Be the Artist: the Swanky Black Velvet Painting

Be the Artist Crosspost DIY Featured Featured Columns

Welcome, fine art lovers, makers, crafters and budding designers of all ages for the first DIY of this summer’s new Be the Artist series.

We have covered commercial artists, groundbreakers, fine artists, and abstract pioneers over the years, but this summer is time to give “the rest of us” a celebration of the arts we find in garage sales and roadside tourist haunts, flea markets, discount shops, and commercial craft stores.

You know, the fruits of imagination we see everyday that we often enjoy, sometimes laugh at, but need to ask: “is this art?

Well, if it isn’t, it soon will be with a little help and appreciation from us all this summer. Let’s begin with one of the most famous types of art we can find:

The Black Velvet Painting

The velvet painting, often the center of ridicule by some more serious artists, and the much sought after kitschy den décor for the “cool kids,” is really a symbol of how hard work, the love of pop culture, and artistry combined to create something very recognizable and very unique.

I remember velvet paintings were everywhere when I was growing up in the 70s and into the 80s on the Texas/Mexico border. It turns out, my hometown’s sister city, Ciudad Juarez in Mexico, was a huge velvet painting hub in the 70s. A November 1985 article in Texas Monthly magazine even did a pretty extensive article on the paintings and the artisans who made them. The painting topics ranged everything from musical icons like Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson, to religious iconography to cartoon favorites, landscapes, and even some figure drawings not suitable for all ages.

The paintings were known as terciopelos negros and some artists were so adept at creating these they could create more than 20 a day on their own. If the Texas Monthly article was accurate, Juarez was the “black velvet painting capital of the world.”

These paintings did not originate in Mexico, however. The idea of the black velvet painting goes back the Indian subcontinent of Kashmir, where the beautiful velvet fabric was created. The designs were primarily religious symbols, and explorer Marco Polo introduced them to the West in the 1200s.

An infamous “Velvet Elvis” painting found in a retro diner. Elvis is one of the popular subjects of the “black velvet painting.” Image: Lisa Tate

Velvet paintings actually transcend a several cultures. In Juarez, a man from Georgia, Doyle Harden, begin a factory hiring thousands of artists to produce these paintings everyday. A Tahiti artist named Edgar Leeteg, often known as the “father of velvet paintings”, created many distinct Polynesian designs in the 30s, 40s and early 50s.

There have been songs named for Velvet Elvises, a West Coast museum dedicated to the art, and even coffee table books featuring the best (and worst) on the velvet.

Carl Baldwin who co-founded the Veleveteria and co-authored a book Black Velvet Masterpieces: Highlights from the Collection of the Velveteria Museum with his partner Caren Anderson, described the paintings’ appeal in a 2013 interview in Collectors Weekly similar to seeing a light at the end of a dark corridor.

“The light out of the darkness is really what it is,” Baldwin said. “It’s a powerful medium.”

The Project: A Velvet-y Arcade

Everything you can think of…and even some things you might not want to…have appeared on velvet paintings.

That makes it pretty hard to narrow down what to paint. To make the decision easier, we’ll focus on another medium that often featured bright colors on black background: early 70s and 80s arcade games.

Video games have gotten almost photorealistic, but there is still an appeal of the early games like Donkey Kong, Centipede, Pac-Man or Galaga with simple pixel images lighting up a dark space. Plus, they are much easier to paint than realistic impressions of people or elaborate landscapes.

You’ll need a piece of regular art canvas, and a black piece of cheap velvet cloth or felt. Some craft stores will carry both felt and little velvet like swatches in the same area. Either works fine.

Use mounting tape, glue or strong staples to attach your felt or velvet to a small piece of art canvas, and your velvet is ready to paint.

Spread the cloth as tight as you can across the canvas and secure along the edges with a glue gun or heavy double sided mounting tape.

Now, get a hold of some bright acrylic paints and some cheap paint brushes.

Find a favorite image from an old school video game and see if you can look at it from a”different angle” Turn the image upside down, close in on certain detail, or twist images around in your mind. Then, translate that to the velvet or felt.

Use bright acrylic paints for your image. Use a light gel pen to create your image first, if you want to make sure everything looks right.

You can lightly draw your image on the felt with a white gel or paint pen first, or be brave and tackle it right away with paint on canvas. Whatever you pick, give the bright colors a chance to shine against a dark background. If you need to go over certain spaces or lines again to bring them out, that is okay.

You can leave the edges plain or find an old, cheap frame that fits the canvas. Velvet paintings often sport big fancy gold or wooden frames.

Now, put these up in your game room or give them to a favorite gamer or art appreciating friend.

Bright colors on a dark background almost looks like an old school arcade rug.

There will be those who will still scoff at the idea of the velvet painting, but Baldwin explained the appeal in the Collectors Weekly interview.

“It’s all about fun,” he said.”It’s all about sharing them with people and having a laugh in this cruel, awful world we live in.”

Velvet doesn’t deserve any less love than paper or canvas, if you are happy with the art you created. Images: Lisa Tate, except as listed otherwise.
Liked it? Take a second to support GeekMom and GeekDad on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!