Artist Shan Fannin calls herself a realist vehicle painter, an uncommon title for an uncommon passion. To explain what she does in the simplest of terms, Fannin paints cars, motorcycles, trains, and airplanes with so much realism that you’d swear each is a photograph, at first glance.
She doesn’t like to describe her work as photorealism, however, because she likes to get dirty, smearing the background of paintings with her palms and fingers. Fannin says her art is 90 percent realism and 10 percent abstract. As a casual observer, the details and reflections in the subject image jumps to the front and center and the background fades away.
Now internationally recognized and represented at galleries around the country (and one in London, UK), Fannin turned pro in 2015. She studied art when she could, casually dabbling in chalk, paint, and figure drawing for most of her life. But it was when her husband bought a 1961 Ford Thunderbird they named “Maybelline” that she started accompanying him to car shows. He encouraged her to use her skills to create car art, and she began to experiment.
Her first painting depicted an orange GMC truck. It was “so ugly,” she says, and she has wanted to get rid of it over the years. Instead, her husband encouraged her to hold onto it to remind her of how far her work has come. And her art today is stunning. So stunning, in fact, that she was chosen by the Kessler Collection to display one of her pieces on the big screen in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. As the ball dropped, millions of people may have caught a glimpse of one of her paintings, a vibrant rendition of the Red Pig, a 1971 Mercedes AMG 300 SEL.
Most of Fannin’s work is made up of paintings she chooses herself and then sells at her discretion, and a smaller percentage of her work includes personal commissions. Because she prefers to use her hands and also to facilitate the incredible detail in her paintings, her minimum size is 16 inches by 20 inches (with rare exceptions). Overall, Fannin says she likes to go big, sometimes with canvas six feet long or so. She likes Golden and Liquitex acrylics, which create bright, colorful scenes.
Looking at her process, Fannin says she first lays down a base color and then sketches out the subject on top of that with watercolor pencils. After that, she starts layering in the details and tightening up the piece. The artist often flips the canvas upside down because she says it gives her a better perspective on the shapes. Pointing at a painting of a 1971 Corvette wheel, she says a lot of people could paint a wheel, but they might forget about the reflections in the chrome or add highlights.
“I try to paint what I see, not what I think I see,” Fannin says. “The one thing about reflections in chrome is that everything's distorted. It's all like wonky-looking. So when I turn my canvas [upside down], I don't get caught up in the color; I get focused on what I'm actually looking at.”
Currently, Fannin is working on 11 paintings simultaneously. When she gets about three-quarters of the way through one piece, it stops feeling fun and starts to become work, she says. That’s when she puts it aside and turns her attention to a different painting, temporarily. Each night, she reviews her portfolio.
“Every day, I take a photo of what I’ve done,” Fannin says. “It helps me for a couple of reasons: I’ll look at it before I go to bed and say, ‘Oh, I need to fix this and oh, that’s wrong’ and I’ll think it through. Then I can return to it and finish it up.”
Fannin’s 5th solo exhibition will be in St Augustine, Florida from February 29-March 3. While she’s there, she’ll have her camera ready to capture images of the most beautiful cars in the world at the Amelia Island Concours d'Elegance. Soon after that, she’ll be readying her studio for another set of paintings even more beautiful than the photos themselves.
And happily, getting paint all over her hands to create art she loves.
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