When I spray-paint my masterpiece
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If I ever need a mug shot, I’m calling Shayne Hull.
The 47-year-old artist is behind those faces hanging in Proof on Main, the restaurant inside 21c Museum Hotel. You know the ones: relatively straight mugs, some easy to recognize and others, well, less so: The paintings are of prominent Louisvillians, people in the arts and those who Hull calls “average Joes.”
“It’s Steve’s (Wilson) choice who to paint,” he tells me, referring to the co-founder of 21c. I noticed Wilson’s portrait on the mantle while at Hull’s house for the photo shoot. Turns out he is No. 81. Sculptor Ed Hamilton is already on the wall, as is LEO Weekly founder-turned-congressman John Yarmuth.
And now he’s painting one of me.
We are at the beginning of the process: the photograph. “It’s basically taking a picture, painting from it, then delivering it,” he says. As the 6-foot-1 Hull settles behind the camera, he admits he’s not much of a photographer. “I’m barely competent; that’s why I like digital so much. All I do is point and shoot.
“I’ve always been a fan of strong light and shadow, the theatrical kind,” he says as he gets up to readjust the light. “From a technical standpoint, I need strong shadow so I can see form.”
I tell him that when I smile broadly, my eyes close. “Every subject I’ve done for 21c, their expression is their choice,” he says. “They want, maybe, a big ear-to-ear smile, or something stern, contemplative, whatever they want. So far I’d say about half are smiles and half not.”
So I start somewhere in the middle, just a hint of a smile. And a blink. “Three in a row with blinks — that’s amazing,” he laughs, his cropped-salt-and-pepper head nodding. “It’s weird because you don’t blink a lot.” After about 15 shots, we’re done.
Next I watch Hull actually paint the portrait; he’s a little nervous about an audience. I find that surprising from an Al Smith Fellowship winner, one of Kentucky’s highest honors for artists. “I’m not real good at painting in front of people, but I can manage,” he says. “I’m most comfortable, though, after I get going and have a bit of momentum.”
The photo is taped beside a 12-by-12 birch panel. He’s already sketched the shape of my face onto the board with a pencil.
I have a bad habit of tilting my head up in photographs. I was working so hard on not blinking that I forgot to push my chin down. That’s the image Hull liked best, of course. So there I am, with my signature head tilt, half smiling.
It’s about a quarter done. A portion of the hair is painted, and the eyes and mouth are finished.
Those eyes. I’m awe-struck as we — me and my painting — stare at each other. The painted orbs of blue seem alive amid rust hair and bright lipstick.
“Most people say eyes are hard to do, but eyes are pretty easy,” Hull says. “Eyebrows aren’t. Eyebrows are subtle; there’s so much change of color, with the skin showing through.”
He likes the way he painted my mouth. “The lines from the closed lips I find daunting. It’s not the outside; it’s the implied line where lips meet. It’s just a simple line, corner to corner. I find that hard to see and hard to capture. Everyone has the things they like to do and what they don’t.”
I watch as Hull uses his thumb, pointer and pinky fingers to move the oil paint around. He utilizes a small brush for details.
There’s always music playing, and today we’re listening to Alejandro Escovedo. On other days it could be punk, blues or ’60s music. If I wasn’t there, he says, he’d be singing loudly or talking to one of his three kids, who are between 5 and 12. His poodle Thiebaud (named after his idol, artist Wayne Thiebaud) also likes to visit.
He works on one portrait at a time, taking about four to six hours to finish.
Hull started this project in 2006. Now, with 85 of the 100 paintings completed, Hull predicts he’ll be done by the end of this year. The final portrait will be a three-dimensional piece whose sitter is a secret.
Hull doesn’t hang the paintings at 21c personally, but the nails for them are already in the wall. Once he delivers a group and the portraits are displayed, that’s when the guessing game begins: “Is it …? Do you think that’s …?”
I’ve made this one easy for you.