Scratchboard, intricate drawings and oil paintings – after working together on commissioned murals for many years, the brothers Dave and Allan Thomas recently started focusing on their individual art – both working on canvas – but pursuing very different styles. I had the pleasure of talking with the artists at the opening night of their show “Connectivity” at the Front Gallery in Edmonton.
Dave and Allan Thomas, before talking about your fabulous art show, let me focus for a moment on your artistic past. You might be familiar with the success story of artist David Choe, who was approached by Facebook with a proposition in 2005 to paint his famous murals on the office walls for $60,000 or company stock. The 35-year-old chose the stock and when Facebook announced its initial public offerings of stock – to raise $5 billion – Choe made about $200 million. His murals are still in the Facebook offices today. Have you had such luck with your work so far?
Dave and Allan (chuckling): Not yet, but there is always hope!
You grew up in Edmonton. What or who got you both interested in murals and when?
Dave Thomas: As a teenager a wall was just another surface for me to express myself on, I didn’t differentiate painting on a wall from drawing my teacher on a school notepad or painting a still-life for my mother’s Christmas present, it was just natural like breathing.
I guess the big change came at 18 when I was hired by a local entrepreneur to produce murals and painted advertising for his Night Clubs and restaurants.
Allan Thomas: I think it may have grown out of my years as a sign painter. I got in the trade right around the time computer signage was just beginning but I do remember seeing all the billboards that were being hand painted at the time and I was always amazed at how artists could do such good work on such a large scale. Coincidently it was when the computers took over the sign industry that I began to lose interest and luckily listened to my brother Dave when he encouraged me to quit my job and join him painting murals which he had begun doing. That is when we started Flying Colors Mural & Design.
Many kids paint their first mural on withered bits of plywood in their back yard that they dragged out of a dumpster somewhere. Where was your first mural and is it still available to see today?
Dave Thomas: Haha, actually that’s not far off. When I was around fourteen, me and a bunch of kids from the neighbourhood would gather up discarded wood from construction sites and build these elaborate forts where we could hangout, talk about girls and smoke cigarettes. I was always the guy elected to adorn the interior walls with images; usually copies of album covers from our favourite bands, unfortunately these have all been destroyed long ago.
Allan Thomas: My mother was always very supportive of our interest in art when growing up and let us paint murals all over the walls in the basement where we had our bedrooms. If I really wanted to I might be able to track one or two pieces down that friends took and replaced with new drywall when I was moving out of the house.
Why did you start putting your art onto walls?
Dave Thomas: In the beginning it was just another surface to paint on, as a self-employed artist I was always hustling to build a name for myself taking commissions wherever I could.
Allan Thomas: I always had an interest in working large so what better way than doing murals. It’s also a great way for others to see the work especially outdoor murals that can be seen by hundreds of people a day.
At the time, did you have any preferred surfaces such as walls, trucks or trains?
Dave Thomas: Always walls for Allan, but I went through a lot of phases. I don’t think anything beats the rush you get being up on a scissor lift, painting a huge mural in front of people passing by.
Which artists have inspired you back then?
Dave Thomas: Back then is hard to pinpoint, I guess it started with D.C. and Marvel. In my teen years, I was in awe of the late renaissance painters such as Caravaggio and Rembrandt, these days I’m more into guys like Adrian Ghenie and Alex Kanevsky who have a more fresh approach to painting the figure.
Allan Thomas: I grew up with 70’s Marvel and Mad comics which then turned into a love of record covers and artists like Franzetta. When I got older I was very open minded and got into a lot of different artists and movements.
Until recently, you mostly worked on commission murals. These days, with occasional stints painting legal walls over in Edmonton, you focus on your individual art, both working on canvas, but pursuing very different styles. How has your work evolved through the years?
Dave Thomas: For me, it’s always been about the figure. Early on, I had a more academic approach to my art and worked mainly from life, but eventually these seemed too much like model studies to me so I moved towards using my family as inspiration. The biggest change though has come in the past few years where I see the message – not the figure – as the main focus in the painting.
Allan Thomas: As I got interested in lots of different art movements and styles over the years, my work has changed dramatically from a pop art influence to abstract to collage work and pop surrealism. I was even getting serious about Mosaic work until I told myself that I needed to focus on what I wanted to do most so I could develop a style that I could approach galleries with. When I did that, I realised Photorealistic urban landscape paintings were what I wanted to do most.
Let’s talk about Allan’s scratch art for a moment. Your most intricate drawings are the complete opposite of your murals – you seem to love to work in detailed realism. You are using a black-and-white graphic technique that creates a drawing look like etching. How many hours does it roughly take you to finish one of your amazing pieces?
