Each year the First Night Saratoga posters bring the spirit of the celebration to life through swirling colors, jesters, crystal balls and other whimsical designs.
But for artist Sharon Bolton, who has created most of the posters in the last 19 years, the posters are a scrapbook of her life.
Every year, before working on the poster, she gets her family and friends together for a photo shoot based around the First Night theme. One year, her daughter, Erin, donned a jester hat and blew out a bunch of lit candles atop a cake.
“There was one year where we took a carpet and threw it out in the lawn,” Bolton said. Her kids and husband, Rick, pretended to fly through the air on it.
Then Rick picked up her daughter, Hailey, and she pretended she was flying around the yard.
Another year, she had Hailey and Erin act like they were walking on a tightrope, which Bolton later transformed into a glowing string of lights.
When she first started, her kids were in grade school and would get so excited to take part in the photo shoots. As they grew into their teenage years, they became less enthusiastic. But her daughter, Hailey, is always happy to participate.
She’s become the official poster child and this year she’s joined in the poster by a young girl who’s a family friend and musicians from the Buffalo Brass Band. (First Night Saratoga starts at 6 p.m. on Dec. 31.)
“It’s been a load of fun, using my family as models through the years. But it’s also like a little scrapbook or a timeline for me,” Bolton said, “It’s the weirdest thing, standing back and looking at them all.”
Since she’s made the posters (which become ticket/buttons) nearly every year for the past 19 First Night celebrations — taking just one year off — she’s been able to watch her family and her style grow through the posters.
“I have no other work that’s gone from year to year like this,” Bolton said.
Bolton, who is a Saratoga Springs native, has been creating art since she was a child.
“I can remember it was this time of year, the first thing that I did was draw Christmas trees and Christmas [ornaments],” Bolton said.
“It was just natural for me,” Bolton said. It was a talent that was nurtured by her family members from childhood into adulthood, where she attended the Rochester Institute of Technology and Graphic Careers Inc. to develop her illustration and graphic design skills. She worked as a graphic designer in the Rochester area for several years before coming back to Saratoga Springs to raise her family of three; Erin, Hailey and Collin.
It wasn’t too long after she moved back that she was hired to create the First Night posters.
“It’s all about trying to stay an art piece without it looking very commercial,” Bolton said, “That is always a challenge.”
She starts working on the poster about six months before the First Night celebration. She meets with organizers, who for the past few years have been the leadership at Saratoga Arts. They usually discuss the theme and the concept of the night. In years past its been “Starry, starry night,” “A Night of Magic” and “Explore the night!” among others. Bolton takes the concept and comes up with ways to translate it visually.
Sometimes this takes weeks to develop and other times it all just clicks into place, Bolton said. After that, she’ll do the photo shoot with her family to get reference material.
Though in previous years, she's sketched from the beginning or used an oil painting technique, recently, she's used Photoshop to rearrange and remake the photos.
“I’m working with photography, I’m working with hundreds of layers and I’ve got a tablet. With the tablet, I can sketch and draw things. I can change things with a one-point pencil line,” Bolton said.
After creating some graphics through Adobe Illustrator and adding those to the poster, sometimes she’ll go over the entire thing with a paintbrush, giving it yet another layer.
Each year, there’s a lot of pressure to make the poster better than the last. For Bolton that pressure adds to the challenge. But the artist said she enjoys the challenge.
“This is the most fun I get to have in my work,” Bolton said.
In the last 19 years, the style of the poster has really evolved. In the early 2000s, the jester was an important character in the posters, one that Bolton considered the mascot of the event. But organizers pulled back on the jester and decided to go for other whimsical themes. In 2010, with the theme of “Starry, starry night,” Bolton created a celestial-inspired poster, with a girl on riding in the sky on horseback, surrounded by swirling stars and planets.
The posters have also become more digital-looking and less illustration-focused, said Bolton.
Because she spends months with each poster, it’s difficult to pick favorites. But when The Gazette spoke with her, Bolton said the posters from 2017 and 2018 really stand out in her mind as being some of the strongest conceptually.
In the 2017 poster, a young woman with brilliant auburn hair holds a glowing moon in one hand and an owl in another. Her dress billows out beneath her, creating a snow globe effect and displaying a scene from a wintry-looking downtown Saratoga Springs, with the Adelphi Hotel, horses, and several familiar figures. The theme for that year was “A Night of Magic” and the piece exudes just that.
Then with the poster from 2018, two girls, modeled after her two daughters, walk across a string of lights, over Congress Park, while holding glowing balloons that are shaped like a star and a moon.
While the posters hold both sentimental and creative meaning for Bolton, they’re also important to many in the community. People still ask her about buying copies of First Night posters from years ago. She usually points them in the direction of Saratoga Arts or the Crafters Gallery. She also makes greeting cards with the posters, which are available on her website, sharonboltondesign.com.
While Bolton plans to continue creating the posters, she is also planning to start illustrating children’s books in the coming years. With her long-standing ability to capture the magic of First Night, it seems like a perfect next step.