art artist

Interview: Artist Paine Proffitt

7:00 AMGoalChatter

by Aleks V |

If you've recently picked up an Aberdeen FC match programme, you've probably seen the work of sports artist Paine Proffitt. His work has been exhibited at The National Football Museum in Manchester. He also has artwork in the permanent collections of The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, The National Pastime Museum, and The World Rugby Museum. A native of Phoenix, Arizona, Paine has been living in England since 2001. His paintings, which marry sport with various artistic movements, feel at once nostalgic and new.

I chat with Paine on his daily life as an artist, his influences, and more.

How did your journey as an artist begin?
I've always liked drawing and painting for as long as I can remember. I didn't get serious about it until I was about 17 years old and knew then that art was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I then went to art school at the Rhode Island School of Design and spent a year at the University of Brighton in England, before working as a freelance illustrator. After about 10 years of illustrating I decided I wanted to work on my own artwork ... I then spent about another five years or so struggling to find my style and what I wanted to do with my artwork, and finally found that I wanted to paint sports.

What's a typical day like for you? 
I usually wake up a bit late if I don't have any appointments or errands to run. I'll check emails, social media and do admin first thing while I'm still trying to wake up. I'll also try to get 'Staffordshire oatcakes' (a local Stoke-On-Trent specialty - it's a kind of pancake/crepe served with savory fillings) for breakfast/lunch at my local oatcake shop. I hope to be painting by early afternoon and then try to keep my head down and work as solidly as possible, taking breaks for meals and to check social media. Occasionally I'll watch sports in the evening, otherwise I'll usually work very late until about 4 or 5am and then play Tetris while listening to a podcast or audiobook, or watch some of a baseball or hockey game to unwind before going to sleep.
You list Picasso as a favorite artist, and Cubism has heavily influenced your work, but your paintings also have traces of Art Deco and Constructivism. What drew you to these movements, and how did you arrive at your signature style?
Arists like Picasso, Chagall and Modigliani are among my favorites, but while my work has changed a lot from their early influence, I think there are still elements of their style in my paintings. You're right in that Art Deco and Constructivism have a strong role in my work now ... I think maybe only the Futurism art movement has more impact on my style. I think the different movements affect my work in different ways. Art Deco has a vintage beauty, style and grace that I love. Constructivism has a bold, powerful authority to it, along with its own sense of stylistic design. Futurism (along with Cubism) has an atmospheric industrial beauty and a sense of movement to it. I think all of them lend themselves to sports art very well.

Tell me about your favorite painting and why you like it.
I think I have two favorite paintings. The first is Chagall's L'Anniversaire. It's romantic, magical and just a beautiful painting. I think it also reminds me that art can break rules, be whimsical, fun, deeply emotional and romantic ... and it's just a gorgeous work of art. My other favorite painting is a football (soccer) painting by CRW Nevinson called Any Wintry Afternoon In England. Nevinson's work as a whole is probably the biggest influence on my painting and this piece just captures football (soccer) and the north of England perfectly. The weather, the light, the industrial landscape and city houses, the players and game are captured spot on, and remind me of England, football and England's industrial North every time I see it ... There's a personal, emotional connection and a link to my memories that connect with me deeply. There is also a vintage quality to it that I love. I was glued in front of it when I first saw it in Manchester (England). It completely changed my work and helped shape my style overnight, and its influence can still be easily seen in my paintings.
How did you get involved designing matchday programmes?
I had done a few football paintings for myself and naively decided to send samples of my work around to different football clubs' programmes to see if I could do any artwork for them. This was before my work was up to scratch, but I didn't know it at the time. Only one club, West Bromwich Albion, got in touch and asked if I would be interested in doing their programme covers for the season, which I was thrilled and scared senseless about. The programme editor at West Brom is a visionary and has a true artist's soul - he's bold, creative, innovative and open to pushing boundaries and taking chances - and I came in at the right time for an idea he had of making the season's programme a theme of "Albion as religion". The idea for the season's programme was to express West Bromwich Albion (and football) as a religion, and would have a religious feel throughout the programme from the cover to the design to the chapter titles to the style of writing. It was a great project to be a part of and a pleasure working with Albion's programme. Looking back on it I'd say my contribution was a bit hit and miss ... some cover pieces worked but with others my ability wasn't quite there yet ... I'd say I was about three or four years from being able to do it right.

