Art is seen by many as a mere hobby with little chance for a fruitful career. In a society that too often devalues “starving artists”, it can be tough to stick with it. However, if you’re focused and driven, hard work and dedication can really pay off. Just ask 3D street artist Julie Kirk-Purcell, she’s been an artist for twenty-seven years and counting!
Kirk-Purcell always loved creating art growing up, but had never thought of it as a career up until her adult life. In college she obtained her bachelor’s degree at the esteemed Art Center in Pasadena, then continued her education, receiving her MFA at Cal State Fullerton. Soon after, she started teaching painting at Irvine Valley College where she still remains to this day, now the chair of the art department.
Having previously worked with oil paintings, her first foray into the world of 3D street art was back in 1992. She had heard about a small festival happening in San Juan Capistrano that she hadn’t hit before, and decided to attend as a participant. Thinking there’d just be old master paintings there, she thought it’d be interesting to play with the idea of her art coming out of the ground. There she painted her first 3D floor piece, one of Neptune and a chariot of horses breaking through the ground. Having recently came across some Polaroids of it, she now cringes at its sight. Later on, she attended her first big festival (without participating) and noticed some posters of works done by legendary artist Kurt Wenner, who was the first to pioneer modern 3D anamorphic street painting in the early 1980s. She became enamored with the quality, beauty, and technique of his pieces, eager to reach his level of mastery. Recreating lots of master copies, she spent the next ten years refining her painting style and technique, really trying to build and develop her own work and get as close to Wenner’s quality as she could.
All that hard work paid off when she was approached by Disney around the year 2000. They were gearing up for the grand opening of the then brand-new California Adventure theme park and she pitched the idea of doing 3D street paintings in the park to celebrate its opening. As she worked on that, she became a familiar name to them and was picked up for other Disney projects including product design, Imagineering R&D, special events, and more. Another big client she’s done work for early on in her career? Chrysler. She was tasked with finding new ways of representing the company to the public: “The difficult part is some companies get so wrapped up in the brand that it’s really hard to push them into more creative stuff”. For this reason, she’s grateful to have worked with companies like Disney that are much more open to that sort of direction: “You really get to find new ways of interacting with the public, and it’s a lot more fun for everybody, for the artist and the public”. In the last few years she’s done a lot of client work, mostly 3D murals. Because of their size and scale, a lot of them had been digitally printed, as it’s much more cost effective for the company to do that instead of having her come in and paint a massive wall. Nowadays she prefers to attend smaller events and festivals annually and tends to avoid too many side jobs because they take up a lot of energy. Having been a street painter for twenty-seven years, she more often looks for large jobs that she can really develop.
Her process for each piece depends on the complexity. The majority of the time she begins with a simple pencil drawing to lay out all the perspective so that it comes together as an illusion when you’re in the right spot. It’s critical that each of those perspectives are mathematically calculated properly, and she finds it a lot easier to be able to physically lay them out instead of using a computer. Usually she’ll draw everything out first to get an initial drawing and often take that drawing all the way up through the shading. That paper is then scanned into her computer where it’ll be reprinted on the paper that she’ll do the actual painting on, usually on a 18 x 24 inch sheet. Whether she uses colored pencil or acrylic paint, once the first paint job is done, it gets scanned back in to the computer for any digital touch-ups and cleanup work. Once that’s done, the digital file will get sent off to whoever’s doing the print work. Often it’s printed on a canvas sheet then delivered to the client’s location. Next comes the installation process. Once that’s all put in place, she has to go back and fine-tune anything that might be a little bit off, such as color correction on wall pieces (it’s a bit more difficult to amend floor pieces, as people walking on it would destroy it). After everything’s installed properly, the entire piece is varnished and then it’s completed. Her materials aside from paint and colored pencils include her iPad, where she can color scanned-in tracing paper using an Apple Pencil and the drawing app Procreate, her MacBook Pro, Adobe Photoshop, and sometimes Illustrator. She also has a large Epson printer that can produce prints up to twenty inches across. Kirk-Purcell prefers to use brush tools in her digital paintings so that it looks more naturally done by hand. She doesn’t like it when her pieces look too much like a photograph or like it was done on or by a computer.
