Velvet Underdogs: The Paintings the Art World Loves to Hate

Paintings of Elvis or other cultural icons on black velvet are now considered the epitome of tackiness, even a metaphor for tackiness -but it wasn't always so. Early artists who used the medium were serious and meticulous, painting each fiber individually. But as those paintings became popular, an industry of cheap knockoffs rose to fill the demand, particularly in Mexican border towns, where American tourists would snap them up.  

To make the process go faster, the artist would lay a wet painting on a blank piece of velvet and press them together to create an outline for the next painting. That’s why so many velvet paintings have reverse images. Another technique for getting the outline on the canvas included punching small holes along the lines of a drawing, placing the drawing on the velvet, and then dusting it with chalk or light-colored powder, so that the chalk left a dotted outline on the velvet. (Sometimes you can still see part of the chalk outline on a velvet painting.) Images were also projected onto the velvet, or the painters would use techniques like airbrushing or screenprinting.

Because of this, some border painters had no artistic skills, but the velvet painters who have stuck with it usually have a real gift, such as Najera, Tony Maya, Roberto Sanchez, and Nacho Amaro, perceived to be among Tijuana’s best, according to “Los Angeles Times” reporter Sam Quinones. And Baldwin points to Daniel Guerrero in Nogales, Mexico, as a master of creating light in the blackness of the velvet.

No matter how much talent they did or didn’t possess, early Mexican velvet painters didn’t have the resources to concern themselves with artistry; they had to make a living. That’s why images that sold well—Jesus, Elvis, panthers, cowboys, clowns, bullfighters, dead celebrities, naked women—were copied over and over again. It didn’t matter if the paintings were done well or poorly, they sold the same.

The paintings sold by the thousands in the 1960s and '70s, and they are seeing a sort of revival today, as people buy them ironically, for the nostalgia, or just because they like them. Several authors, historians, and collectors lend their expertise to a history of black velvet paintings posted at Collectors Weekly.

(Image credit: Scott Squire from Black Velvet Art)

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