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Well rewarded by a thirsty muse

With a clientele of affluent oenophiles, painter Thomas Stiltz and others have parlayed wine art into lucrative careers.

June 01, 2004|Stephanie Shapiro | Baltimore Sun

Wine and wine art are a match made in antiquity.

Found in Egyptian tombs, Flemish engravings, Renaissance paintings and 20th century French posters, images of wine have figured in works of art since Bacchus got the party started.

In contemporary America, the commercial art industry has cultivated wine art into a multimillion-dollar business. Even in the midst of an economic slump, wine-art sales are thriving, in large part because of recession-proof devotees.

Many clients willing to spend hundreds of dollars for a Chateau d'Yquem will pay $6,000 for an original painting or $1,200 for a signed and numbered print of their favorite bottle.

Scores of painters, including Thomas Stiltz of Ruxton, Md., have parlayed the wine-art vogue into a career. Since he first turned to the art form about two years ago, Stiltz, 57, has become one of the bestselling painters of wine-centric still lifes. His work has earned somewhere between $1 million and $2 million in annual retail sales for the company that reproduces and sells it, Stiltz says.

In his paintings, such as "Distinctively Cakebread" and "Private Reserve," light filters through bottles of choice vintages, luring well-heeled oenophiles into epicurean reveries and pricey purchases.

"I love to paint elegant things," Stiltz says as he stands in his living room, which doubles as a photography studio. On a table, bottles of wine worth a small fortune await arrangement, as do packages of green and red grapes. "There's nothing more elegant than a beautiful bottle filled with wine," he says.

In a well-lighted studio attached to his home, Stiltz completes about two generously sized paintings a week. Painted from projections of digital photographs, Stiltz's oil compositions of wine bottles, glasses and the occasional cheese and fruit grouping are saturated with color and glow with affluent well-being. His labels, exactingly traced through an elaborate process from the originals, are meant to be read, and the world beyond Stiltz's studio is crisply reflected in renderings of bottles and glasses.

While some wine artists are more impressionistic in their approach, Stiltz's work is valued for its realism. "I know people who really enjoy wine love my painting," he says. "They feel like it's an accurate depiction of what they love."

For Stiltz, making wine and making paintings have much in common. As someone "who has always loved wine," he speaks of the "complexity and richness in big Cabernets and wonderful Chardonnays." Stiltz compares their "layers and layers of flavors" to the multiple layers of paint he lays on a canvas to achieve color of mesmerizing depth.

His cropped images reflect Stiltz's experience in the advertising photography field. Dutch painter Vermeer's "beautiful, delicate realism" is an inspiration, as is the aesthetic of simplicity. "A few beautiful things make a statement," Stiltz says.

Through a process called giclee, Stiltz's paintings are reproduced on canvas in limited editions that, with the originals, are sold in more than 50 galleries across the United States.

Stiltz's proofs are corrected to match the color of the originals, but his paintings are never touched up by others. "My work is so realistic and so tight, it can't be enhanced," he says.

The artist uses a palette knife to dab acrylic gel on a number of prints from each limited-edition run -- adding a personal touch and $300 to the tab.

If he's doing a commission, Stiltz gets his client's approval on the photograph he plans to copy. "That's the beauty of it. No surprises," he says.

Occasionally a client will send an item such as a pitcher for inclusion in the painting, or instruct Stiltz to add a gourmet touch, perhaps a Roquefort wedge, to the piece.

Catering to a client or selling reproductions doesn't make his work any less legitimate, he says, although "art snobs and people who have little fine-art galleries that only sell original work" may see it differently. "Of course it's art," Stiltz says.

Perks come with the job. For a commissioned painting, a Los Angeles client once shipped Stiltz a costly bottle of Veuve Clicquot Champagne. In a note, he wrote, "Make a painting and enjoy the wine."

Stiltz, a former photographer and graphic artist, was a successful still-life painter when he stumbled by chance into his red, white and blush period. The director of a California gallery that carried his work urged Stiltz to focus on fewer elements -- a single bottle of wine with two glasses, for instance. "I did an Opus One, and she sold it in 20 minutes," Stiltz says.

Since April 2003, the Hanson Gallery in Carmel has sold nearly $100,000 worth of Stiltz's work, director Jennifer Walker says.

Wine art sells well "particularly in California," where home wine cellars are increasingly common, she says. "It's definitely a genre that's been building momentum for about three years."

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