In the tech industry, there is a term used to describe an aspect of product design intended to create a distinctively positive, unexpected moment for the user. This term is “Surprise and Delight”. I must admit that I have been neither surprised nor delighted by any piece of technology, but if there is a space for moments of ‘surprise and delight’ in any realm, it’s in the art world, and in Paul Richard’s art specifically.
While walking in Greenpoint, have your eyes ever fallen on a collection of black lines on the pavement, only to realize they’re arranged in the shape of a face? Perhaps even a skull? If so, you’ve seen Paul Richard’s art. A slice of it, at least.
Richard’s work doesn’t stop with his impressive drip paintings, which he crafts accurately enough to distinguish Charlie Chaplin with nothing but a single line of black mixed medium. Beyond his street art is an impressive slew of Fine Art paintings, which are perhaps among my favorite of his work. It’s worth noting that the drip paintings live beyond the streets, and the likes of Justin Bieber, Jay-Z and Beyonce, and Marc Jacobs have commissioned their portraits on canvas.
I can think of few moments more representative of “surprise and delight” as walking down the street on some mundane Tuesday only to have your out-of-focus eyes, dazed by routine, pleasantly interrupted by a piece of art that someone placed right under your feet. More than feeling surprise or delight is the gratitude a community has for an artist that chooses to bless their streets with such artwork, adding magic to the mundane.
After sighting Richard’s work during many North Brooklyn walks over the years — and his recent cameo in Netflix’s Pretend It’s a City— I caught up with the man himself.
Often dressed in a suit and tie, an outfit not donned by many street artists, I wasn’t sure what to expect of Richard. After speaking, I found anything but the pretentious presumptions that his outfits may lend to. Not only humble, but endlessly charming in the rare way of one who is seemingly unaware of said charm. The thoughtful and curious type of human who spends as much time on the Q&A portion of an interview, as he does on getting to know the interviewer themselves. Read our interaction, below:
Can you tell me a little bit about how you became an artist?
I actually didn’t go to art school, but art was something I’d always participated in. I started making money selling one of my paintings and I kept pursuing it. At first, I sold out of alternative venues, like cafes and bars, or on the sidewalks of Greenpoint and SoHo. Once, I asked the manager of the KMart on Astor Place if he’d let me sell paintings inside, and he did. It ended up being covered in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. It was one of my most successful alternative venues, KMart. The sidewalk is great, though, once someone on the street bought my painting of Bernie Madoff for the Fischer-Landau Museum, right off the sidewalk.
Only in New York. A lot of your fine art portraits are of yourself, is there anything behind that?
The model is free and always on time. Practicality more than anything. I often end up painting myself in vulnerable states, like falling or in a wheelchair.
My favorite may be the one of you in a tutu. What made you choose Greenpoint for a studio location?
There were a lot of artists in the area in the early 2000s, when I came to Greenpoint. Someone introduced me to a studio in the Pencil Factory building, on Greenpoint Avenue. It was a small studio with a solid foothold in the building. As my work grew I collected more rooms in the space, after the initial one, and ended up with a pretty large studio. I was there for 17 years.
You must have seen a lot of changes in Greenpoint during that span of time?
Definitely. When I first set up at the Pencil Factory building, in 2005, it seemed like there was a really vibrant scene there. There were woodshops, musical rehearsal spaces, painting studios, screen printers, fabric workers, etc. Over time it became more filled with startups and tech. That shift happened incrementally but the biggest turn was 5 years ago when tech and business workspace, kind of like a WeWork but run by Pencil Factory, took the top floor which had previously been rented by a woodworking collective.
I’m afraid to ask about the rent changes…
From the time I came to the Pencil Factory to the time I left, although my space did increase, the overhead went over 10 times more than when I’d started. The rent just kept going up and up. But I will say that there’s a positive side to these changes too. For example, my collectors used to come primarily from Manhattan, but a lot of them came from Brooklyn last year. There are a lot more collectors in Brooklyn than there used to be, which is a good thing.
That makes sense. As far as the community art scene goes, I know you were involved in some local exhibits, like Greenpoint Open Studios. How would you describe that experience?
It was great. I like to sit back and just watch people’s reactions to the art, see how they’re interpreting it or what they think of it, rather than putting myself in front of the art.
It must be rewarding to see how people react to your work, especially on a local level. As far as the materials you used, did you source most of it in the neighborhood?
I’d often go to the Arts and Craftsman supply store, on Metropolitan Ave.
One of my favorite things about street art is the accessibility of it and has the potential to enrich a community. What inspired you to start drip paintings on the sidewalk?
To your point, it’s a large and immediate audience. You can have an audience of five thousand people in a week. But I didn’t really have an agenda, I did it off the cuff and it was an experiment, just to do an artwork on the sidewalk and see how people would respond. I think the first time I did it I was coming back to the studio from the art supply, so I had the medium (black paint) with me, and just spontaneously put one down on the sidewalk. I generally put them down in a practical location, to or from somewhere I’m going. Oftentimes, it’s the face of an anonymous man. The bowtie was my signature at first, but then progressively I started signing it with my actual name.
I really love the drips specifically because I haven’t seen much of that style around, it’s very distinctive.
I was just messing around, it’s actually based on a drawing exercise that you’d do in a life drawing class. They call it blind contour line drawing. “Blind” because you aren’t looking at the paper, you’re looking at the model. The exercise is designed to loosen you up and make you less self conscious about what you’re doing, to focus on the model and draw what you see, not what you think you see. The concept is to, with one continuous line, do all the contours and the figure.
If you want to hunt for some of Paul Richard’s Drip Paintings, you can find them around Transmitter Park, Kent Ave, on the corner of Franklin and Greenpoint, next to American Park, and, well, we’ll keep some locations to ourselves so you can be surprised and delighted.