December 15, 2019
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Real Life

Self-taught painter Chris Thomas’ journey to a prestigious California gallery
In his Henderson, Ky., studio, Chris Thomas crafts the intricate oil paintings that have earned him national acclaim.

Henderson, Ky., artist Chris Thomas’ small painting of a silvery-shelled nautilus arranged against a luxurious piece of blue silken fabric is striking. As in many of Thomas’ paintings, “Blue Nautilus” shows a concise mastery of composition and detail, reflecting the smallest beauty through controlled but organic brushstrokes, a sense of intense depth, and rich, glowing color. In fact, the work is so lush and evocative that it reminds a person of a Velvet Elvis painting.

Well, at least one person. A comparison to the Velvet Elvis genre — the King rendered in paint upon black velvet — isn’t quite what Thomas expected to hear when he showed the painting to his high-school sweetheart and wife of 13 years, Shakira. But it’s exactly the comparison she offered. “Well, sometimes she’s wrong,” he laughs.

He quickly notes that Shakira is generally a superb critic, and she liked “Blue Nautilus” much better once it was framed and hanging in the John Pence Gallery in San Francisco –– one of the premier academic realist galleries in the United States. In October, a major exhibit featuring Thomas’ work opened at the gallery to an appreciative crowd of collectors and patrons.

It's a long way from a makeshift painting studio in a garage in Henderson, Ky., where Thomas, 38, began his painting career in the early 1990s, to San Francisco’s largest gallery. Though he’s blessed with both luck and talent, Thomas followed a focused, determined path to where he now finds himself: selling his work in galleries around the country, supporting his family with his art, and sharing his hard-earned knowledge of drawing and painting with his students as the founder of The Art Academy in Henderson.

Although Thomas was voted “Most Likely to Be An Artist” in kindergarten, he insists, “People didn’t look at my drawings and think ‘prodigy.’” In high school, he took every art class available, yet his art and drawing remained only a hobby “because,” as he notes with a half-smile, “everyone knows you can’t make a living as an artist unless you teach. And I didn’t want to teach.” He took a year of classes at Henderson Community College, but the general education courses and long lectures bored him. He quit school, worked odd jobs, continued painting, and entered regional juried shows.

In 1992 –– when he was 22 –– Thomas’ talent and efforts first converged with opportunity, when Curt Nance, owner and curator of Nance Galleries in Evansville, invited Thomas to sell his work through Nance Galleries after he chose one of Thomas’ paintings as “best of show” in a local juried exhibit. The conversation was a watershed for Thomas, who began believing he could someday make real money with his art. Not long afterward, when another established artist assured Thomas his artistic abilities were exceptional, Thomas knew he was ready to work full-time at his art. “I decided then,” Thomas recalls, “to just be an artist.”

A month later, Thomas arrived in New York City for a brief summer session at the Art Students League, where he immersed himself in art and the intensive study of figure drawing and composition. The venerable art school, formed in 1875, counts stalwarts of the art world such as Thomas Hart Benton, Alexander Calder, Georgia O’Keeffe, Norman Rockwell, and Mark Rothko among its past students, lecturers, and instructors.

Back home in Henderson later that year, he converted his parents’ garage into a painting studio, where he pored over painting books and emulated the techniques of 19th century painters William Bouguereau and John Singer Sargent as well as renowned Swedish artist Anders Zorn. “I would paint what I could at the best level I could,” says Thomas, “and I just tried to make it better all the time.”

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