My work was seen by a few other clubs and I was asked if I could contribute to a few different programmes. I did Aberdeen FC's and Port Vale's programme the next season and it's slowly grown from there. I've kept up a good relationship with West Brom and we've worked together on about three or four seasons' worth of programmes now ... Aberdeen FC has also been a close working relationship and I'm doing their programme covers again this season. I've also done extensive work for Sunderland AFC's and Grimsby Town's programme, as well as a few special editions of Aston Villa's, Derby County's, Nottingham Forest's, Brentford's programmes, and international or cup match programmes for the FA and Scottish FA matches.

You've worked in sports in different parts of the world. At what point did sports and art intersect? Which came first?
I've always loved both sports and art but never put the two together until a few years ago. I don't know why but I never really thought of painting sports ... it was only until I became really frustrated at always painting what other people wanted me to paint that I thought of leaving that behind and started to focus on my own interests. When I was painting in a different, older style I did a few rugby paintings and eventually exhibited at the World Rugby Museum in Twickenham. It would be several years later before I would start painting football, baseball or hockey, which I've only started to do in the last five or six years now. All that time before I had my head up my ass and never thought of painting what I was interested in.
Paine Proffitt's work on display at The National Football Museum in Manchester, England. Photo: Paine Proffitt via Twitter
You've lived in five different countries. How has your experience working as an artist differed in each? How have each of those countries influenced or helped you evolve as an artist?
Most of my international travel was when I was a child. My dad was the war correspondent for Newsweek magazine in the 1970's so we had to move a lot for his work. He didn't want to work in another shallow-grave country and quit, and things settled down a bit in terms of moving every two years. During my adult life I've lived in the United States and in England (where I'm currently living and working).

In the US I was working as an illustrator, so my style was a lot more commercial and everything was working to someone else's needs. I was mostly doing editorial illustration and didn't enjoy it. I got frustrated at always having to do someone else's artwork and I was also a bit lost as to my own style, direction and what I wanted. I never felt comfortable and it wasn't a great time.

Since moving to England, I've been doing a lot more painting for myself, and the work's taken a fine art route. I've been dealing with galleries and football clubs a lot more and I've eventually started to find my voice as an artist. It did take me a while to get there, though. When I first got to England I was still struggling to find my style and I also got involved with a commercial art print company that had me doing awful work ... it wasn't a good experience, didn't last long and also set me back years artistically.
The culture had a big impact on me and my work, and eventually found its way into the paintings, especially football. Eventually I started working with the football programmes and began to find my style and get better. It was a much more positive experience and even though I was learning, stumbling and growing as an artist in the public eye it felt a lot better. Also the intensity and volume of work helped me so much ... in the last five or six years I've grown more as an artist than I have in the previous 20 years. The unrelenting painting has had some drawbacks - mostly burnout - but it's been huge in my development as an artist.

In addition to being a correspondent for Newsweek, your father was also a novelist. His first novel, "Gardens of Stone", was made into a film directed by Francis Ford Coppola. A lot of your art includes text, despite your reluctance to paint letters. Do you think your father's work has influenced your own, and if so, in what way? 
I don't think his work has directly influenced my painting, but there's always been an atmosphere of support that has come from his being a writer. With my dad being a novelist and journalist, and my mom being a journalist, newspaper editor and lover of the arts, my parents were always supportive and understanding of the arts and always encouraged me. So I think its more their attitude, understanding and support, which comes from their own artistic disciplines, that's always been there and helped with my own artwork.
Tell me about a person without whom your career wouldn't have been possible.
I'll mention two. One is the programme editor for West Bromwich Albion. West Brom's programme editor saw something in the artwork and has given me an opportunity when no one else would. He took a big chance on me and it's always stuck with me. He's also been extremely open to creativity. He's daring and encourages taking chances, has shown a lot of trust and support in me, and is one of the most intelligent and sharpest people I know. The other person who's been instrumental in my career is my partner. She's been supportive and has always believed in me and the work, especially in my darker moments. She's also the one who encouraged me to send my work to football clubs and to follow my heart artistically. I probably wouldn't have taken that life-changing chance without her support.

