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Colorado Artist Adds Paintbrush To Van Gogh Film Tribute 'Loving Vincent'

Courtesy of BreakThru Films
Each frame of the film 'Loving Vincent' was painted by artists, including Colorado Springs painter Dena Peterson

For 20 years, Dena Peterson has been a painter, but two years ago she added a new title: film animator.

Peterson -- along with 124 artists from around the world -- had a hand in creating the film “Loving Vincent,” the first feature-length film to combine live action, computer animation and hand-painted animation.

“I was pretty blown away that I was chosen,” she said.

Peterson -- who spent much of her career in Loveland but now lives in Colorado Springs -- got involved with the project after seeing an early trailer created to attract investors and additional artists. The film tells the story of Vincent van Gogh’s mysterious death through some of his most famous paintings.

Credit Courtesy of Dena Peterson
Dena Peterson was one of 125 artists from around the world to contribute to the film 'Loving Vincent.'

After traveling to Gdansk, Poland to complete a test to make sure she had the skill to do the work, Peterson took part in a three-week training to make sure she had the tenacity.

“It was kind of funny, they lined us up in the studio hallway and they literally read all of our names off one by one as to whether we were still in or we had to leave, like a reality TV show,” Peterson laughed. “Like, ‘Pack your brushes and go.’”

Peterson passed and was hired for what initially was supposed to be about three month’s worth of work painting scenes for the film. Three months turned into six.

“It was pretty intense work,” she said of the eight-to-10 hours a day spent painting each frame of the film.

The process involved a canvas and oil-based paint. After photographing each frame, Peterson could scrape whatever part of the scene was changing and paint in the new action.

On average, she would do about 15 paintings a day -- the equivalent of about one second of film. Overall, “Loving Vincent” featured more than 65,000 frames and 853 finished canvases.

“The first frame usually took the longest,” Peterson said of the process. It required approval from the director, who analyzed the work for style and color consistency. No easy task with so many artists working on the project, she said.

Once the scene was approved, she would take a picture of the painting. She’d then scrape off the paint, add a movement and take another picture. And then scrape off that paint, add a movement and take another picture…

“And so on and so on,” Peterson joked.

Credit Courtesy of Dena Peterson
Peterson's canvas for the scene using Van Gogh's 'Wheat Field with Crows.' One second of film required about 12 paintings.

It could be grueling work, but the toughest part was painting in another artist’s style, she said. Especially copying Van Gogh’s thick brushwork and color palette.

“I’ve always felt like true genius can’t really be copied because it’s such a personal thing,” Peterson said. “And it was hard for us to keep our own style from coming through a little bit.”

Which is why the artists had a lot of supervision, particularly when they were working on one of Van Gogh’s more well-known works.

One of Peterson’s favorite scenes to paint involved Van Gogh’s iconic “Wheat Field with Crows.”

“(Director Darota Kobiela) was a stickler for getting it right,” she said. “It probably took me a week just to get the first frame of that scene, to get the colors and the brushwork just right.”

It helped to know that the filmmaker’s intent was less about copying Van Gogh stroke for stroke and more about paying tribute to the artist, Peterson said. It also gave her a new appreciation both for Van Gogh and for the art of animation.

Credit Courtesy of BreakThru Films
The film 'Loving Vincent' combined live action film with computer and hand-painted animation.

Peterson joked that when she returned home from Poland, she wanted to stay as far away from painting as possible for a while. She wasn’t just burnt out physically but creatively as well.

“I had a little bit of a block about painting, because I kind of felt like I lost myself a little bit,” Peterson said.

But later she came to appreciate the influence, which encouraged her to push boundaries with her own work.

“I think I have sort of let him creep into my work a little bit now and I’m kind of liking it,” she said.

Peterson called the experience of finally see her work up on the big screen at the Telluride Film Festival, “overwhelming.”

“I cried,” she said. “To see it all finished was amazing ... I knew exactly where my scenes start and end, even though it all looks like Van Gogh’s style. I can see the difference from artist to artist.”

If another project like this came up -- hopefully one closer to home -- Peterson said she’d enjoy doing another film, but she has doubts that will happen.

“A full-length feature film has never been done this way,” she said. “I don’t know if it ever could be done again, because it took so many years and so many artists to do it. But I was thrilled that it actually employed real artists, real painters.”

Dena Peterson will attend a special Q&A screening of the film “Loving Vincent” at 6 p.m. Nov. 18, 2018 at The Lyric in Fort Collins.

Stacy was KUNC's arts and culture reporter from 2015 to 2021.
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