Light & Shadow: The Illusions of Derick Crenshaw

BY Marimar McNaughton

Behind the glass façade of the historic Bellamy Building on South Front Street artist Derick Crenshaw is at ease. Working a palette of colors as familiar to him as the back of his own hand he brushes pigments onto canvas like he might strum his guitar. Knowing the chords by heart he paints rhythmically like he plays from memory.

Drawing from life captured in snapshots Crenshaw works loosely hardly uptight as the center of attention. He is a featured window artist at Corporate Canvas art gallery churning out a body of work that frames vernacular street life beach scenes waterways and wooded landscapes.

“I don’t go out looking for particular subject matter ” Crenshaw says. “I go out looking for what I call some magic.”

The Georgia-born artist studied advertising design trained as an illustrator and ascended to the rank of Master Pictorial Artist which in his humble words means that he can “paint anything proficiently.” He arrived in Wilmington on that ticket and was for a stint a scenic artist and member of the Cape Fear Filmmakers Accord in the mid-to-late ’80s.

“The illustration work for outdoor advertising was the best education I could have had as an artist. I was forced to paint things I would never have painted on my own. I couldn’t wait until I was in the mood to paint. I had to please the clients the management; I had to paint if I was sick in front of an audience and I usually had several apprentices with me. My students used to say I had eyes in the back of my head ” Crenshaw says.

At the ripe old age of 50 he decided to devote the rest of his career to fine art. That was five years ago. “Painting is simply sharing a way of seeing ” says Crenshaw. “Some people call it a talent. I call it ‘born with a burden.’ By the time I was old enough to process thoughts I knew I was an artist.”

The self-taught Crenshaw is not stingy with his technique.

“I have a basic belief that if an artist helps another artist he’s better off for it. I’ll tell you exactly why I’m doing it and how I’m doing it ” he says. “I try not to paint the subjects themselves I try to paint the way light affects them. When you look at it you see the subjects; but it’s really just an illusion. I paint the light and shadow.”

He believes the mind can create a better painting than he can. “One of the tricks is knowing where to stop and let your mind complete the painting ” Crenshaw says. “You’ve got to leave something for the imagination.”

Crenshaw paints what he calls “the hard stuff” — reflective lighting back lighting multiple portraits the human form and figure fleeting thoughts.

“When you have a thought that goes through your mind the expression of that thought shows on your face. That’s what I try to capture ” Crenshaw says. “If you know you’re being photographed or sketched it kills that thought process.”

Many of Crenshaw’s arresting images illustrate bathers on the beach. “I get on my bicycle on Wrightsville Beach. I’ve got my camera and my water bottle and I just look like a tourist taking pictures ” he says. “A lot of people come up to me and they realize I’m taking pictures of them especially the girls and I tell them I’m not the paparazzi I’m an artist and at the worst they may be in one of my paintings.”

Like many visual artists when Crenshaw comes into the studio he is loaded with photographs sketches and color notes.

“You never know you have something until you get home and start drawing sometimes combining elements of several photographs a wave from one the sky from another the position of a person ” he says. Sketching a composition on the canvas he pencils as few lines as possible reserving the passion for the paint.

“When I get good line and direction and get a good composition I’ll know I have something. I like to get the effect painting rather than the drawing.”

Working from the background forward he says “I put scrub in the landscapes I work with the sky put in the horizon line. The last thing I paint is the closest thing to you ” Crenshaw says.

He is persnickety about keeping his colors fresh.

“I’ve set up the same palette same arrangement of colors for over 30 years. You can put pigment on a palette and if you take your brush and just move that pigment around on the palette without adding more colors you’re killing the color. That’s how easy it dies. I teach my students not to use more than three colors to make any color. If you do it just turns to mud; it loses its brilliance. When you’re painting you want to pull some colors together on the palette and put it to the canvas and actually use the canvas as part of your palette too. I never premix anything I ‘palette-ize’ everything. I mix a couple of brushes full as I go and adjust the color. That’s what makes it more painterly more brilliant more real ” Crenshaw says. Using only oil paint he adds “I want these paintings to last 1 000 years.”

He has recently started using a digital camera to shoot his subjects.

“I traditionally use 35 mm. Digital is flatter doesn’t have the depth of the pictures and the colors are all wrong but I still use them as a guideline. Digital is just getting to the point where I can paint from it.”

From his originals he produces giclee prints.

“Giclee is a French word that means ‘sprayed ’ literally like a giant ink-jet printer. The image is usually captured with a million-dollar scanner or very very extreme high quality digital photographs. I prefer the scanning although I’ve had people argue that with me.”

Arguably the giclee is the state-of-the-art most permanent print available it is very cost effective printed on artist canvas and stretched on double tongue-in-groove strips.

“As far as prints go today is the best time to be an artist ” Crenshaw says.

His goal is to leave a legacy of art “To paint all the paintings I can between now and my death at age 95 or 105 in the most permanent means I can paint them in so they’ll be around for thousands of years and have the very best digital images because once they’re digitized that’s forever ” he says.

Crenshaw hopes to teach his techniques to some talented up-and-coming young artists who might not be able to afford the high cost of an art school education. In the process some of his philosophy of life is sure to leach onto the canvas.

“The more you understand the more you realize is out there to achieve and try to understand. The more you know about art the less you know so how can you be anything but humble?” Crenshaw asks.

“I try to paint continuously or some aspect of it every day ” he says but when he unwinds it’s offshore fishing outdoor cooking and music. His muses are daughters both students Shay 23 at UNCW Heidi 21 at Cape Fear Community College and his wife Brenda.

“Their belief in me as an artist and their support has really put me where I am today. Of course I’ve been painting my whole life; at one point I said ‘I’m not going to paint any more illustration my life there is over I’m quitting and it’s a struggle.’ Literally my wife’s support has really helped me get to where I am today as a painter.”