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Market hungry for food & drink art: foodie culture gives birth to a new generation of culinary artists

Market hungry for food & drink art: foodie culture gives birth to a new generation of culinary artists

Karla Zimmerman

As Americans’ passion for food continues to grow–think Food Network, Emeril and that maple-chipotle marinade in your frig’–the demand for food-related art has kicked up a notch. Be it for images that adorn restaurant walls or home kitchens, boldly colored paintings and photographs of chefs, bistro scenes and drinks such as martinis are becoming popular palate pleasers, as are vintage prints.

“I definitely think it’s a hand-in-hand thing that’s happening,” said Rebecca Vollmer, co-owner of Epicurean Images, a Sonoma, Calif.-based online retailer of fine-art prints for the food and beverage and hospitality industries. “The culture is getting more educated and feels like food is something you can be interested in. Art that inspires you or makes you think of a great food experience is totally valid.”

“Home entertaining is becoming more popular with wine parties, martini parties, bar themes and the interest in collecting, storing and tasting wine,” said Danielle Worsley, product coordinator at Canadian Art Publishing. “So then suitable imagery is in demand.”

Artists Slice Into the Market

Many artists have recognized the opportunity food art creates and seized it.

Canadian artist Will Rafuse started painting brightly colored, slightly animated chefs, bartenders, cafes and still lifes six years ago. He had been painting a variety of subjects prior, but chose to depict food images when he realized “people were making the kitchen the focal point of their home.”

He painted five different chefs for his first foray into the genre and took them to a nearby park where he’d been selling his work. They were snapped up immediately. Spurred by such rapid acceptance, Rafuse made eating and drinking themes a primary focus and has watched his sales increase continually since then. The food industry is a huge market, he said, with people increasingly buying originals for their homes and their restaurants.

Ken Auster, a California artist best known for his outdoor and surfing scenes, said his favorite Italian restaurant inspired him to start painting images of chefs. He said he’s attracted to the subject’s light and shadow and the way he can add his own storyline to the scene.

The paintings always sell, Auster said, and many collectors buy them as gifts. Foodie culture helps drive such sales, as more and more aspiring chefs take to the kitchen.

“People love food. I was amazed at how many people cook. They say to me, ‘I really like this [painting] because I cook,’ or ‘Boy, that [chef painting] really reminds me of John,'” Auster said.

Auster thinks collectors also are drawn to the positive connotation associated with his images.

“Restaurants conjure up good times. People don’t go there to celebrate bad times,” he said.

Tasty Images: From Game to Martinis

Food images in the visual arts are nothing new. Still lifes depicting luscious fruit and game are Medieval and Renaissance painting staples.

Today, “variations of that–when you’re directly appealing to the taste buds and taste memories of the viewer–still draw collectors,” said Sarah Tanguy, an independent curator who has put together food-related exhibits at venues such as COPIA: The American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts, in Napa, Calif., and the Katonah Museum of Art, in Katonah, N.Y.

Tanguy points to pop artist Wayne Thieband, particularly with his old-fashioned renderings of pies and cakes, as one of the genre’s early masters, along with Claes Oldenbug and Andy Warhol.

Today’s big sellers build on Thiebaud’s designs and offer an abstract painting style that is sunny and sometimes comical, said Epicurean Images’s Vollmer.

Chefs are “super popular,” she said, as are images of drinks, such as a single martini glass. But photographs of food, such as those that depict 12 varieties of bread, haven’t done so well for Epicurean. “That’s a shift,” Vollmer said. “It used to be popular 10 years ago.”

Worsley agreed. “Photography is an emerging subject matter because it has a nostalgia to it, but right now we have more of the cuisine-related imagery in our paintings,” she said, adding that tea and coffee are up and-coming motifs.

Rafuse’s and Auster’s work both fit the mold Vollmer outlined. Rafuse’s number-one seller is an image titled “Jack the Bartender,” recently featured in an episode of the TV show “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.”

