There is a certain, unfortunate stigma attached to being a public figure who dabbles or even completely branches out into new creative territory. You can’t be an actor and a rock star and a serious visual artist. You can’t have it all.
Well, yes, you can. We’ve rounded up an assortment of famous folks who may be primarily known for one thing — acting, writing, being an ex-president — but who have also proven to be talented (or at the very least, dedicated) painters. While some have risen to the “serious” artist category with critical acclaim and gallery exhibitions to match, others simply view painting as a hobby, a means of self-expression, a form of release. There are so many notables with a propensity for the brush that we may have missed a few. (Share your favorite celebrity artiste in the comments section.)
Former first dog Barney Bush. (Photo: Facebook)
George W. Bush
Pierce took to the bottle; Grant traveled the world and then went broke; Coolidge penned a syndicated newspaper column; Johnson became a depressive chain-smoker; Jimmy Carter built homes with Habitat for Humanity. As for George W. Bush, 43rd president of the United States, he slipped into semi-reclusiveness and took up doggy portraiture after leaving office.
While Bush has been all over the news of late with opening of his LEED-certified namesake presidential library and museum in Dallas, he’s also been grabbing headlines for his unique post-presidential passion: painting portraits of dogs (and landscapes and self-portraits of himself taking baths and showers, too). Bonnie Flood, a Georgia artist who tutored Bush in the mysterious ways of fine art, told WAGA-TV, “He started out painting dogs, and I think he said he’s painted over 50 dogs.” She adds: “He has such a passion for painting, it's amazing. He’s going to go down in the history books as a great artist.” Inspired by Winston Churchill’s “Painting as a Pastime,” Bush has opened up about his “eye-opening” newfound hobby to which he dedicates several hours a day in his studio. He tells ABC News’ Diane Sawyer: “I love to paint. It is — painting has changed my life in an unbelievably positive way.”
A Windsor Castle representative holds up a watercolor by Prince Charles at an exhibition to celebrate his 60th birthday in Windsor Castle in 2008. (Photo: Chris Jackson/Getty Images)
Heir apparent Charles, Prince of Wales, is notorious for having his hands in a whole lot of (mostly do-gooding) pots at the same time. Just don’t call him a dilettante. Among HRH’s interests: green building, rain forest conservation, plant whispering, new urbanism and peddling natural biscuits. And naturally, like any proper Brit of royal stock, he’s also an avid amateur watercolorist “during holidays and when his official diary allows.”
Reacting to the recent launch of a public online gallery displaying 130 of the soon-to-be-granddad’s paintings titled “Life in Pictures,” the Telegraph’s Mark Hudson describes the residence- and landscape-heavy artistic output as being “prosaic,” “torpor-inducingly conventional” and “so pedestrian they are almost laughable.” Ouch. The prince himself is reluctant to praise his own work. He tells the Daily Mail in reference to an unfinished painting on display in his studio: “The great thing is you begin to realise something like this will look much better further away. I think at about 100 yards it’d look quite good!” In addition to the online archive, the prince’s watercolors are on full display in a new ITV documentary titled “Royal Paintbox” and will be part of an upcoming exhibition of the same name held in the Drawings Gallery at Windsor Castle that will also feature the artistry of Queen Victoria, King George III, Prince Albert and Queen Elizabeth II.
Book cover. (Photo: Amazon.com)
While all the erstwhile member’s of Liverpool’s most beloved proto-boy band (save for George Harrison) have shown a keen interest in the visual arts, Sir Paul has emerged as having one of the more impressive oeuvres.
Unlike John Lennon, who attended art school for a three-year stint and produced an array of sketches throughout the 1960s and 1970s, McCartney started producing much later in life — the early 1980s — when he befriended and became inspired by renowned abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning. Somewhat of a private and insecure painter, McCartney didn’t exhibit his work in public until 1999 at a small gallery in Siegen, Germany. Rolling Stone reports that McCartney explained during a press conference at the opening of the show: “Someone said life begins at 40, and I wanted to begin, but nothing began. I had this problem ... that 'I don't paint.’” McCartney went on to credit de Kooning for nudging him out of the canvas closet: “He was one of the first people to liberate me.” He added: “I know a lot of people will just automatically not like it because it's me, but that's okay. It's always risky to do something outside your own field. But I think I've always been taking risks. Back when I was a part of the Beatles, a lot of what we did was risky.” The following year, McCartney made his U.K. gallery debut during a 500-canvas strong exhibition at the Arnofini Gallery in Bristol. That same year, Bullfinch Press published a comprehensive volume of his works titled “Paul McCartney: Paintings.”