Over her spanning twenty-seven year career, her most complex and time-consuming piece to date was a five-panel installation for the New Belgium Brewery in Asheville, North Carolina a couple years ago. The massive undertaking involved eleven murals total, including one with four panels to be placed on walls separated by big steel beams as well as a fifth triangular floor piece that connected all of them together with the precise perspective. Before the painting process even began, she had to first complete all of the original drawings on tracing paper, scan them in, correct any fixes, and reprint them on canvas. Then came the physical painting on large 18 x 24 inch sheets which were again scanned in digitally and cleaned up using software. Unfortunately, once the completed files got to the client, they decided they wanted to change some coloration and add in logos which required another week’s worth of painting once they were physically at their destination. Once they were finally complete, she had them printed on canvas at a large-scale print shop in Irvine. The finished works were an astounding 18 x 12 feet and very difficult to handle when moving around, essentially one giant piece of wallpaper. The installation process took a crew of five people, nearly all of which hadn’t done anything like this before. It required lifts, teamwork, and a lot of trial and error to ensure everything was done exactly as it needed to be. The end result was well worth the work, as it came out looking wonderfully.
Kirk-Purcell says the most challenging part of her work varies from job to job. Sometimes, she says, it’s just working with the client. A lot of the time, they don’t think outside the box, only wanting their logo slapped in the middle of a 3D drawing which becomes “amazingly boring after you’ve done it a few times”. She’s done six to eight projects for Coors as part of an advertising campaign, and for every single one they wanted a giant Coors bottle in the middle of them. One of the biggest problems is that each design has to go through a barrage of executives, each with different mindsets, “and by the time they tick off everything they don’t like, it goes back to just being the Coors bottle, it was the only thing they all agreed on”. Interestingly enough, she finds that only clients based in the United States are the ones that get so stuck on the brand, which isn’t so much the case when she goes outside the country. Here, they often don’t realize no one will want to share anything on social media if they just see a large Coors bottle (or something similar): “It’s not creative, it’s not really fun. If you do something cool with the image, it’ll go viral and everybody’s going to want to see it”. Another challenge that’s a part of her work is the sheer physicality of it all. Being on your feet, standing up or bending over for days on end painting really takes its toll on your body. The weather is another challenge if you’re working outside. Conversely, if you’re working indoors somewhere like a mall, you’re dealing with things like hearing the same music playing over and over and people constantly asking the same questions: “There’s always kind of this physical presence to what you’re doing because you’re there doing it in person”. However, one of the most rewarding things about doing the artwork, she says, is the reaction.
She absolutely loves seeing others interact with her finished works, especially when they get creative with how they pose on top of the 3D art. It’s really gratifying for her to have people there appreciating it and interacting with it. It’s something that reminds her of why she loves teaching: “People don’t realize as a student, you bring a certain amount of energy and excitement to your teacher as well, and so as a teacher I really kind of feed off of that. When students get creative, it’s great for me”. Something that she finds important about being an artist is keeping your energy level high, however you need to do that. The public seeing, encouraging, and interacting with her artwork is something that helps keep her going when she’s low on energy out in the field: “It helps you get through and push through that wall, kind of like a marathon runner, you push through that wall and find that energy to keep going, it kind of does the same thing for you as an artist”.
Kirk-Purcell finds inspiration when clients want and let her be creative with her approaches. For her New Belgium piece, the lead in charge really let her take the reins and kind of do what she wanted, and he thought all of it was very cool, which made it a lot easier for her to stay involved. She did another three mural collection for a pizza place in Texas called Mellow Mushroom that was stylized to look like a retro version of Las Vegas, which was a lot of fun for her: “The more you’re working to make someone else happy and you’re not really able to express yourself at the same time, the harder it gets to stay creative”. It’s a delicate balance, she says. Sometimes you’ll have to take on jobs that don’t let you have that much creativity, and you just have to keep yourself motivated and push through it, and other times you get to stretch out and and try new things that really let you push yourself, and that gives you the energy to keep going. There’s times where you have fun with a painting without realizing why it’s fun, and other times where you think a painting should be fun and aren’t sure why it isn’t.
