Shawn Huckins is a Colorado-based artist best known for his amusingly ironic paintings of familiar American Revolution, Civil War, and frontier imagery overlaid with modern terminology ripped straight from the interwebs. This juxtaposition of modern and traditional imagery inspires a conversation about the ways we communicate and how that’s changed throughout the years, for better or for worse. Mr. Huckins agreed to answer a few questions of mine via email. His answers give insight into a interesting artist with an equally noteworthy body of work: Tell me a little bit about your background. What made you want to be an artist?
I had an introduction to drawing from some random kid on the school bus, who always showed me his drawings. I got inspired by this and asked my mom to buy me some sketch books, pencils, and pens. My fascination with drawing grew pretty intense and I drew everything that came my way…mostly copying from magazines or books. In the third grade, my grandmother passed away and I was given her oil painting set as my family knew of my interest in the arts. I tried to paint with oils, but since it was a brand new medium, I got extremely frustrated and returned to drawing. I crept back to painting in high school and went hardcore in college…when I actually knew what I was doing. I originally went to school for film, but long story short, after switching from film to architecture, then graphic design, I finally decided to admit that the studio arts was my calling and declared myself that junior year of college. Fortunately, I had taken lots of art courses in the mean time, so I only stayed one extra semester longer to receive my BA in studio arts.
How would you describe your path to success?
Lots and lots of work. And determination. No one is going to give you a golden ticket to success. It takes a lot of experimenting, late nights, and missed out weekends. But eventually it pays off and now I can relax a little more (just a little) and enjoy the smaller things in life. But it still requires a lot of hard work and structure.
How did you make the leap from your Paint Chips series to American Revolution Revolution? That seems to be a major turning point in your work and I’m wondering about the catalyst.
I really enjoy painting the Paint Chip series, but it quickly got repetitive and restricting. I lost my inspiration and needed to rethink my process. The American Revolution Revolution was created from a happy accident when I was trying to teach myself how to paint portraiture since I did not focus on it in college. One of my rejected portraits slipped underneath a piece of trace paper with the acronym LOL. I saw that with the face behind it and found the contrast to be striking. And the rest is history.
What got you into text-based art?
I grew up drawing in sketch books of things that would typical interest a young boy: sports heroes, video game villains, and Disney cartoons found in books and magazines. In addition to drawing the figures, I would also draw out the text that would be in the books I was replicating from. It wasn’t until much later that I discovered Ed Ruscha’s work and found that text could be incorporated into professional paintings.
What inspired the The American __tier series?
I wanted to continue The American Revolution Revolution, but again started to feel restricted. So I progressed in American history and moved onto Cowboys and Indians, the Frontier, and the Civil War era. It’s been great as I continue to paint formal portraits in addition to landscape paintings. I’m having a blast with it.
Your website boasts the disclaimer: “NOTE: All works are physical paintings, NOT digital and/or photoshopped images.” Why?
The reason why I made this note is because a good majority of people who do not see my work in person, believe I’m taking the original painting’s JPEG file and Photoshopping in the text and creating solely a digital piece of artwork. I want people to understand that my work is completely 100% acrylic paintings replicated from the works of artists such as Copley and Bingham. The text also is hand painted. Once people understand this, they find a new appreciation for my work and stop sending me negative feedback. That’s also why I include numerous detail and install photos on my website, so viewers can see that are originals.
I see. Now that the disclaimer makes more sense, why do you choose to paint the images instead of simply photoshopping them together?
I suppose it’s because I grew up using my hands to manipulate a pencil or brush onto paper or canvas. The physical act of painting is much more satisfying than working digitally or working with photography. That’s why I switched from Architecture and Graphic Design in school because everything was done on the computer. Also, painting is very traditional and I like to think I’m a traditional guy. Lastly, painting is messy and smells…I love both.
Tell me about your process.
It starts with finding the perfect image and perfect text to marry it with. The paintings I replicate are all within the public domain, so anybody can do what they please with them. I choose to replicate them in acrylics and superimpose media jargon, also painted, on top. The text I find by creeping around on Twitter (or something similar) with a fake name. Adolescent girls usually have pretty good text to use. I don’t use my own as it find it too contrived. Once I find the ideal match, I do several composition layouts on the computer to get the text positioned just right.
From there, it’s drawn out onto canvas. The lettering is masked off, burnished down, and I start the underpainting. I typically work in sections and start with the face and hands first, as I find these parts to be the most challenging and time consuming. Once I get past this and feel good about it, I move onto the background and work my way forward. Once the painting is complete, I peel away the tape to reveal the white lettering below and touch up the parts where the paint leaked underneath. It gets photographed and finally varnished.
Exploration of history and the English language come up a lot in your work. Do you consider yourself a historian and linguist as well as an artist?
I love history, but don’t consider myself a historian. I like to know a little about the paintings or people I replicate in case a collector asks me about the subject matter. Mostly I don’t want to sound dumb in front of a potential collector. As for a linguist, no, not really. I’m more of a record keeper, keeping records of what the lexicons are of today are. I don’t study the meaning of language and its progression through history.
What’s your favorite painting you’ve done? What’s your favorite painting someone else has done?
I have a fondness for this one painting: Because He Has Swag And Knows How To Wear His Pants: Daniel Verplanck. It was rather difficult to paint as the perspective on the columns gave me a hard time and the landscape in the background wasn’t really realistic in the original painting. But the lighting and composition of the boy is so beautiful and feel like I totally nailed it when painting his skin tones. Unfortunately, I couldn’t enjoy it for very long, as it was sent to a two-person exhibition in Seattle and sold.
My favorite painting of all time is Ed Ruscha’s Standard Station. It was really the first painting that sparked some sort of emotion when seeing it for the first time, while no other painting has never done that leading up to that point. I suppose it reminded me of my childhood and working at my Papa’s garage restoring his classic antique cars and remembering the smells of paint fumes, oil, and gas. In fact, for my 25th birthday, I made a huge replication of this painting for myself and it’s hung in my living room.
What’s your favorite non-art related thing to do?
I enjoy cooking and baking, specifically pies. Although I suppose I take my artistic skills to the kitchen. Each pie is meticulously created and crimped with maple leaf cutouts made with pie crust placed along the edge. My inner Martha Stewart. Other than that, I love hiking the Rocky Mountains, biking, and craft beer exploring.
Where could one get the best breakfast in Denver?
I’m a huge fan of the traditional diner scene. So I may take one to a place called Denver Diner or Pete’s Kitchen. They serve breakfast all day long, 24-7 (and that includes nights on the way home from bars.)
Huckins work is currently on view at Goodwin Fine Art in Denver. If in the San Francisco area, be sure to view his work in person this January for Platinum Blend, group exhibit hosted by Modern Eden Gallery.