IT'S A DRAWING TO WARM THE heart of any Melrose Place fan. There's Rob Estes, who plays Kyle McBride, frolicking on a moonlit beach with his wife, Josie Bissett, who played Jane Mancini on the show, while Joe, their boxer-pointer mix, sits nearby. Of course, Estes, who is 34, and Bissett, 27, both look like 5-year-olds. Even Joe, who's really 6—40 in people years—seems still in the first flush of puppyhood.

In Hollywood, where millions are spent every year on nips, tucks and collagen implants, Estes and Bissett (and let's not forget Joe) have found one way to achieve eternal youth—simply commission one of Tom Robb's Playground Portraits and watch those years melt away.

Working from childhood photos, Robb, 37, renders his subjects as they looked when they were kids. The 11-inch-by-14-inch portraits, done with oil pencils on sepia paper, start at $350 each. Robb, who lives in Brentwood, is finding a lucrative market in people who want to recapture their childhood. His Hollywood subjects have included Helen Hunt, Juliette Lewis, and Gena Lee Nolin and David Chokachi, both of Baywatch.

"It makes me think of a lot of different things that Jos and I have done together or things I did as a kid," says Estes, who keeps his portrait in the living room. "We put Joe in the picture because we rescued him from the pound when he was 4 years old; I love that we have him on the wall as a puppy even though we don't know what he looked like then."

Until six years ago, Robb, the son of a former Presbyterian minister and his wife, was a professional bodyguard, looking after the likes of Don Johnson, Diana Ross and Tina Turner. Something was missing from his life, though, and on a visit to a San Fernando Valley gallery that had an exhibition of sports drawings, he realized what it was. A self-taught artist who majored in physical education in college, Robb went home, sketched a portrait of Michael Jordan and showed it to the gallery owner. Within three months he had his own exhibition there.

Two years ago, Robb, who had traded in his bulletproof vest and 9mm handgun for a drawing board and a set of pencils, was trying to decide on a special gift for his girlfriend Michelle Tuchscher, a buyer for designer Richard Tyler. He started to copy a postcard showing a small boy handing a flower to a girl but decided it was too impersonal. "I thought, 'What if I make it her and me?' " he says. Using a baby picture of himself and making a guess at what Michelle might have looked like as a child, he sketched the two of them instead.

As word of mouth spread about his portraits, he began getting commissions, many of them from Hollywood types looking for a novel gift for their significant other. "It was so romantic," says Nolin, whose husband, Greg, gave her a Robb original for their third wedding anniversary in November. "We're 11 years apart, and to see us the same age is cool."

Why are people so interested in giving kiddie portraits to their loved ones? "If your relationship is pure and innocent with the person you love," says Robb, "it's great because this reflects the innocence you both had as children."

And if it isn't pure and innocent? Well, that's why there are diamonds and expensive cars.

MICHAEL NEILL
ELIZABETH LEONARD in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Elizabeth Leonard.