Exhibitionists·IN PROCESS

What do Eleven, Kylo Ren and George Costanza have in common? These time-lapses

Watch Heather Buchanan's time-lapse videos as she creates watercolour portraits of some famous faces.

Watch Heather Buchanan's time-lapse videos as she creates watercolour portraits of some famous faces

"Eleven" by Heather Buchanan. Watercolour on paper.

Calgary-based artist Heather Buchanan's portraits are fun and cheeky and familiar — and not just because she's painting celebrities and characters from TV. Even her portraits of her friends (see "Marlaena") feel familiar in their poses and in the way that Buchanan imbues them with humour and affection.

For our "In Process" series that gives a glimpse of artists at work (in time-lapse!), Buchanan captured videos of herself creating four paintings. From her watercolour portraits of actors Adam Driver and Millie Bobby Brown (as Eleven from Stranger Things), to an acrylic painting of Jason Alexander as George Costanza eating shrimp, Buchanan's portraits are guaranteed make you smile — and maybe want to mail them on a card to your best friend.

But before we see her at work, we asked a few questions to get familiar with her process.

Can your describe your perfect painting environment?

I need lots of light, enough space to have a few different pieces on the go, and a few hours where I know I'll have privacy. I really like having big chunks of time to work where I know I won't be disturbed, and I get cranky when I get interrupted. I'll either throw on some music or turn on Buffy the Vampire Slayer for the 900th time, and I'll be good to go.

"Jerk Store is for a show I’m doing through the Art Gallery of Grande Prairie called 'Eating,' which, shockingly, will be a whole bunch of paintings of people in tv shows and movies shoving food into their faces." - Heather Buchanan 1:14

What kind of music do you listen to when you paint?

It's a bit of a smattering of styles. The last five albums from my Apple Music: Deerhoof - Mountain Moves, Robyn Hitchcock - Ole! Tarantula, TT The Artist - Art Royalty, Parquet Courts - Human Performance, The Pointer Sisters - Break Out. Add in a bit of lo-fi bubblegum, the occasional dip into classical music and just a pinch of 90s pop, and you've got a good idea of what I listen to.

I'm married to a musician (the incredibly talented Nate Waters), so occasionally I get to paint to live jazz or rock music if there's a rehearsal going on in the basement. I usually tell them that I'll be locked in my studio upstairs with headphones on, but secretly I crack open my door and listen in.

Where do you get your inspiration for a portrait?

When it comes to my pop culture work, I'm usually drawn to the types of characters who people get really giddy about. There's something really beautiful about the way a fictional character can have this ripple effect on people's lives. We can create an instant bond with a stranger over a mutual love of a performer, and that I think that's pretty powerful.

In terms of my non-pop-culture portraiture, I usually get inspired by an individual, and I'll create a little visual mythology around them. I'll use elements of their personality and distill it into surreal representations surrounding them. I really want to tell more stories about women, particularly about the ways women are powerful and beautiful. I'm just at the beginning stages of figuring out what that's going to look like. Most of my pieces are of a single individual, and so every element of the painting says something about who they are and how they exist in the world. I want my portraits to be about women's beauty and power.

Watch Heather Buchanan bring her watercolour portrait of Eleven from Stranger Things to life. 1:05

Has a celebrity who you painted ever reacted to their portrait?

A little bit...I wish I had a good story for this! But I'm usually way too shy to tag celebrities when I post their portraits on social media, or to engage much if they do see them. A few people have found them and purchased their portrait, which is lovely.

How much do you plan a portrait before you start painting? What is your process to prepare?

Sometimes I have a solid plan in place, but I really love the process of figuring things out as I go along. The painting takes so much longer that way, since I make and fix so many mistakes along the way, but I also kind of love the idea of all these secret mistakes hidden inside the painting.

Heather Buchanan gives us an inside look at her cheeky portraits of celebrities. Hi, Adam Driver! 1:11

How long does it take you to complete a painting, on average?

Watercolour portraits take four or five hours to paint, depending on how much they cooperate. Paintings like Jerk Store — I usually work on them a few hours a day over the course of a week. Since I like keeping these scene paintings a little loose and sketchy, they're usually pretty cooperative. I just build up a layer of paint every day and after a while the moment I'm trying to capture comes to life. My big acrylic paintings take weeks — around 80-100 hours on average.

There's this point in every painting I make where it gets incredibly ugly and I lose all hope that it can be saved. It usually ends up being fine, but the ugly stage is gruelling and terrifying. Every part except that is my favourite.- Heather Buchanan, on her favourite part of the painting process

Which other artists inspire you?

My favourite painter is John Currin. His portraits are just everything. I love Joan Cornellas brashness, Thrush Holmes' freedom, Andy Dixon's luxurious colours, Elizabeth Peyton's ease, Casey Weldon's frequent use of cats, Alonsa Guevara's juiciness, Jenny Saville's largess, Wayne White's persistence, Marie Cassatt's empathy, Mark Rothko's transcendence, Lucien Freud's crusty bodies, David Hockney's plants and people, Erik Jones' cocktail of realism and abstraction and Natalia Fabia's babes. I could go on.

For “Marlaena”, I did a photo shoot with Marlaena Moore where she came to my house and let me pose her and take a bunch of photos. I had absolutely no plan at that point. I just thought about the photos for a few weeks and made a bunch of different sketches. I liked the idea of using Magnolias with her, since they are supposed to represent “traditional female beauty” and Marlaena is over six feet tall and kind of smashes the idea of traditional beauty. She transcends it. 1:27

What do you hope people take away from your work?

I am so lucky that a lot of what I do makes people smile. Even if it's just a one-liner or a wash of nostalgia, I'm honoured that I can throw a little bit of joy around this world. As for my more "serious" work, I like leaving it up to a bit of interpretation. I'm happy to tell anyone what a painting is about, but it's the best feeling ever when someone interprets it in a way I never could have imagined.

Check out some of the final paintings below!

"Jerk Store" by Heather Buchanan. Acrylic paint on Canvas.
"Designated Driver" by Heather Buchanan. Watercolour on paper.
"Marlaena" by Heather Buchanan. Acrylic paint on canvas.

About the Author

Mercedes Grundy has been producing videos for CBC Arts and Exhibitionists since 2015. She is a unabashed Leonardo DiCaprio enthusiast with an educational background in photography, and produces film and theatre when not busy here at the CBC. And while her love for the arts does not discriminate, she openly acknowledges she is a horrible dancer.


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