"Forever Poppies." Photo: janeseymour.com
It’s been established that Dr. Michaela Quinn can remove an ovarian cyst, perform a tracheotomy, dress a wound, and work magic with medicinal herbs like nobody’s business. But who knew that the good doctor was also a wizard with watercolors?
Throughout her onscreen career, Jane Seymour, 62, has dabbled in everything from schmaltzy TV movies to sultry Bond Girl-dom. However, it’s painting that the well-preserved British actress-jewelry designer-philanthropist-“Dancing with the Stars” contestant has often cited as being her true passion. Working primarily with watercolors and oils, Seymour’s artistic output is just as you’d imagine it would be: impressionistic and refined and heavily populated by lush gardens, coastal landscapes and frolicking children. In other words, lovely — but tame. Completely self-trained, Seymour first picked up the brush in the early '90s as a form of self-healing during a rough patch. In the years since, she’s emerged as a prolific artist and has shown her work at numerous galleries and exhibitions. And if acquiring a Seymour original proves to be entirely too spendy, you can always bring a touch of Dr. Quinn into your home by shopping at Sears online or investing in a “Paint with Jane” starter kit.
Detail from Lucy Liu's "Seventy Two" art exhibition pamphlet. (Photo: Salon Vert)
While “super-talented abstract painter” may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of the lovely Lucy Liu, the Queens-born actress who rose to fame kicking major derriere in “Charlie’s Angels” and “Kill Bill” (and terrorizing her co-workers in “Ally McBeal”) has emerged as a respected visual artist.
Liu, who can currently be seen opposite Jonny Lee Miller in “Elementary,” exhibited a series of 72 monochrome paintings in ink and acrylic, “Seventy Two,” at the London gallery Salon Vert in 2011. Inspired by a Jewish mystical concept found in the Book of Exodus, that work — “abstract images that reference a variety of genres, from prehistoric cave painting to Abstract Expressionism and Chinese calligraphy” — has also been reproduced in a spendy coffee table tome with an introduction by Deepak Chopra. In addition to “Seventy-Two,” Liu has produced numerous other works (often under a pseudonym). She also studied at the New York Studio School from 2004 to 2006. She tells The Guardian of the experience: “I realised it was something I needed to do. It was important for me to go in that direction for my own sanity. So I went for the summer and I just realized, 'Oh my God. There's so much here that I need to explore.'" Here is a video of a paint-splattered Liu in action:
Duke Ellington portrait. (Photo: National Portrait Gallery)
While crooning may be Tony Bennett’s bread and butter, the 86-year-old entertainer and self-proclaimed “museum freak” possesses a serious skill with a brush and canvas that’s widely considered to be anything but standard. Working under the name Anthony Benedetto (his birth name) or simply Benedetto, Bennett’s paintings can be found in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian Institution, the Butler Institute of American Art and the National Arts Club in Manhattan. Oh, and Oprah’s house. The still-touring/unstoppable “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” singer even served as the official artist of the 2001 Kentucky Derby and founded a top-notch public high school for the arts, Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, in his hometown of Astoria, Queens.
Reads the Benedetto Arts website: “As an artist of both worldly and familiar subjects, Tony Bennett has experimented with a wide range of subjects, has studied the intricacies of various styles, and has learned from the great masters. His body of work reflects an awareness of the history of art and the artist’s continuing passion for enjoying and creating that which is universally recognized as beautiful. Common to all his work, be it oils, watercolors, or sketches, is his desire to communicate.”
"Self Portrait with Gardenia." Photo: mooasaurus/Flickr
Billy Dee Williams
Well hello, Lando. Best known as the Rebel Alliance’s resident charmer (our apologies to Han Solo) and for starring opposite Diana Ross in “Lady Sings the Blues” and “Mahogany,” it would appear that veteran star of stage, screen and more television shows than we can possibly count, Billy Dee Williams, swapped out his blaster pistol for a paintbrush some years ago.
Raised in Harlem, Williams studied painting at the National Academy Museum and School of Fine Arts but, as things would have it, he found himself taking on acting gigs to pay for art supplies. The rest is history. It wasn’t until the late 1980s during a stint in New York that the Emmy-nominated Williams found himself seduced back to the canvas. In the years since, the iconic actor, now 76, has produced an impressive oeuvre consisting of bold, expressionistic paintings that “brim with a tension of movement that is achieved through the use of dramatic perspective and a cinematically inspired flair of nuance.” Working primarily in oils and acrylics and influenced by artists such as Edward Hopper, Frida Kahlo and Thomas Hart Benton, Williams has shown his work at a host of international galleries and exhibitions. In 1994, Williams donated “Self Portrait with Gardenia” (above) to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington.
