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  • Annette Dawm

Going Brushless with Amy Shackleton

Amy Shackleton is an artist who creates paintings without a paint brush. Her “brushless” technique began in 2008. It has evolved to include elements of photography, Photoshop skills, and even augmented reality.

According to her most recent artist statement, “Amy Shackleton creates imagined urban landscape paintings using drips of liquid acrylic paint. Inspired by the immediacy of climate change, she juxtaposes local architecture with Canadian geography to ask pressing questions about our future. Extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and hitting closer to home. Forests are burning, lands are flooding and glaciers are melting. Her work is a call for action and a stark prediction for environmental futures.”

“I travel for inspiration.” Amy explained. “I am in love with tall buildings, trees and waterfalls. A few trip highlights include a four day hike across the Grand Canyon in Arizona, spending a night in a tent in the Sahara Desert in Morocco and hiking to Machu Picchu in Peru. I take hundreds of photos on each trip.”

“I always create a digital study before I start painting. I merge urban and natural photos together in Photoshop. I develop the composition. I add colours. I draw on my tablet to complete the study. I print out. I walk into my studio. Magic ensues….”

“I love colour. Most of my paintings are saturated with colour. I start with the primaries (plus black and white) and mix the rest. I have my favourites and over the years I have developed a signature colour palette. My favourite colour to work with is primary cyan…. I always work on several paintings at once to avoid watching paint dry. At the moment, I have eight paintings up on my wall easels. I love surrounding myself with colour!”

With each painting, Shackleton aims to prove that drip art does not have to be abstract. Her “architectural lines are highly controlled” and she is able to manipulate each drip by carefully rotating her canvas.

In the beginning, Amy relied heavily on tape to achieve the architectural look she wanted. Over time, this process became obsolete, along with the paint brush itself:

“I started using drips back in 2008 to achieve a natural/organic energy in my work. At that time, I used paint brushes and tape to create the more concrete, architectural elements. I began to enjoy working with drips more than brushes and tape. As I became more experienced with using gravity to direct the flow of paint, the paint brush became an unnecessary touch-up tool. It was then I realized with more planning, calculating and layering, I could eliminate the use of a brush altogether. This became a challenge that took three years to master. In 2011, I created my first brushless painting and I haven’t looked back since. Basically, I have been slowly eliminating the parts of my process that I don't enjoy and leaning into the parts I do enjoy. As a result, I have so much fun!” She continued.

Amy admitted that the most challenging part of her career “was having the guts to start it”. After she graduated with a BFA, she took on an office job in order to pay the bills. In addition to her work, the long commute was exhausting. It left her with little time or energy to focus on painting.

“I knew I needed to make a change, but it was difficult to leave the stability of my full-time job.

When I finally quit, I had a brief opportunity to jump into the deep end of the art world before I found another job closer to home.” Luckily for Amy, she was able to complete nine commissions for her former co-workers at the office. “Don’t burn bridges!” She laughed.

“I had so much fun and made more money than I’d made full-time at the office. So I just kept going. I applied to every group exhibition I could. Before I knew it, people were finding out about me. In one of my first commercial shows, I sold a large 45” x 60” painting for about $1200—a piece that size now sells for $8200.”

Amy first became internationally recognized as an artist in 2011:

“I created a time lapse video to document the creation of one of my first brushless paintings, ‘Terraced City’. I made the video to accompany my solo exhibition in Toronto. I posted it on YouTube because that was the easiest way to post it at the time. After watching the video, my neighbour asked me if he could share the video on Reddit.” Reddit was fairly new at the time, so she didn’t know what the site was for.

However, she agreed that her neighbour could post the video. It went viral, quickly reaching one million views! Shackleton was featured on national news and said that her “inbox was exploding! I was getting interview requests from everywhere from Brazil to Poland. To top it all off, I sold a few paintings, including the piece featured in the video. I created a Facebook page for my art that same year.” She added that everything was “unexpected and unplanned”. After that, her audience continued to grow and so did the size of her paintings:

“….I’ve been taking steps towards creating large scale public art projects since 2013, when I created the first panel of my 50 foot panorama of Canada. If you want something bad enough, you can make it happen."

"I created the first mural of my professional career in 2020. The Robert McLaughlin Gallery invited me to create a mural commission for The Oshawa Centre Mall. I accepted the project without knowing how I would accomplish it, but with the confidence that I would. Creating a mural onsite challenged me to work without the ability to spin my surface. I discovered new painting techniques and developed a love for large scale public art projects. You have to take risks to discover new things! From there, I incorporated mural work into my scheduled public gallery and museum exhibitions. This led to my first exterior mural project, which was recently installed in downtown Cobourg.”

In collaboration with her husband, Julian, Amy has added another “layer” to her work by incorporating augmented reality (AR). Viewers can use their smart phones or tablets to scan a painting and suddenly water and tree branches appear!

“My husband Julian is a graphic designer and animator. Years ago, he showed me some basic AR functions on an iPhone and we talked about how it could be a great tool for artists. We started using AR in 2018. Julian found a way to overlay my time lapse videos onto paintings at my exhibitions. The response was incredible.”

“Julian was inspired to take it to the next level, and have the AR become part of the artwork itself. Our first major collaboration was the exhibit ‘Playing with Fire and Ice’, where we filled an entire 25x15 ft. gallery space. I did the mural all over the walls, and Julian produced his first full-scale AR experience.”

When asked about what she is looking forward to, Amy replied: “I’m currently working on a new body of work for my upcoming summer solo exhibition at Wall Space Gallery in Ottawa…. I’m also working through my list of custom work for collectors near and far. I’m now booking commissions a year in advance.”

Finally, Amy Shackleton listed several pieces of advice for her fellow artists:

  • Being a successful artist is a marathon, not a sprint. Take small steps to build your career.

  • Find time to devote to your practice and discover your niche.

  • Be confident and believe in your work.

  • Do everything in your power to get your work out of your studio and into a space where it can be seen by others.

  • When you enter the art world, don't be afraid of rejection. You are going to hear it again and again, so you have to be strong and have a thick skin.

  • Don’t worry about making the “wrong” choice at any given time. There is no right and wrong path and you can always change your mind down the road.

  • Don't forget to take risks with your technique and leave your comfort zone, you may be surprised what you come up with.

  • Create something unique that you enjoy and are passionate about.

  • As a self-employed artist, you can’t rely on others to do things for you. If you want something, make it happen.

  • Outsource things that take up a lot of your time and energy. (E.G. shipping, packaging and grant writing etc.)

  • Most of all, be you.

Photos courtesy of Amy Shackleton.

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