Bill Webb: A Solo Artist Creating Picture Perfect Artwork
Alberta artist Bill Webb’s unusual journey to success
“Kananaskis Interlude” by Bill Webb
Several kilometres east of Forestburg, Alta. (population 900), Bill Webb paints acrylic landscapes in the basement of his home. His tools are lined up next to an unfinished masterpiece that will take him 200 hours to complete. He works in silence every morning, afternoon and evening, making intricate and meticulous markings on a 76-centimetre-by-101-centimetre canvas.
This is his studio.
“My mother looked at my hands and said I was either going to be a doctor, a violinist or an artist,” says Webb.
His work, signed W.H. Webb, is highly realistic and is often mistaken for photography. If you look closely, you see a canvas full of small dots and dashes of acrylic paint placed in a kind of watercolour technique. Take a step back and these markings tighten up to a photograph-like image. This is known as “painterly realism.”
Webb has been a full-time professional artist for 24 years. His works are displayed in galleries across Canada including in Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver, Victoria, Winnipeg and Regina. His paintings sell for up to $14,000.
Before he reached fame in the art community, Webb was a teacher, a principal and a school superintendent. Back then, he was a “Sunday painter.” That all changed when Webb and his wife were invited to visit an exhibition at a major art gallery in Edmonton in 1984. His immediate impression was negative. The paintings didn’t say anything and the technique was basic and the use of materials poor.
Webb says he realized, then, “with my training, I can do much better than this.”
During his Easter holidays, Webb went out and gathered materials: masonite hardboard from the lumberyard, and paints and brushes borrowed from the school’s art room. The paints were the kind that come in pucks nestled in plastic trays, and the brushes were the ones kindergarten students use.
“I thought I was on to something,” he says. “It was a novel way of describing and painting.”
Webb spent his holidays creating several sample artworks. Once completed, he brought his samples into that same art gallery in Edmonton. The plywood paintings hung on the wall while the gallery owner inspected and interrogated.
“He asked me how much I thought it was worth,” says Webb. “I said $1,200. My heart was pounding. The gallery owner nodded his head and said, ‘That’s about right.’ Then he tapped the hardboard with his knuckles, asking, ‘What is this?'”
Webb replied it was, in fact, plywood from the lumberyard.
“It’s got nails sticking out,” said the gallery owner. “It’s warped.”
“Then I said the right thing,” says Webb. “I told him, ‘This is just an experiment.’
“He said, ‘Good response.'”
The gallery owner told Webb to get the best materials he could afford, and then call back. He did, and that summer, two of his paintings hung in the Edmonton gallery. After the first week, one sold for $1,350 to a private collector. Two years later, Webb was taken on by West End Gallery.
After six years as a part-time artist, while at the same time serving as chief executive officer of the Wainwright School Division, Webb began to feel pressure. By this time, his paintings were being shown in two galleries – one in Calgary and one in Edmonton – and he was finding it harder to balance his work as an educator with his painting.
“They were selling everything I could produce,” he says.
The West End Gallery told him he should consider painting full-time. He took their advice and, in 1990, retired from education to devote his time to painting. In the years that followed, he surpassed his own expectations for success. One of the defining moments of his career was having one of his paintings, a scene of the Battle River in summer, hung in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s home. Laureen Harper personally picked it out.
Webb is inspired by his solitary surroundings. At one time, Webb lived by a lake in Stony Plain, just west of Edmonton. “It was gorgeous,” he says. “And yet, I hated it there. I didn’t want to be able to reach my neighbour with a snowball.”
So, he moved to the Crowsnest Pass, before finally coming to settle near Forestburg in east-central Alberta.
“Inspiration was on my doorstep,” he says. “It feeds my soul.”
Wallace Galleries presents W. H. Webb’s work, Oct. 25 to Nov. 5, 500 5 Ave. S.W., 403-262-8050, wallacegalleries.com