One of the things that really appealed to her when she first started street painting was the immediate reactions of those around her. This was back before the Internet, so it was really difficult to get work out there and appreciation for what you were doing. As an artist, she says, it’s not so much about ego, but the feeling that “when you make something beautiful and you appreciate it all by yourself, it’s just not as much fun as when other people get to appreciate it with you”. It makes you feel like what you’re doing has value, which can be really difficult in today’s world because people tend to really devalue art and artists are treated with the whole idea of a “starving artist”. As a teacher, she’s always getting students who ask if it’s worth their time to pursue an art career because their parents are worried they aren’t going to make any money, “and I tell them, ‘Look around you.’ Every single thing around you involves an artist at some point. Maybe you call it a designer, maybe you call it an architect, but it’s all part of the art, they all involve creative thought. They all involve people kind of perfecting what it is that they do”. It’s really nice to be out where people can see your work and they’re amazed by the amount of work it takes to create that painting, especially in a world that doesn’t always exactly appreciate artists the way you wish they were, she says: “That’s really gratifying as an artist, to be able to interact with people and have them appreciate what you do and feel like what you’re creating has some sort of value, not a monetary value, but the value of people enjoying it and the value of making somebody else’s day a little more interesting”.
When asked what drawing and art mean to her, Kirk-Purcell explained that it defines her whole life, never having thought that would be the case. Growing up she thought of it more as a hobby and only when she became an artist realized how much art defines the makeup of her family. A big part of her children’s growing up was spent at festivals and other artist events, and it’s how she’s spent a lot of her free time and money: “It’s been my identity as a person in a lot of ways. It’s just kind of defined everything about my life, and I love seeing what other artists create, it always leaves me wanting to do more and wanting to be a better artist and wanting to expand out”. While she stressed she’s not at the end of her career by any means, she’s had to slow down a bit because of the physicality involved with street painting and has undergone a number of surgeries over the years, many of which can be traced back to her painting over time. Thankfully utilizing digital tools has made the physicality a little more manageable. Outside of her art, she has a love for animals. She’s a member of a FEMA (Urban Search and Rescue) task force and trains search and rescue dogs, owning a couple certified canines herself. Having these two unique sides of her personality has allowed her to focus her energy into each of them and appreciate them both, she says.
As for advice for any future artists, Kirk-Purcell explained people hold off sometimes because they think they’ll come off way too short, “and I think the biggest thing to understand is that the people that you see out there that are really good, they weren’t necessarily the best starting out, and that they worked really hard, and that they wanted it really bad”. Something she says a lot to her students is that they can come in and be taught by her in class, but how far they progress is ultimately up to them. Another big thing people may hold back on is making a commitment to the art, they have to put in the time and practice. One more solid piece of advice? “Don’t be closed-minded about where you can gain knowledge from others and where you can learn, ‘cause I feel like half my education was in school, and the other half of my education was out on the street”. A lot of it is making master copies and really trying to understand what the masters did and why it was so great. She believes there’s a lot of different ways of learning, and to focus all your energy into it, along with practicing constantly: “You don’t get anywhere without doing a skill over and over. It doesn’t matter if it’s boxing or painting. You’re not gonna get good at it if you just try do it once a week. You really need to push yourself and try new things”.
The experienced always speak the best wisdom because they’ve been through it all. After twenty-seven years of painting, it’s tough to imagine all the trials and tribulations Julie has overcome. Despite it all, however, she’s endured and created countless phenomenal works of art in the process, now passing on her wisdom to a new generation of artists as a college professor, and has even wrote her own book on 3D street art. To learn more about Julie Kirk-Purcell and to see more of her magical artwork, visit her website and her Facebook page.
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