TUCSON, AZ (ARIZONA HIGHWAYS TV) - Painter Diane Bombshelter proudly describes herself as an artist who likes to paint on velvet. It’s a bold and brave description, one that probably and immediately makes you envision Elvis, crying clowns or dogs playing poker.
"I’ve always had a kitschy sensibility," Bombshelter says, sitting in her Tucson art studio. She admits many critics consider the art form just plain 'tacky.'
"I make it because it makes me happy, not because I want approval from the high society of art."
Working on black velvet is the exact opposite of a white canvas. You paint highlights, using the velvet as shadows. The soft material also gives unique depth and texture.
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Believe it or not, painting on velvet is an ancient technique and is still a valid, artistic medium. Its roots are centuries old, originating in Kashmir.
Some of the first depicted religious icons were painted on velvet by Russian Orthodox priests.
Marco Polo and others are said to have introduced velvet paintings to Western Europe around the 13th century. Paintings on tapestry and velvet still hang in the Vatican Museum. Fast forward to the 21st century, and you’ll find the Velveteria in Los Angeles, an entire museum devoted to velvet paintings.
The time period most people associate with velvet paintings, was actually a revival, in the late 1950’s.
"I love mid-century modern furniture, art work, all of that. So that’s what sort of led me to paint on black velvet because black velvet paintings are part of that kitschy sensibility." But Bombshelter’s main influence was Edgar Leitag. "He painted in the late ‘50’s and he did mostly Tahitian women – he did some men, too – but he lived in Tahiti. And that’s basically how black velvet painting really got popular, was because of him."
It was in the 1970’s when Mexico became the mecca of the art form.
"A lot of people recognize the 'Elvis'. Most of those were done in factory style, not hand painted from the beginning," Bombshelter says.
The 'Velvet Elvis' became ubiquitous after Doyle Harden started mass producing them in a factory in Juarez, Mexico. One artist would paint one piece of the picture, slide it to the next artist who would add something else. It continued down the line, turning out velvets by the thousands.
"I’m influenced by the local Arizona artist here, the artist in Tucson, the Mexican influence, the mid-century modern because you know that’s where Tucson became a booming town. All of that leaks into, you know, my artwork."
Bombshelter works a lot on commission. "I think subject matter is a huge, important thing because a lot of the commissions, people are more focused on the subject matter and they just want a portrait of Gene Simmons in their house, or a monster or a certain actor, and that’s what makes them happy so that’s why they want it in their house."
But there is a mission behind Bombshelter’s work. "People do have this pre-mindset of a velvet painting, ok, so there’s the kitschiness, there’s the cool factor, there’s the mid-century modern factor. What I’m trying to do is make people see that I can be even more than that. It can be a beautiful portrait of a Tahitian lady – it’s not just kitschiness – it can be too, you know, I have my poodle riding the donkey, but trying to open people’s eyes and change their perception of what they think a black velvet painting is."
Realism with a hint of kitsch and graphic art.
"Because it’s cool," Bombshelter laughs, "it’s just super cool!"