Amy Shackleton: Gravity Artist
By: Christopher Casey
For centuries, artists have aimed to produce work that is appreciated and inspires others. Toronto’s very own Amy Shackleton is a painter who has innovated a new, unique approach by manipulating gravity and paint without ever touching a brush.
While studying at York University in Toronto, Shackleton felt restricted by the hardscapes of the city, feeling a longing for nature. This was when she began to understand the environmental benefits of high density living and started exploring the relationship between nature and cities. Upon discovering the Green Building Council’s architectural rating system for sustainable living titled LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), Shackleton began a quest to create art that exhibits the connection and interaction between nature and the city.
Shackleton has been able to pursue a full time career in art, fine-tuning her talents and developing her individualized style of gravity painting. Her personal technique is the process of dripping liquid paint using squeeze bottles in a controlled manner. Over the course of three years, Amy developed a technique and order to dripping paint, taking the brush out of the equation. Amy states that her art is much like building construction, saying that “the architectural details are calculated, measured and controlled in order to assure precise locations of each line.”
She is inspiring change toward a more sustainable future through her masterpiece (her largest to date) titled “The Great Canadian LEEDscape.” The panorama is 53 feet long and made up of 13 panels, each 45”x60”, one representing each province and territory of Canada. Each panel is of a chosen building integrated into the natural environment, depicting how nature has overtaken manmade structures. Some may deem this concept as “apocalyptic”, despite the work’s bright color scheme and Shackleton’s cheerful personality shining through in it. However, she says that she loves this misinterpretation, because “it gets people talking and sparks an important discussion about the future of cities.” She believes that it is “more important than ever to work with nature and LEED buildings are doing just that.”
With her recent painting videos raking in over thirteen million views across multiple social media platforms, a grateful Shackleton believes that an artist should do everything in their power to fulfill their passions first, and through hard work and challenging of oneself, the finances will follow. As her profile as an artist grows, artists and students from across the globe have found inspiration from Shackleton’s signature style of gravity painting. She finds it exciting that her work has resonated with people and allowed them to view painting in a new, innovative way.
Amy Shackleton working in her studio
When did you begin painting?
Probably when I was three years old. I've been creating art for as long as I can remember. In kindergarten I had to answer the question “what do you want to be when you grow up” from a preset list of jobs. I will never forget how happy I was when I spotted Artist on the list. I spent a good chunk of my childhood with a crayon, pencil or paintbrush in my hand. I graduated from York University in 2008 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts Honors degree and I’ve been painting ever since.
How did you gain the nickname the “Gravity Artist?”
I choose to work with gravity—not paintbrushes—to create my paintings. I use squeeze bottles filled with liquid paint to build each piece from the ground up with hundreds of lines and dots. After years of experimenting with gravity and rotating my canvas, I am able to manipulate where and how each drip will fall.
As in real-life construction, the architectural details are calculated, measured and controlled in order to assure precise locations of each line. I use a level to help predict where the drips will fall. As in nature, the environmental elements are more spontaneous, unpredictable and liquid. For these elements, I use a spray bottle full of water to manipulate the paint and cause different effects.
Is it true that you are the first to have developed this technique of gravity painting?
Yes. I invented my technique gradually, over a 3-year period. It came from my desire to create something unique that emphasized my artistic themes, but also brought me joy. I recall it wasn't easy to stop using the tool I was most comfortable with (a paintbrush) but you must take risks to discover new things.
I started using drips back in 2008 to achieve a natural/organic energy in my work. At that time, I used paint brushes and tape to create the more concrete, architectural elements. I began to enjoy working with drips more than brushes and tape. As I became more experienced with using gravity to direct the flow of paint, the paint brush became an unnecessary touch-up tool. It was then I realized with more planning, calculating and layering I could eliminate the use of a paintbrush altogether. This became a challenge that took years to master. In 2011 I created my first brush-less painting. Now, I have more control than ever. My work evolves with each piece I create, and I am still discovering new things.
Discuss the influence of nature and architecture on your work.
After experimenting with a variety of subjects, I eventually zoned in on urban landscapes because I have a passion for nature and the city. I have always had a soft spot for nature, but my attraction to the city came much later—during my studies at York University in Toronto. That is when I began to realize the environmental benefits of high-density living and I started exploring the relationship between nature and cities.
My paintings depict an uncertain future where cities are combined with nature. Taking inspiration from my travels, I explore the conflicting relationships that exist between humanity and the environment. I’m trying to portray urban life at its best, demonstrating ways we can work with nature rather than against it. As climate change continues and extreme weather events become more frequent, questions about our future—be they utopian or apocalyptic—are made more urgent.
Hanging On (Colorado + New York), 2018, 30” x 30” Acrylic and enamel on canvas
How long does it take you to complete a painting?
On average it takes about 35 hours to complete a painting.
