I have often thought that painters who set up their easels where the public can watch and comment are either exhibitionists or masochists, possibly both. It is also a way for an artist to draw a crowd of potential customers. Yes, guilty as charged, I have stood toe to toe with scenery in many areas of the world. In most cases, I would like to think that I’ve had a few victories, a number of draws, and certainly my share of defeats. But just as in boxing, a split decision is a possible result. The public clustered around an artist struggling with a view or a portrait decides, I think rightly, that any idiot foolish enough to paint in public deserves the comments that he gets.
Some thirty years ago in shopping malls, both in Ontario and the northern States, I learned with a fellow artist, Mike Roth, to present paintings and provide some colour. That was not my baptism, though, into this bizarre activity. I had, during my years in art college, painted on the street in Stratford and Ottawa, attempting to sell the paintings straight from the easel. The sales were not great but did provide just enough money to get me through.
Thirty years later, in the garden below the steep cliffs that held Edinburgh Castle, I met a young man from Chicago painting in the public garden (Edinburgh Castle from Garden). He was working his way around the world, painting and selling directly from his easel. He must have been doing okay as he had nothing left to show me from that day’s labour. He was also encouraged to hear my brief history and realize that there is life after street painting.
There are showmen/artists who make a handsome living performance painting. I think of a large German man, Heinz, who used to travel the mall circuit with a very well thought out display setup and a pretty assistant, almost like a stage magician. Dressed in leder hosen, this rotund artist produced oil paintings of fictional landscapes of mountains and chalets. Although repetitive, the work was slick, professional and appealing.
In Key West, Florida, I watched as a transplanted New Zealander wowed the crowd with his street painting prowess. His touch was sure and strong. The paintings were destined for a ritzy Key West hotel owned by horsey people. I got to know him over several years and learned that his small business of commissioned equine paintings was based in the Blue Grass Country of Kentucky. From that location, he travelled the world painting prize horses and the country that they inhabit. He also painted everything else that came into view. He was obsessed with painting, and I could identify with him.
Sidewalk portraitists occupy a special place in my mind for courage and possibly desperation. From New York to London, England, they ply their tight-rope act in acute noise and changing weather. Passing traffic and poor lighting are ignored by these sketchers who delight more often than they disappoint. I know of one fellow who has a portrait setup outside the National Portrait Gallery in London, England whose sign proclaims that this is his twentieth year in that location. He has turned the street portrait into a lucrative business with people from all over coming to get their portrait painted, just as their friend or relative had done years ago.