Buyers like lack because “he looks like someone they can relate to, pouring a drink for them,” Rafuse said. In addition to the vibrant colors, viewers are attracted to the image’s warmth and the character’s friendliness, a result of people trying to make their homes more comfortable and a safe haven post Sept. 11, Rafuse said.

Two chef paintings echoing Jack’s style–“Maurice” and “Henri”–are Rafuse’s second- and third-best sellers. Like Auster, Rafuse said many people connect his chef images to their friends’ cooking careers.

Vintage is another trend. There’s a strong demand for vintage prints, by artists such as Leonetto Cappiello, advertising liqueurs, pasta and other products because they create a nostalgic mood, said Barbara Vollmer, Rebecca’s mother and Epicurean’s other owner.

Restaurants and Licensing Eating It Up

Restaurants and home textile product licensing are two of food art’s biggest markets.

Arlene Spiegel, a veteran New York-based restaurant design consultant, said more restaurants are using food-related art because their environments have become so “club by and living room-like” that owners need to “constantly remind or give cues to diners that they’re in a restaurant,” she said.

Eateries use art to go a step farther than simply jogging patrons’ memories as to their location: it also conveys a mood. For instance, one of Spiegel’s clients commissioned an artist to paint an image for the menus showing people “in the throes of dining and wining and having a great time, to be evocative of the kind of experience they want the guest to expect,” she said.

Rebecca Vollmer agreed that the hospitality industry is a lucrative market with a constantly increasing demand. She and her family launched one-year-old Epicurean from Wine Country Images (a long-time retailer of artwork to wineries) because “we kept meeting [restaurant and hotel designers] who wanted something created specifically for them.”

Most restaurants use reproductions, Spiegel said. Many seek out vintage food and wine posters, which “have become a huge business,” she said.

Vollmer said she sees a lot of canvas transfers being sold. These look like original artwork but are affordable and easy to keep clean, which is important in a moist and greasy restaurant environment.

Kitchen products, including linens, aprons, docks, cutting boards, oil bottles, serving trays, coasters and wall coverings, offer another juicy market for food art.

“A very large portion of our art licensing division is driven by the home textiles industry,” said Kristin Wood, art and publication director for the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based loan Cawley Gallery. “Each year we continue to be approached by more and more companies incorporating fine-art images into the kitchen.”

Nostalgic pictures of cafes and foods such as pasta or martinis “are definitely themes we see in licensing,” she said. Though Cawley’s company is approached mostly for its Western- and Southwestern-themed art, its food images sell well, especially those with a Latin flair, Wood said.

Still, not everyone has experienced the food buzz. Anita Williamson, director of marketing for Seattle-based publisher Grand Image Ltd., said her company dropped the food artists it carried originally because they didn’t sell well. Williamson is quick to emphasize that her company’s experience may not reflect an overall market problem, but rather an individual situation.

“Our strength is more in contemporary abstracts and landscapes, so people didn’t look to us to find what is considered the more traditional line of food art,” she said.

But Auster said he’s pleased with the opportunities this emerging genre has presented. “I’ve found a niche that will last many years,” he said.

In fact, home goods retailer Bed Bath and Beyond buys many of Rafuse’s food-related prints, and his images end up on clocks, plates, mugs and other products carried by the store.

As far as the longevity of the food art genre is concerned, Worsley is optimistic. “It’s something that’s going to last for a while,” she said.

SOURCES

* Ken Auster,(949) 494-95/5

* Canadian Art Publishing, 800-663-1166, ext.. 314

* COPIA, (707) 259-1600

* Joan Cawley Gallery, (913)-585-9806

* Epicurean Images, (707) 996-0259

* Grand Image Ltd., 800-900-3551, ext. 117

* Will Rafuse, (604) 731-5957

* Arlene Spiegel & Associates, (212) 628-3232

* Jerry Taliaferro, (704) 597-0887

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