Painting the town, one house at a time

Publication Date: Wednesday Jun 17, 1998

COMMUNITY: Painting the town, one house at a time

Peter Dallison is not your typical house painter, nor your typical artist

by Peter Gauvin

Perhaps you've seen him sitting in his director's chair, under an umbrella, wearing a dapper woven hat, working behind his French easel, looking as if he could be painting the river Seine. Only he's in Crescent Park, facing a well-kept home across the street, while neighborhood traffic drifts by, not tour boats. Peter Dallison is a house painter. He doesn't wear coveralls or need a ladder. His tools are a canvas, oil paints and his keen sense of light, angles and colors. His subjects are typically some of the most distinguished homes in Palo Alto.

A Berkeley resident, Dallison appeared earlier this spring in Crescent Park and has been painting homes there and in Professorville since. You may have seen him marooned under his umbrella diligently working in the rain. If you haven't, he should be around for some time. With contracts booked for the next six to eight weeks, which in turn will provide exposure that typically brings more business, Dallison expects to be a moving street fixture in Palo Alto through the summer, at least--although he hopes to be hiding from the sun, not rain.

Dallison, 32, hails from Peterborough, Canada, just outside Toronto. He moved to the Bay Area with his wife two years ago, but he's been painting homes on canvas for about seven years now.

"It's been a very consistent job for me. If I was new to an area and didn't have any commissions, I would just set up on a busy street and generally very quickly get a response."

In fact, he's in the unusual position--for an artist--of being the primary bread winner for he and his wife, a pilot. She teaches flying in Oakland while she works toward attaining the flight hours necessary to work for a commercial airline. "It is kind of funny," he said, "the artist supporting the pilot."

He's even able to take four months off a year to work on his own paintings, which he hopes to show in galleries. This last winter he worked on creating urban landscapes using a process known as encaustic painting which involves layers of beeswax mixed with resin crystals.

Dallison grew up with art in his genes. His father was an illustrator who worked for major publications like National Geographic, Life and Sports Illustrated and has more than 20 postage stamp drawings to his credit. Dallison's brother also makes a living painting houses on canvas in Chicago although he uses watercolors.

"Having a father that actually made a living as an artist was a very valuable thing for us," said Dallison, a graduate of the Ontario College of Art. "A professor once told me that five years out of art school, only 5 percent of students are still making art and only 2 percent are making a living from it."

Dallison's job may look serene to hurried Silicon Valley workers, but it has its share of headaches, too. "There are days when it's going good and days when it's a struggle. Sometimes it's relaxing, sometimes its extremely frustrating." Luckily on those days, oil paints are very accommodating of mistakes: He can always add another layer, sometimes painting over the same area five of six times to get it right.

Dallison spent last summer painting homes in the wealthy 'burb of Piedmont in the Oakland Hills. "Then I got a commission down here about two months ago." The rest, as they say, is art history.

What are Dallison's perceptions of Palo Alto after two months of sitting on neighborhood streets?

"It seems like a very friendly community. It doesn't seem too stuffy for the kind of prices people are paying to live here. I worked in a gated community in the East Bay and there was no life on the streets. It was very antiseptic. I'm a very social person, so I ended up leaving that community."

When he's sitting on a curb and painting, Dallison keeps a small radio tuned to a jazz station or National Public Radio talk shows. "When you're sitting out here all day by yourself it's nice to listen to conversation," he said.

On the weekends, Dallison likes to get away from his job like the rest of us, but not to pursue painting on his own. Rather, he and his wife have picked up some California hobbies: mountain biking and surfing.

Dallison's paintings start at about $550 and range up to about $5,000. His prices depend on the size of the canvas desired, the detail of the house (brick houses, for instance, can be tedious) and how long he thinks it will take him. The minimum time is about two-and-a-half days, but some large estates can take up to two weeks, he said.

He starts with a pencil sketch and because he wants to try and keep roughly the same lighting, he usually works on one painting in the morning and then switches to another house in the afternoon.

For clients who desire more life in their painting, Dallison has also begun adding kids, pets and birds to his paintings--if they fit in naturally with the scene. But automobiles? No. "That tends to cheapen it," he said.

The homes Dallison paints are not always substantial homes in upper-income neighborhoods. "Most of (the reasons people want a painting of their home) are about memories, so it really doesn't matter how much your home costs."

Dallison said his customers are a mix of people: Some have owned their homes for 20 years or more and want photo reproductions made for their children; others have owned their homes for only a few years and might want a surprise for their husband or wife.

"Most people who commission me are women, about 70 percent I'd say. I've heard that about 90 percent of art in the world is bought by women."

Although it's a means of paying the bills like any other job, Dallison has a lot of pride in his work. If he's not satisfied with a painting, he won't quit working on it just because he's underestimated the time necessary to complete it.

"The bottom line for me is I want these to be good paintings, not just painting of a house. When it's hanging on the wall, I want somebody else to be able to enjoy it too, not just the homeowner."

Peter Dallison can be reached at (510) 704-0405 or via e-mail at 

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