would have liked to attend nearby Duke or the University of North Carolina, but Black students were not admitted to either school in 1956. He attended the all-Black North Carolina College at Durham, across the street from Hillside, where he majored in art on a full athletic scholarship.


Ernie Barnes began his football career in 1959 with the Baltimore Colts, then played for the New York Titans, the San Diego Chargers and the Denver Broncos. His football career ended when he fractured his right foot in 1965, while playing an exhibition game for the Canadian Football League.

He sketched while on the sidelines throughout his career and illustrated several articles for San Diego Magazine during the off-seasons in 1962 and 1963.

In 1965, Barnes attended an owners meeting in Houston, hoping to become the football league’s official artist. The owner of the New York Jets, Sonny Werblin, arranged a meeting with Barnes and three New York Art critics to view his works.

The critics were very impressed and Werblin hired Barnes as a salaried player, but to draw and paint, rather than play. Werblin told Barnes, “You have more value to the country as an artist than as a football player.”

Pads to Palette, 1995

In 1966, Barnes had his first solo exhibition, hosted by Werblin, at the Grand Central Art Galleries in New York City. The exhibit sold out.

Barnes wrote and illustrated a series of articles in 1971, with sportswriter Neil Amdur. The articles, published in the Gridiron newspaper, were titled I Hate the Game I Love. Those articles formed the basis of Barnes’ autobiography, From Pads to Palette, published in 1995.

Barack and Michelle Obama went to an exhibit of Ernie Barnes work on their first date. That visit was portrayed in the 2016 film, “Southside With You”.

In the Good Times television show, many of the works that were depicted to be painted by J.J., one of the show’s characters, were done by Ernie Barnes. Sugar Shack, probably his best known work, was shown during the show’s opening and closing credits and was also used for the cover of Marvin Gaye’s I Want You album. (Barnes also appeared in a few of the first Good Times episodes.)


Ernie Barnes painting, Growth Through Limits, was used on a billboard in Los Angeles after the 1992 riots.

Ernie Barnes
Growth Through Limits, 1992

In 2019, a retrospective of his work was exhibited at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles.

Ernie Barnes died on April 27, 2009 at Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, California. He is survived by his wife and five children.


2022-10-31T15:43:03-04:00 November 26th, 2021|

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