Artist Jose de Juan has lived in Los Angeles, in London, and now he lives in Vancouver. Because of the high cost of real estate in urban centres, he turned the great outdoors, which is free and plentiful, into his studio space.
And because of an old friendship with a Bowen Island realtor, he’s also tapped into a unique sideline as landscape painter of people’s beloved homes. After they have packed up and just before they hand over their keys, realtor Mary Lynn Machado – who is new to the industry – gifts them a painting of their home by Mr. de Juan. It’s often an intensely emotional experience, and it has proven so popular with clients that Mr. de Juan is worried about fitting more commissions into his busy schedule.
He is a visual effects animator in the film industry by trade, but he paints outdoors, known as “plein air”’ a side project that is his true passion. He’s drawn to urban environments, particularly architecture, he says, and plein air works because he doesn’t have a studio.
“Plein air is what worked for me because I moved a lot, and these are things I can do on the weekend, I just go outside, I don’t need a studio. I think it’s a very good exercise for any painter,” the 55-year-old says.
“But I was kind of forced into it, because I was in an apartment, and that’s not very conducive to painting. … Even here, I have to move my computer every time I want to paint and I have to move the paintings when I want to work.”
Born in Madrid, he left Spain when he was 23. To make a living, he got a job in the Los Angeles film industry, where he discovered many talented painters. He worked at animation studio DreamWorks and for many years at Rhythm & Hues Studios on Oscar-winning movies such as Babe, The Golden Compass and Life of Pi.
“I didn’t think there was any work in just doing painting, so I figured I had to find something that had some employment,” he says, laughing.
At Rhythm & Hues, he worked side by side with Ms. Machado. They worked in the “grooming” department, adding painstaking hair and fur details to the animated characters. Ms. Machado had come from Ontario, where she had studied fine art and computer animation. She spent 17 years at Rhythm & Hues.
“I was an expert at creating hair on creatures and making them look realistic,” she says. “I did the hair on the orangutan in Life of Pi.”
After the company filed for bankruptcy in 2013, Mr. de Juan left and eventually landed a job in London for two years, working on movies such as Disney’s The Jungle Book.
“It was very intense on the eyesight because you have to comb and curl, and it’s complicated. I was looking for a change, and that’s why I came to Vancouver, to do something else called ‘lighting.’ That means you place the lights and make it interesting in computer graphics and drive the story. It lent better with my visual capabilities. You direct the viewer’s eye by directing the light.”
Meanwhile, Ms. Machado had already landed a visual effects job in Vancouver. She sold her house in Redondo Beach, Calif., and bought a house on Bowen Island in 2014. Earlier on, she had visited a high school friend on Bowen, fallen in love with the place and vowed to retire there. They ended up working together again in Vancouver, for the same company.
But the commutes to Vancouver from Bowen Island were longer than any commute she’d ever had in Los Angeles, and it got to be too much for Ms. Machado. After a couple of years, she left to become a realtor. After learning the ropes from a top realtor on Bowen, she got her licence in 2019.
“I woke up one day and said to myself, ‘you are finally living here, but you’ve got to do something that will allow you to pay your mortgage and be on Bowen.’”
She says there are 15 realtors on the small island, which is part of Metro Vancouver and a 20-minute ferry ride to Horseshoe Bay. Ms. Machado used her design skills to direct videos and photo shoots for marketing properties – but she wanted to do something special for clients, to stand apart from other realtors.
Ms. Machado got an idea from a painting that hung on her wall. For her 50th birthday present, her aunt had commissioned Mr. de Juan to do a painting for Ms. Machado.
While racking her brain over what to give clients, her eyes settled on the painting, and the idea clicked.
“I am not the kind of person who will buy a gift basket and say, ‘congratulations,’” Ms. Machado says. “I looked at that painting my aunt had gifted me … and that is how it came to be. It’s just so pleasurable when I give the paintings to my clients.”
When the sellers are about to move out, she hands them the painting. Today, after only two years as a realtor, her business is thriving.
And Mr. de Juan’s paintings are a hit.
“It’s so emotional for them,” Ms. Machado says. “I recently sold a house that was owned by a couple who were separated and getting divorced. I had two paintings done for each of them. The husband had built the house, a beautiful home, and they hadn’t planned on selling it. He got tears in his eyes when I presented him the painting.”
So far, Mr. de Juan has done 12 to 15 paintings of houses for Ms. Machado. The paintings are small, 8 inches by 10 inches in size. He says they take four to eight hours over two sessions during the week, and he does about one a month. His full-time visual effects job is demanding, so he hasn’t got a lot of time to do his paintings.
If she knows that a client has a beloved pet, Ms. Machado will ask Mr. de Juan to include the pet in the painting. Or, if the sellers are proud of a water feature, or a garden, she’ll ask him to include that. Ideally, he likes to paint on site, where setting and lighting inspire him, but due to time constraints, he has to work with photos of the Bowen Island houses.
“I’m more of an urban painter, because I don’t have a car. I’m limited to where the bus can take me,” says Mr. de Juan, who lives with his husband in a small Kitsilano apartment. “But I love painting architecture in general. I like street scenes a lot. There’s always something interesting. It’s not what you paint, but how you paint it.
“In general, if the light is correct, or the atmosphere or mood is correct, that is what the message of the painting is, not the painting itself. So I find myself a happy place to approach it. I don’t see it just as a record of this house.”
North Vancouver resident Peter Richards commissioned Mr. de Juan to paint his wife’s garden as a wedding anniversary present. He’d already purchased one of his paintings at an exhibition, so he knew the artist’s work.
“It really captures the garden more than a photo would,” Mr. Richards says.
The Richards’ project came with some urgency, because the heat dome of late June was about to wilt the garden, and the day lilies and roses had reached their peak. Mr. de Juan rushed to the property and sketched the Mediterranean-inspired garden and took photos. He included Mr. Richards’s wife, Kay Sutherland, in the composition.
Ms. Sutherland, a gardener for the past 40 years, was delighted with the result and impressed with the artist’s use of light.
“My sister has a painting of my great-grandmother in the garden, and I’ve always thought it was such a lovely thing to have.”
Mr. de Juan isn’t certain his life on the move is over. His husband isn’t thrilled with living in Vancouver and he longs to return to London, so that move is on the horizon. Mr. de Juan could continue to paint for his Vancouver clients from London. He has done commissions for Los Angeles clients and shipped the paintings to them. He also did a painting for someone in Thailand.
Mr. de Juan is more concerned about London’s high cost of living, where “they almost charge you for breathing.”
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