Portrait artist Paul Beel is a fast worker. As his subject sits patiently in front of a gray background, he gets to work gently applying dark hues of paint to create the silhouette. With each stroke, he gets closer to replicating the man on a small sheet of paper spread out on an easel in front of him and in 14 minutes the artist has completed his work.
However, the subject will have to wait a while to receive his portrait. This is because the former Westlake resident works from his terrace apartment in Florence, Italy, conducting his sessions via video chat. He is stuck in lockdown as Italy faces one of the worst upticks in cases involving COVID-19 (coronavirus).
“At first my attitude toward the pandemic was what I imagine a lot of people’s views were: ‘It’s on the other end of the world. It can never reach here.’ When news broke about the coronavirus spreading as fast as it did in Italy, I was terrified,” Beel, 49, said. “Being a working artist, a lot of my sessions are conducted in person and I only had 45 euros (about $49 USD) to my name at the time, so I was panicked trying to figure out how I was going to be able to stay afloat.”
That’s when Beel decided he would offer his services through video chat to those looking for something fun to do while they were quarantined. On March 12, Beel launched his business offering portrait paintings for 75 euros or $80 USD, which includes shipping.
Last week, the death toll in Italy from COVID-19 overtook China’s. Italy recorded 3,405 deaths, almost 200 more than China’s 3,244. On Thursday, the Italian government reported more than 5,000 new cases, making a total of 41,035 in the country. As a result, the country’s lockdown, which was put into effect March 9, has been extended indefinitely.
Beel’s Skype project has helped him cope with not being outside, where he prefers to paint. Through it, he’s met and interacted with people despite the restrictions. Beel has primarily painted Italians on lockdown, but he’s also worked with a handful of people from the states, including Kansas and Illinois.
“When I was working in my studio, I used to spend all my time closed off and without social contact,” he said. “Having this Skype project has really improved my emotional life because I get a chance to meet so many different people every day.”
Of course, there were concerns that this business would dry up just as quickly as it began. Being on lockdown, Beel couldn’t get access to canvas or other painting materials he needed, resorting to cutting up his tablecloth and using that for his subjects. That is until he painted a portrait for an art curator in Venice who was so inspired by Beel’s work that he arranged for a shipment of canvas to be sent to Beel’s terrace.
Beel is no stranger to painting through video chat either. The artist got the idea to start this project from a similar one he did eight years ago when he lived out in the Italian countryside and couldn’t find models for his paintings.
“It’s always a surprise for me because I never know what light or background I’m going to get,” he said, noting that one time he painted U2 frontman Bono standing next to the Joshua Tree as a background for one of his clients.
A 1989 Westlake High School graduate, Beel studied painting at Bowling Green State University. His hard work earned him a scholarship to an art school in Italy, where he fell in love with the idyllic backdrops and romantic atmosphere. In 1997, he decided to move to the country and live there permanently.
“I always had a strong interest in realism and Italy is the home of the Renaissance,” he said. “I fell in love with everything the country could offer me, and I never left.”
Work is booming for Beel. On average, he’s had between three and five appointments every day and raked in more than $2,000. His newfound success has led him to begin work on his next project, “The Elephant in The Studio,” a video podcast where he will interview interesting people while painting their portraits.
Beel is prepared for the lockdown to last a while and suggests that Americans do the same.
“The most important thing for Americans to do now is to focus on their communities, no matter what way that will be,” he said. “Try not to go nuts and ease into this. It’s a rough boat to be in right now, but at least it’s a boat.”
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