– Words by David Wylie Photography by Don Denton
Paul Butvila doesn’t fit the mould of the traditional Canadian artist.
His fascination with fantasy, realism and popular culture has earned him rejections from so many galleries over the years that at one point he threw his paints and brushes into the garbage.
“It got me on such a downer and I quit,” he said in an interview from his West Kelowna studio. “I’d had enough of getting rejections from Canadian galleries telling me to be more serious and stop fooling around with this fantasy stuff. They admire the ability to paint the way I do, they just don’t feel that the subject matter is salable. If I didn’t love painting, I would have given it up a long time ago.”
Paul, 68, persisted and began gaining traction with his larger-than-life “Gotta Wear Shades” series, featuring beautiful women with reflections in their glasses. He favours airbrushing—a technique often used in the customization of collectible cars—to create his works. It’s a method that fits perfectly with his fascination with classic vehicles and flashy chrome.
Painting has always involved a certain measure of persistence for Paul, whose parents bought him his first oil painting set when he was 15 years old.
“I proceeded to paint two paintings, small ones, landscapes that I made up out of my head, and found out how bad it was. I figured there’s no way I was going to do this and gave up. Paul would copy pictures from the covers of TV Guides: actors, actresses and also cartoon characters.
At about 20 years old, he found inspiration in fantasy book covers—particularly those done by artist Boris Vallejo, whose hyper-representational paintings earned him a dedicated following. Paul bought books with Vallejo’s covers as they became available.
Indeed, fantasy art was pervasive at the time.
“A lot of guys in the 1970s were copying Frank Frazetta’s paintings on their vans. I had one of those vans,” he said with a laugh.
Paul brought the fantasy books to art classes, trying to learn how to emulate them, but he couldn’t get the knack. He decided to try going to the source. Paul knew Vallejo lived in New York and he managed to track down his number through the telephone directory. “I dialled the number and this fella answered with a heavy Spanish accent. And I said ‘is this Boris, the artist?’ He said ‘yeah it is.’ I said ‘wow, cool!’ Back then, he was quite accessible.”
The two got talking and Vallejo said to look him up if he was in New York. He accepted it as an invitation. He stayed with him for about a week in Yonkers, NY, and watched him paint every day, sitting beside him for eight hours.
After that week, Paul went home and started painting again—and the results were much improved. Eventually he was able to recreate Vallejo’s work almost exactly.
For about five years after that one-on-one training, Paul painted his own fantasy works.
“I got relatively okay at it, but there was no real market in Canada for fantasy art. That was all in the US, and it was all for publication illustrations,” he said.
He transitioned into painting realism—focusing especially on chrome, motorcycles, buildings with glass reflections and water. He still struggled to make sales.
“I think Canada is really into trends and stuff that is appealing to more people, a wider audience. And when they see stuff that I do, the audience is quite narrow,” he said. “Galleries would say it’s too trendy and just a fad, so I started approaching galleries in the States and at the age of about 50, I started getting a little bit of recognition with a few galleries with my realism work.”
Paul’s own unique style began to emerge. He started to earn a following of his own, especially outside of Canada. He’s since been picked up by Skye Art Gallery in Las Vegas as well as Plus One Gallery in London, England. He’s about to send a new collection to a gallery in Hawaii.
In Canada, Paul’s work is at Karmyc Bazaar in Kelowna, Tumbleweed Gallery in Penticton and Grant Berg Gallery in Grande Prairie.
His sensual art has also been displayed at Ex Nihilo winery in Lake Country.
Paul has been working on a series called “paintings of the stars,” where he cuts aluminum into star shapes that are 18 inches in diameter, and then airbrushes portraits of Hollywood actors.
“I like aluminum because with airbrushing the smoother the surface the better, and you can get higher detail,” he said.
Paul stopped using oil paints about 10 years ago, choosing instead to airbrush with acrylic paints. It dries instantly which allows him to work quickly, he said.
“I’ve been painting for 45 years, so I think the overnight success happens at year 50,” he said. “So we’re getting close.”