By Rick VanSickle
Ask Niagara artist Melissa Proudlock what her favourite colour to paint with is and she will tell you straight up: “Baco Noir, for sure. And Cabernet Sauvignon is second … it’s perfect in my fridge right now.”
Proudlock is a wine painter — a rare discipline shared by only a handful of artists around the world — who migrated to the style after having an epiphany of sorts while creating a wine label as the creative and marketing director at Vineland Estates Winery.
The elaborate label art was created for a special series of block specific Rieslings bottled under the Expressions in D label — four distinct wines made by Vineland winemaker Brian Schmidt to showcase the unique terroir of the St. Urban Vineyard. The three wines were named Alto, Soprano and Falsetto with the fourth, a blend of the three, called Concerto.
Proudlock’s artwork for the label featured a cello emerging from (and made of) old Riesling vines. A closer look at the art and you can see the vineyard catch wires used as cello strings and two soil types on either side of the cello. The art was “cut” into three to create the three different labels. Set the bottles side by side and the full image of the cello emerges.
As Proudlock was painting the original it occurred to her: “I wonder if I could paint this with wine? It started the creative flow,” she says.
And flow it did.
The first piece Proudlock painted with wine was the barrel room at Vineland Estate using the contents from a Kevin O’Leary red blend made at the winery. “I painted it just for myself,” she says, but “a random person” ended up paying $500 for it. That was in 2013.
“As soon as I found out that not a lot of people were painting with wine I decided that this was my opportunity … considering I worked at a winery in the Niagara region. It was my opportunity to jump on this wine as medium voyage.”
In many ways, it was the perfect medium for the young mother of two boys, aged 7 and 5. First, as a budding artist Proudlock discovered during her art class at college that she was “colour deficient,” meaning she wasn’t totally colour blind, but had trouble differentiating between some colours, and, secondly, there was an endless supply of wine to paint with in Niagara.
Proudlock has always shown artistic skill, even as a child sketching Disney characters and learning from her grandmother (who was also colour deficient), so it was a natural progression to hone her craft toward “realistic” sketching, which she has applied to her wine paintings.
After her first wine painting, Proudlock thought “it might be nice to branch out.” She reached into the darker side of her personality (to meet her face to face it’s hard to imagine there is a darker side) and pay tribute to the classic slasher films.
Her “slasher” series of horror icons includes Jason Voorhees from Friday the 13th, Fred “Freddy” Krueger from A Nightmare on Elm Street, Michael Myers from the Halloween series and Charles Lee Ray, the titular antagonist of the Child’s Play horror film series more commonly known as Chucky.
Proudlock started featuring her slasher series on her Instagram account and it “blewup!” Fans of the horror genre were buying up prints like crazy, but the artist has kept all the originals wrapped in plastic in totes in her office because “I have an issue with letting them go.”
One of her “slasher” fans suggested Proudlock turn her attention to bands. She gave it a go and painted David Bowie and the Beatles before creating her most iconic image — Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip.
She found a cool photo of Downie taken by Ottawa photographer Michael Wing (Mike’s Media) and asked for permission to use that likeness as the basis for her Downie wine art.
Permission to use the photo was granted by Wing and Proudlock went to work.
Next she approached Stoney Ridge, which makes the Tragically Hip wine called The Tragically Hip Grand Reserve Red – Fully Completely, and acquired a bottle of the wine to paint with. The majority of the blend was Merlot with a little Cabernet Sauvignon.
“I’m a huge fan of the Tragically Hip, especially Gord Downie,” she says. “I thought he would be the best person to paint and capture with wine. I was hopefully able to create this piece that captured him when he performs, because everyone knows, when he performs, he gives it his all. I was trying to bring that piece to life using his wine with it. I believe it’s turned out quite well.”
Sales of the print, which is dramatic to look at and captures the singer in gorgeous purple, burgundy and red tones beautifully, have been brisk, but oddly, neither the band nor Downie has reached out to acquire the original artwork.
It should be noted that Proudlock donates $5 of each sale of the Downie print to the Gord Downie Fund for Brain Cancer Research at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto.
While Proudlock “doesn’t want to get bored” painting just rock stars, horror characters or vineyard scenes, she floats between genres on a whim, when the mood strikes her.
She has just started a painting featuring Batman and Catwoman (and wants to tackle cast members from Walking Dead) and does commissioned work, which can be anything the client wants, and painted with whatever wine they want, that she sells framed (her parents make gorgeous custom frames to go with the art) for anywhere from $500 to $900. But the vast majority of sales come from her prints that she sells at Vineland Estate and other locations around Niagara (you can get the Gord Downie print alongside the Tragically Hip wine at Stoney Ridge). More details can be found on Proudlock’s website Painting With Wine.
All original paintings painted with wine are professionally scanned and fine art giclee reproductions are available for each.
Proudlock, who lives with her husband and boys in Niagara Falls, paints up to three hours every night at home while watching TV. Her freezer and fridge is full of various red wines and lees (dead yeast cells from the winemaking process that give a deeper, richer tone to her paintings).
“My fridge has 30 baby jars of lees and wine mixed together at different stages,” Proudlock says with a chuckle.
The inspiration for her wine country paintings come from her surroundings at Vineland Estate and the entire Niagara region. She has painted Vineland Estate, Jackson-Triggs and Featherstone, all using wine components from the winery and mixing it with lees she gets from Vineland Estate.
She always stays true to using lees from the varietal she is painting with — so Merlot lees if she’s painting with Merlot or Baco Noir lees with Baco Noir.
Each red varietal brings a little something different to the tones in her paintings.
Pinot Noir is a peachy pink, Baco Noir brings dark blue purple tones, Cabernet Sauvignon is a “surprisingly” purple colour and Cabernet Franc offers even more purple.
For shading she mixes some of the wine with Baco because it’s so dark. Who knew!
“It’s taken a long time to figure out the wines and how to use them,” she says.
Proudlock approached winemaker Schmidt and the cellar crew at Vineland and discovered the lees idea, which gives the wine colours more depth.
“I certainly won’t run out of material to paint with,” she says.
Schmidt will often call Proudlock down to the cellar after a good batch of lees has been rendered, and he’ll say: “Oh, this colour’s good, Melissa with love the colour.” She’ll collect some of the new-found lees and stick it in the fridge at home with all the other variations of wine and lees.
I asked Proudlock some quick hit questions:
Your favourite piece: “Gord Downie.”
Which piece took the most time: “The one that’s not done because I’m mad at it. It’s under my bed.” She also mentions the detailed painting of the Cardinal on a branch.
Most fun piece: “Any of the slasher ones.” Also the painting of Kenneth Lake in Algonquin Park.
Favourite grape to paint with: “Baco Noir.”
What’s next for this modest and remarkably talented artist who has found a niche in Niagara wine country?
“I want to perfect my skill and to have a showing where my paintings are grouped together and the wines that were used would be tasted — an interactive showing with the smell of the wines.”
Oh, and “I’d like to be well known, especially in Canada.”
Pretty sure that’s going to happen, Melissa, no doubt about it.