The Closing of Pearl Paint and the End of an Era

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New York City-based artists past and present suffered a shock recently with the sudden and unexpected closing of Pearl Paint, the landmark art supply store, which was as integral to every facet of commercial and fine art in New York as was any museum, gallery, studio, or agency in the city. Dating back to 1933, the iconic store was housed in an equally iconic six-floor structure with a trademark red-and-white facade, and was located on the bustling Canal street in the somewhat sketchy Chinatown district.

In the world of art supply stores, Pearl Paint was the equivalent of Macy’s meets the local hardware store. Pearl Paint didn’t glisten; it was raw, worn, and rustic. Packed to the gills with every last art supply imaginable, it simply said “buy this stuff, and go create”. Frequented by everybody from students, crafters, and novices, to top professional artists, designers, and even celebrities, anybody whom stepped foot into the front door became something of an artist, and artists stepping into the store became kings and queens of the art world.

Shopping at Pearl Paint was an ordeal, though. To explore all six floors, you had to climb the imposing, steep, long, and somewhat slanted stairs between floors. You had to pay for each item before you left a particular floor, so if you purchased your airbrush on the fifth floor, went down the third floor for sketchbooks, and then to the second floor for paint brushes, then realized you totally forgot to pick up rapidographs on the sixth floor, well then, too bad. You built legs of steel shopping at Pearl Paint, even if you came out with lungs full of oil paint vapors and design marker fumes.

I shopped at Pearl Paint extensively as a student and as a professional. I also worked there, in the fine writing and fountain pen department. I worked with artists, illustrators, designers, painters, sculpters, crafters, cartoonists, dreamers, wanderers, punks, hippies, skaters, musicians, missionaries, and relatively normal and abnormal people alike, but at Pearl Paint, we all fit in and belonged. We were coworkers in front of the customers, and community in between them.

Sadly, like many iconic landmarks in New York City, change was inevitable. Just as the legendary music venue CBGB’s – the birthplace of punk rock – is now a John Varvatos luxury shoe store, so too came Pearl’s day to fade into NYC’s history books. Art students shop at the Apple store instead of art supply stores nowadays. Much of the analog work gaining notice is done with Pigma Micron pens into Moleskine sketchbooks instead of epic oil paintings on large canvases. Online shopping eliminates the time and much of the expense of obtaining new art supplies. In this digital age, Pearl Paint increasingly became a dinosaur, but in its day, it was a wonderful place where anybody could become part of the creative world.

There’s no moral to this story, just memories of a truly great place. I would advise artists of all stripes, though, to take some time to appreciate their local art supply stores. Here in Washington, DC, there’s Plaza Artist Supplies on K Street, where, upon entering the store, I leave behind the world of DC’s high-pressure political battlefield, and enter the inviting world of art and artists, and get lost in the shelves and aisles of pens, pencils, sketchbooks, brushes, paints, markers, colors, and all of those wonderful and fascinating supplies that allow us to do what we love to do: make art!

Retro Sketch (First post-Tour de France Post!)

Well, I’m back after my annual summer Tour de France hiatus. No, I wasn’t actually in France, but I was glued to my television and iPhone daily for three weeks watching and following the Tour. And what a Tour it was; the 100th edition of this great race was nothing short of spectacular and historic. The route was stunningly beautiful, the stages brutal and epic, and the competition fierce and exciting. In the end, Christopher Froome, the lanky Englishman from Team Sky finally earned his Grand Tour win in a performance that was both commanding and class.

Of course, giving my life to the Tour for three weeks also meant giving up three weeks of blogging and drawing. I’ve got three weeks worth of awesomeness in my reader to catch up on, plus some new works to post. In the meantime, to ease myself back into blogging, here’s a page from a sketchbook back in 2000. The top drawing was inspired by the hyper-competitive work ethic in New York City at the time, and the bottom drawing was inspired by one of my umpteen hundred thousand trips on the NYC Subway.

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Retro Sketch

From a 2000 sketchbook: a page of random doodles, words, ink spots, and a few sketches done on the New York City Metro with sepia-toned fountain pen ink.

And no; I haven’t posted in two weeks. I got swallowed up by life’s general busyness, though I did kept the sketchbook open and the ink flowing. I’ve got some catching up to do, including admiring and commenting on all of the great artwork sitting in my WordPress Reader.

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Retro Sketch

Continuing the selection of pages from a 1999 sketchbook compiled when I was working in retail, this page not only shows a fountain pen I randomly drew, but also a little story inadvertently recorded on a series of Post-It Notes as I attempted to contact a customer about their purchase, which was eventually declined due to a bad credit card number. The page was finished with some credit card promotion stickers, sales stamps, and lots of clear scotch tape. Slow days in retail may have yielded less revenue, but they did allow for lots of creativity!

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Retro Sketch

This is from a sketchbook back in 1999. I compiled the early pages while working at the Fountain Pen Hospital in downtown NYC, in the shadows of the World Trade Center. In addition to general pen play (with expensive fountain pens) and experimenting with whatever could be found laying around the cash register, I did little illustrations based on the Wall Street stock brokers, power lawyers, and political guys whom worked in the area. The drawing on the page below is not based on any socio-political stance, just an random thought on how people with powerful jobs with the ability to affect the lives of others are, in the end, really just people going to work.

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Retro Sketch

Back in 1999, I was a young illustrator in NYC doing the routine of working retail during the day and freelancing at night. I’ve always loved artist materials, so I worked at art supply stores to pay the bills and score discounts on art supplies. Along the way, I fell into specializing in fountain pens, and eventually ended up at the Fountain Pen Hospital in downtown NYC (in the shadow of the World Trade Center). I spent my time not only selling pens and supplies to the likes of Bill Cosby and Mayor Rudy Guliani, but also filling up sketchbook pages with pricey pens and whatever I could scrounge up from behind the cash register. The owners of the store smoked cigarettes almost nonstop, which inspired this little drawing. Incidentally, one of my coworkers gave me a gift of a red Lamy Safari fine-point fountain pen to draw with – the same pen used for many of the sketches and drawings on this blog.

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Retro Sketch

These sketches were done in 2004, when the renown landscape artist Christo turned New York City’s Central Park into an otherworldly and ethereal experience known as The Gates, draping the vast walkways of the park with randomly – yet smartly placed – orange overhanging frames from which orange fabric was hung. It’s one thing to see the work of a master hanging on a museum wall; it’s quite another to walk through the vision of a master whom has draped landscapes and structures worldwide. These sketches here might not do the experience justice, but they are my memory points of having been a part of something truly amazing, to witness and be immersed in art history as it was happening live.

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