Toronto Triptych – Part III

500Shaun DowneyRight – Pink Coco Drawing: brown conte pencil and white pastel pencil on paper.
Left – Pink Coco painting: Oil on canvas on panel. By Shaun Downey.

Shaun Downey is literally watching paint dry. He has finished sanding down his canvases and has applied another coat of gesso to both and is waiting for me patiently while I finish up with Kyle. The fans are aimed and at maximum speed, drying the canvases as fast as possible so that Shaun can put down another layer of gesso. "I need a really smooth surface because I do not want anything interfering with the painting. A texture blip that shows up in the

shadow of the eye could throw the whole illusion of the piece off ." He explains.

501Baited Hook Handmade2 freshly gessoed canvases in Shaun Downey's studio.

This makes sense when looking at the painting Shaun is presently working on. It is of a beautiful woman standing in a doorway. She has white blond hair, a white dress and bare feet. Her arms rest at her sides. She looks as though she is standing in a warmly lit hallway and is looking into a cool, grey-blue room. On closer inspection the paint has been layered with multiple colours even in the areas that appear flat. Shaun tells me that by dry layering multiple colours he can interlace warm and cool colours without them blending and becoming muddy on the surface. The focus and detail is on the woman who stands in the warm light of the doorway. The doorway and walls create a rigid structure of squares and rectangles around the woman's organic form. This contrast in both imagery and colour is wonderfully captivating. The restful environment catches your eye and it is very hard to move from it. To me the painting looks complete but Shaun says that there is at least 2 more weeks of work left to go to add the details, like the lace in her dress.

502Shaun DowneyIn the works. The White Dress #4. Oil on Canvas on Panel.
By Shaun Downey.

One of Shaun's favourite artists is Vermeer. He enjoys the rectilinear compositions and the structure in Vermeer's work. Shaun is influenced by this in his own paintings. His images are quiet – a single figure in a space. He then finds the alignments and creates very geometric, linear compositions. "I like to find an interesting way to frame the figures."

503Shaun DowneyBlue Cup and detail, oil on Canvas. By Shaun Downey.
Shaun is the most representational painter out of his 3 other studio-mates. He was classically trained at Angel Studios (now called the Academy of Realist Art). At Angel Studio he learned the foundation of classical painting and drawing. He then attended Sheridan for illustration. Shaun saw the writing on the wall with illustration – it is a dying trade. Print is being taken over by digital communication and few clients wants to pay for hand drawn illustrations. By the end of his training at Sheridan Shaun appreciated what he was taught but realized that the precariousness of the industry, and the crazy deadlines, weren't for him.


Shaun prefers the process of an artist, where one takes the necessary time with each piece. He starts by photographing his models. I was a little surprised by this. I had that romantic notion of the classically trained artist holding out a paintbrush to capture the proportions of the model that poses before him. This notion is completely impractical for Shaun, I discover. Shaun usually draws his wife or his friends who do not have time to sit for 3 weeks and be painted. From the photograph Shaun will do a sketch. He used to do a full drawing "but then you're stuck with it because a lot of people don't buy works on paper," Shaun tells me.

508Shaun DowneyPacking Up. By Shaun Downey.

I asked Shaun about the conceptually ideas behind his work. "I'm not always trying to say something or expand peoples' minds." Shaun tells me. "I find joy in showing people beautiful things and painting beautiful people in cool environments." In another interview that I found online Shaun told the interviewer the following: "…being able to capture the essence and personality of a person. The subtlety of human expression in a single image has always fascinated me. To tell the story of one person to a group of viewers in one quiet moment is one of the most powerful tools an artist holds."

504BaitedHookHandmadeFrom the Bird Series. Mixed media on Panel. By Shaun Downey.

Leaning haphazardly against a support column in the studio is a stack of wooden panels. Each one is collaged with bright, bold imagery and varnished to a high gloss. They are in direct contrast with Shaun's paintings. These "pop art" pieces are a by-product of the recession in 2009. Shaun's understanding of the economic situation made him pro-active. He needed to find a way to sell art in an environment where people were holding on tightly to their money. Galleries were closing and art was not a priority in peoples' minds. These pop art pieces were a faster more efficient form of creating that helped Shaun financially. Creating figurative, classical paintings takes a long time and can be stressful. Shaun describes it as the "brain-rackingness" of being a realistic painter. The collages were a form of emotional release but also another marketable product which could be sold at trade shows as well as galleries.

505Blue CocoBlue Coco – selected for exhibition in the BP Portrait Award 2010. Oil on canvas.
By Shaun Downey.

In 2010 Shaun's portrait "Blue Coco" was used as the lead image for London's BP Portrait competition's marketing campaign . This was a huge accomplishment - out of 2200 entries they pick 50 exhibitors. After this achievement his painting career really took hold. The pop art pieces are no longer necessary. "This is my career. I do not want to teach or have a part time job," he said passionately. "The collages never got the same reaction as the paintings did." I think that this speaks volumes about Shaun's integrity and I admire his "no-compromise" attitude.

Shaun only does the collages as a change of pace and he no longer does the trade shows. He hardly even wants to talk about them choosing to focus on his portraits and the galleries where they are displayed.

I am beginning to feel as though I have taken up far too much time. It's been almost 2 hours since I walked through the doors and began my interviews. What a joy to find four fantastic artists of such varying styles and of such high calibre in one space. I snap the off button on my voice-recorder. By now the gesso must be dry.

506Shaun DowneyLast Glance. By Shaun Downey.

Galleries exhibiting Shaun's work:
Engine Gallery in the Distillery District of Toronto
Galerie de Bellefeuille in Montréal

Summer exhibition: