Pop-culture fan art abounds, mostly in the form of quickly spreading—and fading—Internet memes. But it takes the most loyal of fans to commission oil paintings. Classically styled paintings of Bill Murray or Brad Pitt might raise red flags of absurdity, but to some, it’s the best way to express their pop-culture appreciation.
Oregon-based painters Cara Thayer and Louie Van Patten have done their fair share of Walter White and Louis C.K. oil paintings. The duo didn’t want to get sucked into “the vortex of bizarre novelty and what-if-Breaking-BadmetMad-Men type scenarios,” so their approach is pretty straight forward—painting the tributes to actors and the characters they play, along with musicians, authors and scientists. They’ve even tried their hands (yes, hands—they paint on the canvas at the same time) at painting favorite craft beers.
The two decided to go full-time with their art in 2008, right around the time of the financial crisis that caused people to tighten their spending on entertainment, art and other perceived non-necessities. “We tried to make side-project art in earnest, rather than compromising our collaborative oil paintings for commercial aims,” they say via email.
They were quickly drawn to the idea of making “quality, affordable art” for people who enjoyed many of the same things that they did. The result ranges from tributes of the great breweries in Belgium, to a commissioned portrait of a competitive Starcraft player to one of David Sedaris “holding the titular brown chicken from his short story ‘The Judicious Brown Chicken.’”
David Sedaris, “The Judicious Brown Chicken.”
“We were very aware that there is a great deal of both high-end paintings and inexpensive facsimiles of paintings that mythologize wine and liquor,” they say, “and not much available for the beer fan to show their passion in a way that isn’t a Budweiser bar light. Essentially, the pop-culture art came from the same kind of approach.”
The artists have painted depictions of TV characters such Breaking Bad’s Walter White, The Wire’s Omar Little, Louis C.K. and Game of Thrones’ Tyrion Lannister. Other subjects include Elliot Smith and authors Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Dawkins. Cranston and C.K., they note, are the most requested subjects.
Their pop-culture portraits spare none of the richness of their larger body of work. The paintings are attentive and dramatic, as seen in the immaculate detail on the creases around Brian Cranston’s eyes as he sits and stares at a matchstick, Omar Little’s scar running from his forehead to the bottom of his cheek and the deadpan, concerned squint of Louis C.K. are beautifully depicted with oil-paint and canvas.
“We tend to do tributes to actors, musicians and scientists, from the most [originally-sourced] material as possible,” they say, combing through video footage “frame-by-frame to obtain an image or series of images [to create a] more unique piece of art.”
“Despite the fact that Breaking Bad fan art is hugely prolific all over the Internet, that tends to be what draws the most interest and understandably so,” they add. “Luckily, Bryan Cranston has the greatest face to paint, so it has been very enjoyable. The same goes for Louis C.K. We love what he is doing with his comedy, and he also happens to have a great, expressive face.”
Walter White of Breaking Bad
While these portraits stand out and fill the gap where higher-brow interests meet pop-culture fandom, Thayer and Van Patten prefer to work on their other body of work, or as they’d refer to it, their “regular” body of work. They’re known for their collaborative painting style, a technique that has them both at the canvas at the same time in a “mess of arms, brushes and rags.” They began working like this during summers that Thayer spent in Oregon, on break from getting her degree at the Art Institute of Chicago.
“We worked with resin, spray paint and any odd materials we could get our hands on.”
Mainly focusing on the human form, fluorescent lights are often placed on the skin to create a bluish tone to them. The works are surreal, a bit frightening and have a primal, desperate feeling to them. Faces with hands gripping them, contorted limbs and the twisting and pinching of skin and body fat are just some of the subjects of the artists’ original paintings.
“In the beginning, we were preoccupied with the ambiguity that emerged from filling the entire picture plane with areas of the body, as well as the exaggerated presence of fluorescent light on flesh. These ideas expanded and converged to a degree with our Chromatic Maladies series, where we have explored using hands in a very figurative way, with the stain of a particular shade of blue on the flesh.”
The process of their collaborative work isn’t haphazard—they plan ahead, discussing the focus of the painting with some reference materials. The outcome is ultimately up to the four intertwined hands to create the final product. “There is an extensive verbal dialogue that precedes a painting and reference materials involved, but we are trying to move away from being too deterministic about the potential outcomes of a painting before pigment hits canvas.”’
Their process is the thing that sets these painters apart. The collaboration of two minds working simultaneously is not only a wonder to see, it’s evident from the thoughtful, gritty realism in the postures, expressions and faces of their subjects. It’s the distinct thread that runs between all of their paintings, their main body of work and side-projects alike.
While the artists are first to claim that they’ve “never tried to reinvent the wheel or do anything exceptionally brave with these side-projects,” there is still an astounding amount of passion that seems to come through with each portrait—even the most seemingly absurd commissions turning into something timeless and valued. They are slowly filling the gaps where no Internet meme or poster could ever attempt to fill. The meth-making drug lord and the dry-humored comic are captured on canvas and appreciated by fans that are looking to pay the ultimate form of modern-day homage.