Renowned artist Alison Van Pelt creates realistic paintings


There is nothing static about Alison Van Pelt’s art or the way she creates it.

Like an athlete, she conditions her body and relies on muscle memory developed from decades of painting and a process that requires intense focus and physicality. The results are works that change as viewers move around them, the light bring different features into focus.

“I’ve been working a lot with silver paint,” Van Pelt said. “As you move around the painting, certain parts of it reflect the light, and then you move again and that same area becomes dark.”

It’s a style of painting that has caught the attention of celebrities, politicians and museums. Van Pelt’s work is displayed in public and private collections around the world. In the 1970s, she began painting in a style sometimes referred to as photorealistic. She fills the walls of her gallery with images, waiting for one to tell her it is time to do that one.

“A lot of it is just a visceral reaction,” Van Pelt said. “I’ll see something that makes me want to paint and it will trigger a physical response in me. Images are exciting and I want to harness that excitement, to use that energy to paint. I’ve had walls in all my studios that are covered in images. It’s like an image will just pop out when it’s time for it to be painted.”

Van Pelt will start with a drawing of an image, but once she begins to paint, the clock starts ticking and her body goes into painting mode where she eats very little and doesn’t sleep for days until the picture is done.

After drawing an image, Van Pelt begins to paint the picture by hand as realistically as possible. She then meticulously blurs the image so that from a distance it looks soft and almost misty. As viewers get closer, they can see the detailed lines and the subject comes into a sharper focus.

“The one saving grace I have is that I work very fast,” Van Pelt said. “I can spend as much time as I want on a drawing, a week or two. But as soon as I touch the canvas with the brush, the timer is on. I have to get every detail in, but still finish the painting while the paint is wet. It’s about a day or two until I have to stop because it gets too sticky to blur nicely.”

With 40 years of experience with this type of painting, she said her body snaps to when she starts painting and adjusts to the routine of being awake for several days straight. Van Pelt said it requires her to treat her body like an athlete.

Born in the Hollywood Hills, Van Pelt moved with her family to Hong Kong when she was 6 months old and stayed there for four years before returning to California. That started a lifelong pattern of moving away — to Paris, Rome, Florence, Hawaii, New York — then returning to Santa Monica.

“I really love moving somewhere, feeling like I really lived there, feeling like a part of a community, but I always come back,” Van Pelt said. “I’m always drawn to Santa Monica. It always has felt so much easier than anywhere else. It’s been easier to navigate having a studio and going to the art store, and the daily routine has just been so comfortable here. It feels like home and where I belong.”

Van Pelt found herself in a dark time during 2020 for reasons personal and global. She fought off depression by painting. She chose subjects such as flowers and hummingbirds, painting them with much brighter colors than what she usually does.

“Every painting uplifted me,” Van Pelt said. “I felt a healing with each colorful, light painting and I just kept creating them.”
The paintings are small and she found they fulfilled a universal need. She also set up ten 9-foot canvases in the downstairs area of her new Santa Monica studio, where she plans to do a series of forests and trees.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about the need for joy,” Van Pelt said. “People say follow your bliss. All my life, I have battled depression. It’s so important to cultivate the things that bring you joy, and painting has always been my source of purpose, comfort and my refuge – the thing that gives me energy and excites me. I’m just so grateful to be able to spend my life doing this.”

Follow Van Pelt on Instagram: @alisonvanpelt

— Bridgette M. Redman