Photorealist painter Richard Estes is the subject of a biographical film directed by Southwest Harbor resident Thom Willey. Willey will be showing “My Camera Is My Sketchbook” and talking about making the film at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 3, at the Southwest Harbor Public Library.
In the film, Estes speaks at length about his life and work. His on-camera presence is interspersed with prolonged looks at his paintings and commentary by noted art critic and author Carl Little.
In a recent interview, Willey said he began working on the film in 1998 after meeting Estes while repairing a chimney at the artist’s home in Northeast Harbor.
“I asked him if he’d be interested and he said ‘yes,’ Willey said. Those early interviews resulted in a 26-minute film. Last summer, Mr. Willey decided to put the film on DVD and thought it would be a good time to update the project with additional footage. Again, Estes was receptive.
The new version of the film is about 58 minutes long. Willey finished the editing in the spring just in time for a major retrospective of Estes’ work at the Portland Museum of Art. The exhibit runs through Sept. 7, before moving on to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
In the film, Estes tells of his childhood growing up in rural Illinois and traces his career as an illustrator before becoming successful as a painter renowned for his detailed urban landscapes. He speaks candidly about the difficulty he first had in getting his work into galleries. While most of the art world was embracing the work of Mark Rothko and other abstract expressionists, Estes was bucking the trend with his highly realistic work.
“It was almost a sin to have depth in your paintings in 1965,” he says on screen.
After getting rejected by many New York gallery owners, Estes finally got a show at the Alan Stone Gallery with a series of paintings of reflections in the windows of vehicles.
As shared in the film, Estes’ camera is his sketchbook. He takes hundreds of photos, selecting a few or parts of them as subjects for his paintings. He works rather quickly to produce such detailed work, outlining the basic scene in acrylics and then completing the painting using oils.
Willey also shows us a lesser-known side of the painter. A few portraits – something he rarely paints – appear in the film as well was Maine landscapes. Estes even reveals the self-portraits that he sneaks into the background of his work, a detail that Willey said he had not realized until making the film.
“My Camera Is My Sketchbook” is available on DVD at Sherman’s in Bar Harbor, McGrath’s in Northeast Harbor, from Amazon and at the Portland Museum of Art.