"Apples in Orange Bowl." Photo: Wynne Fine Art
In real life, those “Brady Bunch” kids sure did follow different paths after leaving the loving embrace of Mike and Carol: Barry Williams (Greg) is super-big in Branson; Christopher Knight (Peter) fell hard into the rabbit hole of reality television; Maureen McCormick (Marcia) became a cocaine addict and later a country singer; Mike Lookinland (Bobby) followed the Grateful Dead; and Susan Olsen (Cindy) currently fosters homeless kittens.
And then there’s Eve Plumb. After graduating from the role of perpetually whiny middle sister Jan, Plumb starred as the titular character — a teen hooker — in “Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway” and appeared in a myriad other made-for-TV movies. In more recent years, she’s settled comfortably into the role of self-taught painter of still-life scenes: “Painting is a creative outlet for me when I’m not acting. It gives me a feeling of control over my creative life. An actor often has to wait for projects to come along, but I can paint any time of the day. I sometimes describe my art as ‘spontaneous still life.’ Whenever I see a likely subject, everything stops and I take photographs. This holds the moment in time until I can paint it.” The actress is represented by a handful of galleries across the country including Wynne Fine Art in Chatham, Mass., where you’ll find Eve Plumb originals such as “Apples in Orange Bowl” (above, $2,900, oil on canvas).
"Fiji." Photo: piercebrosnan.com
Like many famous folk engaging in painterly pursuits, on-screen Monet snatcher Pierce Brosnan sought out a canvas and brush as a form of therapy when the going got rough. Trained in commercial illustration at Central St. Martins College of Art and Design before he segued into theater, the suave Irish-born actor and environmentalist found himself embracing his Picasso- and Kadinsky-influenced roots in the late 1980s — his post-“Remington Steele,” pre-James Bond era — while his first wife, Cassandra Harris, battled ovarian cancer: “Sometimes dramatic moments affect the way you see yourself in the world ... from a very hard time in my life, I started painting again and out came every color I could imagine.”
Profits from the sale of signed and numbered giclée reproductions of Brosnan’s work are funneled directly to the Brosnan Trust, where they benefit the various charities supported by the actor.
Exhibition brochure. (Photo: Galerie Gmurzynska)
Well, well, well. It would appear that Hollywood’s favorite monosyllabic, machine gun-toting purveyor of machismo has a soft spot for watercolors. Sylvester Stallone has been busy generating masterpieces in the form of paintings that “are as action-packed as his movies: colorful, expressive and abstract.” Stallone made a splashy art world debut at Art Basel Miami Beach in 2009 as part of an exhibition titled “Sylvester Stallone: The Electric Burst of Creativity.” One of his paintings sold for $40,000 — the buyer: casino kingpin Steve Wynn — and many critics were relatively gentle on the Rambo-produced art. Although he’s been painting for decades, Stallone referred to his artistic breakthrough at Art Basel as “the best thing that’s ever happened to me.” He explains to the Daily Mail: “'I find that the more unhappy you are, the more confused you are, the better your art is. Happy art, it just doesn't seem to work for me. Right now is a good time to paint for me because I am coming off a very difficult film. Lots of aggravation, lots of stress lots of injuries, and so I'm full.”
"Flow." Photo: rosie.com
Comedienne, actress, author, talk show and radio host, blogger, LGBT activist, Broadway producer, cruise boat director, Donald Trump antagonist and verified Etsy seller Rosie O’Donnell can add abstract painter to her long list of titles.
In typically haiku-esque style, O’Donnell explains on her website that she began painting as a means of expression in the wake of 9/11, believing that “only real artists used canvas” and that “I would never be one / the self-diminishing aspects of me once had a loud voice.” To date, O’Donnell has sold numerous works and raised thousands of dollars via eBay with proceeds supporting the Desmoid Tumor Research Foundation. Prospective collectors of O’Donnell originals are encouraged to “make their best offer” and she’ll match their donation. It’s a cause that hits close to home as the Nyack, N.Y.-based “Exit to Eden” star’s new-ish wife, Michelle Rounds, was diagnosed with the relatively rare condition in 2012. In 2007, off-Broadway venue New World Stages exhibited 27 of O’Donnell’s pieces in a solo show titled “Solace.”
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