Allan Thomas: They are very time consuming but I’m not quite sure how long each piece takes. I usually do about one a month but I also work on paintings at the same time.
Where do you get your inspiration?
Allan Thomas: Lots of different places but since I work with urban landscapes it is usually alleyways and fire escapes or rundown streets with graffiti and garbage. I get a lot of my reference photos when I visit different cities and if I’m in a nice area with modern buildings and clean streets it can be very hard to feel inspired. It’s not until I get into the seedier worn down areas that things start happening for me.
Scratchboard is a paper board that is covered with gesso or wax and coated over with black ink. Your delicate drawings are perfectly executed – as the scratching technique does not leave any room for error, how do you achieve such perfection in your work?
Allan Thomas: You really need to think five steps ahead because if you scratch away an area it’s gone and that will be a problem later on if you realise you did something wrong. That is why they take me so long because it is a slow process of thinking out every scratch, making sure to capture the proper tone and get the right texture.
Modern scratchboard (or scraperboard) originated in the 19th century in Britain and France. As printing methods developed, it became a popular medium for reproduction because it replaced wood, metal and linoleum engraving. What made you choose this particular technique?
Allan Thomas: I’ve always thought my love of scratchboard could someday develop into wood engraving or lino cuts for small print runs but I’m not sure how scratchboard could be used for print making because the scratches made are not deep enough to hold paint. If you ran your hand over one of my pieces I don’t think you would feel any texture at all.
Dave Thomas, your oil paintings focus on your experience as a husband and a father. You are known to have a deep appreciation of ordinary moments in your family’s everyday life. Is painting for you a way to hold on to these moments?
Dave Thomas: Interesting, I believe there’s something to that but it’s more about my experience as a human being on this planet and trying to make sense of all these fleeting moments small and large we all go through. It’s also about a larger picture of wondering where it’s all leading too. Maybe intuitively keeping the work so personal is a way of drawing a hard line in the sand, separating it from my commercial work that is so impersonal.
Many of your paintings were inspired by your concern as a parent about the amount of time your children spend indoors on their electronics. Your own parents were concerned with the amount of time you were spending outdoors. Why are these generational differences of such importance to your work?
Dave Thomas: I think the painting you’re referring to is ‘Outside In’ from my solo show Unfinished Symphony at the Naess Gallery back in 2016; the show was meant to be a look at the modern family using my own family as a guide. It touched on a number of issues I’m sure many parents are concerned with. As a father I’m constantly questioning what’s best for my children and how they will be affected by the ever changing world we live in.
The background of some of your paintings is largely made up of earth tones. Why?
Dave Thomas: I usually work with a fairly neutral pallet, though I am trying to bring more colours into the work. My colour choices do change a lot depending on what I’m trying to say with the work. In Al and my recent two person show called “Connectivity” at The Front Gallery, my paintings touched on connecting in this digital world we live in and had a much more artificial glitchy feel to the background colours.
“I’m in constant dialogue with the paint and subject matter, adding and subtracting as I go, and many times painting myself into a corner and fighting my way out”, you said once. Can you describe that creative battle a bit more?
Dave Thomas: When I finish a painting, I never really know how I got there or if I could do it again. It’s a much more intuitive process than my commercial work where I go from point a to b as fast as possible and can map the steps out in my head before starting. Even though I work with the figure, I approach my paintings more like a de Kooning throwing down marks and reacting to them. Sometimes it just feels right to drag a paint loaded squeegee across a portrait I laboured over for 10 hours …
And then you do it?
Dave Thomas: Yes, I do it without question and react to that.
Any upcoming exhibitions, shows or projects?
Dave Thomas: I’m currently designing a mural for a lounge in downtown Edmonton and have a large mural project coming up in Toronto late July-August. As far as my personal work goes I’ve just finished spending two weeks renovating the studio and can’t wait to get back at it. I have some vague ideas for a new body of work that I want to start working towards even though I currently don’t have any shows booked in; it’s that whole if you build it they will come mentality.
Allan Thomas: It will take me about eighteen months to develop enough work for a solo show which I am now hard at work on. I am always posting images on Instagram of work as it is being done, so anyone who wants to get a better idea of my technique or where my work is headed, please visit me at : allan_thomas_artist.
Thank you very much for the interview and all the very best with your art. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.
Allan and Dave Thomas: Thanks for showing interest in our work and having us on ART BECAUSE. We appreciate it.
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Photographs by D. Herold 2018 / All rights reserved