Arts & Design

Color splash: The creative world of artist Callen Schaub

The Canadian abstract artist ditches brushes in favor of custom-designed tools to create striking, kinetic paintings in vivid rainbow hues.

By Sarah Murry — October 15, 2019

There may be a blanket of white snow on the ground for nearly half the year in Montreal, but inside Canadian artist Callen Schaub’s studio, there’s a riot of color.

Paint splatters in every color of the rainbow — and some that aren’t — cover nearly every surface, including Schaub’s clothing and shoes. The effect even extends to his technicolor hair.

Schaub, 29, is part tinkerer and part Jackson Pollock for the Instagram age.

Schaub pours acrylic paint, shown here in pitchers, into custom-built cradles that swing above the canvas.

Schaub pours acrylic paint, shown here in pitchers, into custom-built cradles that swing above the canvas.

He eschews brushes in favor of unique tools, such as rotating platforms, trapeze-like pendulums and sometimes even nude dancers’ bodies to apply paint to canvas, relying on gravity’s effects. In an entirely homegrown technique, Schaub built a turntable from a repurposed bicycle chain to smoothly rotate his canvases. While they spin, he applies heavy pours of acrylic paint (to the tune of about 50 gallons a month) into custom-built wood and plexiglass trays, which he calls “cradles,” that swing from above. 

Watching him work is mesmerizing as the paint takes unpredictable trajectories and spreads across the canvas — and splatters onto the floor and walls. “When I create, it’s so much about the moment,” Schaub says. “I never go back and add or edit. It’s about when I start, and when I stop, and in between that time frame the painting is alive.” 

The results are vivid, multicolored arcs, swirls, splatters, and swooshes. They echo organic shapes and patterns found in nature in bright colors that convey energy, movement and sometimes, a bit of chaos. That’s just part of his process, he explains. “I don’t know what I’m going to make, I don't know how it will turn out,” he says. “It could turn out a failure or it could be beautiful.” 

Art was an outlet for Schaub, who struggled with dyslexia as a kid. “My way of learning is very different,” he explains. “I could get to the same destination as most when I was growing up, but went about it another way, and for that I was singled out a bit.”

Unlike most people his age, the Toronto-raised Schaub didn’t grow up with smartphone in hand: “We didn’t have a TV,” he says. His mom, a teacher and librarian, had a passion for the arts. In her household, “it was against the rules to be bored” and Schaub and his sister entertained themselves by making up games and sketching.

Schaub collaborating with the audience on an original piece of art created at an HP event in Montreal.

Schaub’s mother encouraged him to study fine arts at a specialty high school and then to continue his formal education at university. “A lot of times parents encourage their kids into a more ‘serious’ avenue of study, but I feel very lucky that I had such a supportive family,” he says.

HP partnered with Schaub last month to create an original piece of art at a live event in Montreal. The piece will be translated into a digital print for a limited run of fabric covers for the HP Tango X, a smart home printer with a design meant to be shown off on a desk or bookshelf at home as part of the decor. The connection with HP was a natural one, Schaub says, since technology is a key part of his artistic wheelhouse. 

In addition to carpentry, woodworking, and welding, he employs a full suite of digital tools to share his work, and his process, on social media. He’s an avid vlogger with a YouTube channel and a robust fanbase of more than 300,000 on Instagram. “I almost spend as much time documenting my work in video, with various cameras, using editing software and photography; and when I’m doing exhibitions, I’ll print out the floor plans and the thumbnails of all the pieces and arrange them to curate the space,” he says. 

Each piece he makes is an exercise in letting go of expectations, Schaub says. He enjoys creating in front of an audience and engaging them in the process. “Arguably, I’m a performance artist first, and an abstract artist second,” he explains. “When the paint is flowing, it has this immersive quality to it. You see the story of its creation, the birth of this art object. That is really where it becomes inspirational and interesting to people.”

He’s an outspoken advocate for inclusivity in the art world, and talks openly on social media and in interviews about the criticism he receives from naysayers in the industry and from online “haters.” He has developed a novel way of dealing with trolls – by turning their words into art. 

He printed out and enlarged negative comments about his work onto canvases and then painted over them. By doing this, he is bringing awareness to how easy it is to be critical behind the anonymity of a screen, a message that dovetails with October’s National Bullying Prevention Month. To those who’ve experienced bullying, he says, “Don’t let the negativity get you down. Steer that energy in a better direction because there is so much potential to use it for good.”

HP's Tango X printer, shown with a colorful cloth cover that features Schaub's artwork.

Schaub constantly innovates to achieve new paint effects, even if that means building some sort of apparatus to make it work. Lately, that’s meant experimenting with cutting slits in five-gallon plastic buckets and once full of paint, spinning them over the canvas to make a DNA-like helix.

Even though the tools he uses are mechanical, the act of painting is full of feeling. The colors he chooses in the moment depends on his mood. 

“I like to think of color as emotion. By using the full spectrum of color, I give viewers the ability to feel a spectrum of emotion,” Schaub says. “I approach my work viscerally and very in the moment. It’s a palette of emotion that I’m exploring. It’s almost like a dance with the color.”

His latest collection, with the tongue-in-cheek title of “Fake Art,”  is a wink to critics who doubt him. “If people voice their opinions, then there is a part of them that cares,” he says. “As an artist, if you are experiencing hate, then you are doing something right. It means you have taken a chance. No rain, no rainbow.”

Follow Callen Schaub on Instagram.