Do you ever revisit older paintings and add additions?
No, that’s something I haven't done. Although my process looks spontaneous, it's actually very calculated. Since each layer builds on the last, there is little room for error with my technique. For that reason, I always create a digital study before I start painting. I take thousands of photographs of urban and natural environments to inspire my digital studies. I use Photoshop to juxtapose my photographs, develop a composition and decide on a colour palette. Once I know exactly where I’m going with the piece I print the computer study and start painting. I work on each painting until I’m completely satisfied and when I'm done, I'm done.
Do you think your style allows for a freeform approach while you’re creating or are you usually sticking to a planned idea?
My style allows for a combination of both. I always have a solid idea going in, but it often transforms as the hours fly by (or as the drips go where they want to). When I'm working in my studio, I may decide to change the colours, re-think my line placement and/or add new elements to solve each piece. There’s a lot of drying time in my process. Every time I drip a line, I have to wait for it to dry before I can spin the canvas and add the next layer. For that reason, I usually have 5-6 paintings on the go in my studio at one time.
Which of your works are you most proud of?
It would have to be my largest, most ambitious painting to date—a 53 foot long panorama of Canada called The Great Canadian LEEDscape. This painting demanded extensive research, Canada-wide travel and a larger studio space. I spent time in every province and territory to photograph landscapes and hunt down buildings that were developed with nature in mind. I walked on sea ice in Nunavut. I braved -35°C in Manitoba. I hiked mountains in Alberta, British Columbia, Newfoundland and Yukon. This painting sparked my first national traveling exhibition, my first solo show in a public gallery and museum. I am pretty pumped about it.
What is the message that you are trying to convey in The Great Canadian LEEDscape about the architectural and natural worlds?
All my work is intended to portray urban life at its best, demonstrating ways that we can work with nature rather than against it. I love learning about new ways we can preserve our environment and live more efficiently. As an environmental painter who is concerned, yet optimistic about the future of our planet, I was excited to learn about LEED certification when I began this project. LEED is an acronym for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. It's an international rating system that encourages sustainable buildings. This painting combines the great Canadian landscape with LEED certified buildings—those that incorporate green roofs, rain gardens, solar energy, geothermal heating/cooling, or urban agriculture.
What recent works have you released?
I just got back from New York where I revealed a new series of work at Artexpo, Pier 94. The new paintings juxtapose architecture from New York and Toronto with natural inspiration from Colorado, Arizona, Peru and Northern Ontario. You can view all my new works on my website here: http://amyshackleton.com/
The Great Canadian LEEDscape on exhibit at the Visual Arts Centre of Clarington, photo by Jean-Michel Komarnicki
Recently certain videos of your painting have gone viral. What has the social media response been like?
Ya, the views have surpassed 13 million now. It’s amazing to have my work appreciated and shared all around the world. The whole experience has been overwhelming. I created a behind-the-scenes video about my work in December, and marketed it to a few sources. Eyecatcher (by Culture Trip) shared it soon after, followed by My Modern Met, George Takei Presents, Creapills, etc. It’s really crazy to be part of the wave and gain new followers on my social media platforms.
Do you hear people say that your work has inspired them?
Yes, definitely. People from all over the world have reached out to thank me for sharing my process and inspiring them to create. I've actually resorted to Google to help translate comments and e-mails in various languages. Art teachers have created lessons and workshops inspired by my gravity painting technique. Students have chosen to research me for their art projects. Art collectors in Washington, Florida, Berlin, Ontario and New York have recently added my work to their collections. Many fans have told me to never stop creating, and I won't! I have felt an overwhelming surge of love from people all across the globe and I'm so thankful.
Do you have advice for people that are still trying to find their style as an artist?
My advice to other artists would be to follow your dreams. Find time to devote to your practice and discover your niche. Be confident and believe in your work. Do everything in your power to get your work out of your studio and into a space where it can be seen by others. When you enter the art world, don't be afraid of rejection. You are going to hear it again and again, so you have to be strong and have a thick skin. Don't forget to take risks with your technique and leave your comfort zone, you may be surprised with what you come up with. Most of all, create something unique that you enjoy and are passionate about.
What has been the greatest lesson that you have learned from your experience in the art industry?
I have wanted to be an artist since junior kindergarten and with determination, that dream has come true. I have learned if you want something bad enough, you can make it happen.
Are you working on anything in particular right now?
I am working on a few new paintings at the moment. You can follow me online to see progress shots! Being self-employed, I also spend a lot of time managing social media, applying for grants/residencies/exhibitions, accounting and answering interview questions. Going viral has sparked several international sales... so I have been researching customs forms, packaging paintings and coordinating shipments.
I imagine that feels really rewarding to know that your work is resonating with people.
Yeah, for sure! It's exciting. When people love my work enough to own it, I am able to keep on doing what I love to do.