Vancouver History Blog

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An Interview With Legendary Vancouver Artist Tom Carter

Artist Tom Carter is famous for his scenes of Vancouver from the early and mid twentieth century. From the streetcars and neon of Granville Street, to sweeping vistas of the old downtown skyline, to street scenes from Vancouver’s original theatre district on East Hastings, his paintings evoke a time before the arrival of the condos towers and high rises that dominate the city’s landscape today. Tom’s paintings are painstakingly researched.

When he’s not hard at work in his studio, Tom can be found at the city archives or interviewing octogenarians on their memories of old Vancouver. Over the years he has also built one of the city’s finest collections of vaudeville memorabilia, including playbills, props and even seats and ornaments from some of the city’s long lost theatres, like the old Pantages.

Vancouver Cafe

Although most of Tom’s work is held by private collectors or hangs in corporate boardrooms, he recently commissioned a set of prints of some of his most renowned paintings that can be bought on his online store.

Forbidden Vancouver founder Will Woods recently got together with Tom to find out more!

Q. So Tom your paintings are famous for bringing old Vancouver to life. How did you get started doing this?

A. I was digging into my own family history here and decided to paint the city my grandparents knew and it was exactly that – I was trying to bring it back to life so I could relate to them. Initially I was only painting historic Vancouver for my own walls – I never intended to exhibit them!

Q. I know you’re fascinated by Vancouver history, and theatre history in particular, how important is this in your work?

A. I guess as they say “paint what you know and paint what you love” and I keep exploring Vancouver and never get bored here. As you know I’m particularly involved in theatre and music history so, naturally, a lot of my work focuses on that. I have done work in other cities and more contemporary settings, but they’re always commissions so I haven’t put them on my website so far.

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Q. Your paintings have this astonishing level of detail — am I right in saying that every street, every building, every store is accurately represented?

A. They’re accurate in many ways but I do take artistic license quite a bit. I do a lot of “creative perspective,” bending and warping some things so we can see “around” buildings – so in a way it’s all true because the thing I want to show behind a building was actually there – it’s just in a photo we wouldn’t have been able to see it. I also reduce some things – parking lots for instance – so I can make other things bigger, like an interesting building or cool billboard etc. These are tricks that you can only do with painting – a way I can tell a better story – so I do it.

Q. How much time do you spend researching versus actually painting?

A. The more research, the easier the painting, so I research a LOT. Besides, I love it.

Q. It’s not just the streets and buildings that always impress the viewer, but your skies have such drama. How do you manage to make them so dynamic?

A. I love what I call “operatic skies” – it’s the one area in my paintings where I can still do abstract expressionism! They go in first and establish the mood. Wet-on-wet (blending while the paint is wet) and using large brushes – and usually loud music!

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Q. Do you have a favourite from your portfolio?

A. They’re like my children so I can’t choose – I really do love them all. I think the False Creek painting I did for Chip Wilson is the one that actually stymies me. I have no idea how I did that!

Q. If someone’s interested in a private commission with you, how do they contact you?

A. Just email me through my website – [email protected] and I’d love to discuss it. It’s actually a lot of fun for both me and the client – I really enjoy throwing around ideas together.

Q. You’ve recently printed some of your most popular pieces, which are available on Etsy. What has the feedback been like from buyers?

A. The response online has been fantastic! I’m really happy that finally a lot of my friends are able to have my work in their homes and offices! It’s also incredible that people outside of Vancouver are really loving images of our city in the “noir era” – we’ve sent Etsy posters as far as England, across Canada and into the Western US as well! Visit Tom Carter’s website to find out more about his work or his online store to order your very own Tom Carter print!

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