Dave Benning is rocking the art world with his ultra-lifelike acrylic paintings.
Classic rock icons, star athletes and other celebrities are the focus of his detailed works, a growing number of which measure 16 square feet, or 48 inches high and wide. All are painted by Benning based on photographs of the person.
At his basement studio in South Surrey, Benning likes to crank the music of the artist he's painting - meaning a lot of Jimi Hendrix, Queen, Paul McCartney and KISS has recently played from an iPod dock in a corner of the well-lit room.
"When I did the Rush painting, I wasn't a huge fan (of the band) and didn't know a lot about them, so I listened to them for a week beforehand and the whole time I was painting that one," Benning told the Now. "And with the McCartney one, I even listened to a lot of Wings, which I never really listened to before. It's about getting into the sounds."
At charity events and via his association with Vancouver radio station Rock 101, Benning has met and presented paintings to a few noted rockers, including Gene Simmons, Alice Cooper and Rush.
A 2009 painting he did of Simmons, on stage and in full KISS makeup, led Benning down a road to become "Vancouver's premiere rock 'n' roll, sports and entertainment artist," as his website boasts (davebenning.com).
"I met (Simmons) originally in Arizona for a guitar-signing event at Rock Star Gallery there. Gene saw one of the paintings I did of him and he liked it, so that was great. He was kind enough to sign it for me, and I got a call later from one of his partners in Rock & Brews, a new chain in L.A., and he wanted a painting of him done by me, 10 feet high, on the wall of a restaurant - a Wall of Rock."
In Brantford, Ont., eight of Benning's prints hang on the wall of Zander's Fire Grill and Brew Lounge. His paintings line the halls of Rock 101 radio station, and he also works with Music Heals Charitable Foundation, created to help raise awareness of music therapy.
In another deal, operators of River Rock Casino Resort in Richmond allow Benning to paint any of the entertainers who perform at the show theatre - Russell Brand, Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams, Buddy Guy and others. When a star autographs Benning's work, it's auctioned for charity.
"Having those kinds of people sign my work gives it credibility, the ultimate compliment," Benning said. "It's great, too, because I could never afford to give $30,000 of my own money to charity, but if my painting is sold for $30,000 and it goes to charity, I feel good about that."
Benning is represented by David Brian, former manager of the Universal Music Canada record label in Vancouver.
"I've worked with a lot of artists over the past three years, in this new career of mine," Brian said, "and finding someone who can capture the essence of the subject is tough. With portrait painting, it's such a fine line between great and bad - maybe a few brush strokes. Dave gets it, if it's just a twinkle in the eye, a shading, a certain look."
As a kid living in the U.K., Benning grew to love the songs of Hendrix, Thin Lizzy, The Beatles - records played by his older siblings - and set about drawing the covers of those LPs. Later, he was schooled in graphic design and found work at a T-shirt company in Burnaby, but grew tired of the job when digital technology robbed him of the creativity he once liked about it. "I wanted to get back into more old-school painting and hands-on work - messy hands and all that," Benning said.
Initially, he tried his hand with watercolours but disliked the results, and found oils too slow-drying. He then discovered acrylic paint and eventually studied twice with Sebastian Kruger, the German artist known for hyper-realism.
"He's the Rolling Stones' official artist, probably the greatest artist of our time," Benning said. "I've followed his work for years, had all the books and knew everything about him, and then I got to meet him, hang out with him for a week and paint with him 12 hours a day (first in California and later in Germany).
"I learned about layering and different techniques, and that was really my first formal training," Benning added. "But it's not like he (Kruger) trains you, he just paints and you watch and get inspired. You're hanging out in a room with 20 other artists from around the world, and I thought I was good. I realized there that I'm probably the best on my street, because there are a million guys out there who are fantastic."
When not painting in the Rosemary Heights home he shares with his wife and daughter, Benning can be found serving drinks at the WestJet gate bar at YVR.
Benning's larger, most recent works take him dozens of hours to complete, and involve techniques such as looking at the canvas in the mirror and even placing it upside down.
"I get a real thrill doing this," Benning said. "When I'm painting, I'm just in a different world.. I don't think I have a real noticeable style yet, where someone could look at 10 of my paintings and say, 'Those are all done by Dave Benning.' But I'm at the point where every painting I do, I learn something new from it, figure something out. That style is coming - it's close. That's my goal, as it is for probably every artist."