Artist Jason Baalman is internationally renowned, and as with many such artists, viewers mainly access his work through the Internet.
One aspect that separates Baalman: His work stays on the Internet. The physical pieces aren't hanging on a museum wall, but are stashed in his studio, a modest space behind the west side's Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, which his parents own.
The act of painting itself speed painting, specifically is what's turned Baalman into a YouTube sensation. Like Bob Ross on broadband, Baalman films his portrait sketches and posts them online. He started with a series of informal instructional videos in 2007, showing viewers how he worked in, say, charcoal.
In time, Baalman graduated to unconventional materials, making the process more playful and fueling intrigue.
"One day I just did something out of ketchup for the fun of it, and filmed it," he says, "And the response on that is what got me into looking for unusual things. There was a niche there that wasn't filled."
Baalman's image of Super Size Me documentarian Morgan Spurlock with a semi-sinister Ronald McDonald leering over his shoulder was his first experiment. He then moved on: makeup, condiments, snack food. It was video of him "painting" Elvis Presley on velvet with Cheetos, sped up to run from start to finish in under three minutes, that bumped his YouTube hits into the millions and earned him a spot on the Late Show with David Letterman in 2007.
Soldier of fortune
Baalman's most popular work is his reproduction of the "Mona Lisa" using Microsoft Paint. Deftly employing the simple functions of the program, Baalman's finished Mona is astonishingly faithful to the iconic painting.
The piece has generated more than 10 million hits, making it hard to believe that his first audiences mainly included aspiring artists and hobbyists.
"It's grown to where it's regular people, [an] Average Joe who's just like, 'Whoa, I can't believe that.' 'What the hell are you thinking?' Or, 'This person's crazy or has too much time.'"
With the free exposure he gets online, Baalman says he has no need for the traditional gallery approach to promotion.
"I really have no interest in the art world or the art community as it's set up," he says. "I just do my own thing."
His current display at Gallery Two-Ten marks only his second gallery appearance ever, the first having been at the Hunter-Wolff Gallery in February. There, Baalman premiered a recent portrait of Abraham Lincoln, constructed with pennies to commemorate the president's 200th birthday.
For his newest effort, created to raise funds for United Service Organizations (the USO), Baalman has glued 1,500 toy Army men to a camouflaged board. Up close, the scene looks like a swirling battlefield, but from 20 feet's distance, the illusion of overlapping colors reveals a large soldier. Like the penny portrait which sold for $3,400 in late February the work will be auctioned online, with an end date of March 29. Baalman posted video of the "painting" online (youtube.com/eclecticasylumart) on March 19.
The Houston-born Baalman, 32, never received any formal training. As a kid, his parents enrolled him in extracurricular art classes along with other after-school type activities. He entered youth art contests, but regularly contended in the adult bracket.
His artistic interests petered out after junior high, and Baalman went on to study biomedical engineering and neuroscience with an emphasis on visual perception at the University of Southern California. After five years of mixing classes and trying to create his own major, Baalman dropped out in 2001.
He had started working with the burgeoning Internet, and with friends, made a career in the fields of creative consulting, graphic design and computer programming. Becoming a professional artist was never part of the plan.
"I could go two or three years without even touching [art]," he says, "and then do something as a gift for somebody."
When Baalman moved to Colorado in 2003 to help his parents' chocolate business, he found his marketing ideas weren't of interest to other businesses around here. After a few failed ventures and a stint as a chocolatier, he turned to pursuing art professionally in 2005 armed with the computer savvy and business acumen he'd developed elsewhere in his career. Eclectic Asylum, which acts as a brand for his art, was born.
To supplement his sporadic income, Baalman worked and continues to work as a traditional portrait artist. Naturally, he advertises his service online; clients across the world (none from Colorado Springs yet) send him photographs of themselves or their children, which he sketches on a modest scale.
He's says he's done as many as a hundred portraits in two months.
"I get tired of doing them," he says. "They're not challenging ... a pencil and charcoal portrait is just ... like a human copy machine."
Play with your food
Currently, Baalman seems almost a tradesman, embracing technique over emotion in his works.
"Most people aren't trained as draftsmen anymore," he says of art today. "It's more expression-based."
In conversation, Baalman writes off his talent so readily that he sounds almost arrogant. In fact, he just doesn't ascribe much value to his innate skill.
His unusual works started as a marketing tool to promote his portrait business. Ironically, though, the materials he used forged a connection with the general public. Many people have never worked with oil paint or charcoal, he says, but everyone's scraped up leftover ketchup with a french fry.
The materials have a lot to say in themselves. When Baalman pulls the original Cheetos Elvis from a jam-packed side room in his studio, the work, though slightly tarnished, maintains its intense orange color and still clings to the velvet. Other portraits, made from barbecue sauce, chocolate syrup and ketchup, remain amazingly well intact, too. His original Super Size Me work sits unframed in the gallery window facing 25th Street.
Baalman insists he rarely uses a fixative or a varnish to preserve the works. The food is embalmed with so many preservatives, he says, that once they dry up, not even the bugs will touch them.
Regardless, the YouTube videos are the truly lasting elements. The execution of each, he says, is original.
"They're planned, but that's the first try," he says. (One exception: Baalman completed the penny portrait off-camera due to a glare coming off the pennies from his lighting.)
In testing new materials for future projects, Baalman has recently painted with toothpaste using a toothbrush, naturally and with beer. Darker, heavier brews like day-old Guinness and Boddingtons are best, he's found.
"It's a problem-solving thing, so to me, it's playing," he says. "And when it's done, I'm done. I've played and I don't want to do that again."
Baalman acknowledges he could be anywhere creating his artwork. He speculates that if he were back in L.A., he would probably still be in graphic design or marketing.
"If I hadn't moved here, I wouldn't be pursuing it," he says. "It would just be a hobby ... that's what it was."
When pressed, he confesses that his ultimate goal these days is to only pursue art that excites him. Recently, Baalman has explored complex, visual-perception-based painting harkening back to his studies at USC.
For now, though, he will continue creating YouTube sensations from a back room deep within Old Colorado City. All the while, he'll be building on his finest work: truly blurring the line between celebrity and obscurity.