What has been the greatest challenge for you as an artist?
I have a few ... the big ones being self-doubt, burnout, keeping things fresh and staying afloat.

Even though my work's gotten much better, I still have a lot of self-doubt about the work. I still get frustrated, angry and can lose confidence with myself and the painting ... it'll probably be something that I will always struggle with. I've found some ways to cope with it but it's still a driving, ever-present thing.

Burnout has been a big problem. Over the last few years I've worked a ridiculous schedule, and while it's helped the artwork get better, it's also been exhausting and unrelenting. A few years ago I was doing two clubs' programme covers and also two interior pieces for another club (so it was the equivalent of doing four programmes that year) ... it was far too much. During that season I was sleeping three or four hours a night for months, and the rest of the time was at the art table ... 20 hour days, seven days a week for six months was brutal, and I still haven't fully recovered from it. Years later I still feel unable to focus for long periods of time and know that my discipline hasn't been the same since. Since then I haven't taken more than one club's programmes a year, but even that's done now. This is the last season I do programmes and I probably won't do any more.

I've also been doing football/soccer artwork solidly for the last five years ... I'm not enjoying it and can feel that football artwork might be over for me now for a long time. After this season I may do the occasional pieces here and there, but they may be few and far between. My interests are changing and I want to focus on more baseball, ice hockey, non-sports and personal work for a while.

Painting almost exclusively football paintings for the last five years, it's been a challenge to constantly keep them fresh and new. There are only so many ways you can paint someone playing the game, so I'm always trying to find a new approach, composition or angle to the artwork, which isn't always easy.

Being an artist, it's notoriously difficult to stay afloat. Because the programme artwork hasn't been paid work all these years - another reason I'm not doing it anymore - I've had to find other ways of making the artwork work for me. I mostly rely on the sale of originals, and a little on prints and merchandise, but it's very difficult to make a living. I just manage to make enough so that I don't have to take another job, but there is no comfort or security ... there is always an uneasy fear under the surface.
How do you deal with creative roadblocks?
I look to other sources of inspiration ... other artwork, artists, photos, vintage posters, programmes, memorabilia, etc. Even film, books and music can help. I usually find there is so much inspiration around and it always has me thinking of new ideas and possibilities. If I get ideas that I can't do at that moment I'll keep them in sketchbooks to come back to later, so there are always a few possibilities there.

What have you not done yet as an artist that you wish to do at some point?
I'd like to work a lot more with baseball and ice hockey in the U.S. and Canada. I'd also like to do a few art books featuring the sports paintings if I get the opportunity. I am working in a couple of styles at the moment and I'd like to do a bit more work with my 'other' style (which is a 'vintage cartoon' style with a little bit of an edge that I use for more personal work), which I'm really enjoying - maybe do a few exhibitions and some fully designed art books in this style and see where that goes.

What's one piece of advice you wish you were given at the start of your career?
I think I'd say paint what you are interested in. Paint what you love or care about. Try to enjoy it and make it work for you. Also, be more selfish. Don't paint for people who have their own interests in mind - whether well intentioned or not, don't feel like you owe them anything ... don't be 'their hands' and don't let them divert you from what you want or what you enjoy. At the same time, while it took me a very long time and it's been a winding road, I don't think I could've gotten here without doing the whole long haul journey ... I had to learn the hard way.

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