Breaking Bad‘s Walter White doesn’t look so scary when he’s smiling up at you from one of Proton Factories’ watercolor paintings, grinning beside the rest of the White clan — Skyler, Walter Jr., and Holly. In fact, he looks just as non-threatening as some of the more pleasant patriarchs that Proton has also painted: Home Improvement‘s Tim Taylor, Duck Dynasty‘s Phil Robertson, and Married … With Children‘s Al Bundy (who, though he may be an asshole, isn’t a meth-making sociopath).
Proton’s less-threatening version of Heisenberg will be on display at The Fun in Dysfunctional, which opens this week at Christophe Artisan Chocolatier. The show represents a bunch of firsts for the former street artist: It’s his first solo show, the first time he’s followed a theme, and his first exhibition of watercolors, a new medium he picked up about eight months ago.
“I had to adapt,” Proton says. “I was doing graffiti, and then I got arrested.” He also lost his home studio to a new roommate. Now his workspace is limited to a desk in his bedroom, so he’s downsized from the large-scale acrylics of video game celebrities that he has developed a reputation for to the smaller watercolor pieces. But the artist is still just as pop-culture obsessed; besides the family portraits, Proton has painted duos of 4″ x 4″ squares, pairing up Mario and Luigi, Batman and Robin, and Leatherface and his chainsaw, still smiling despite being covered in blood spatter.
Proton chooses TV shows that are both sentimental (King of the Hill) and contemporary (Wilfred). Personally, the artist doesn’t keep up with that much television today, preferring Netflix nostalgia to modern crap. “Today, TV is just so different,” Proton says. “Everything’s a reality show or Teen Mom or shock value. And there’s no real family basis anymore, if you think about it. It’s boring to me I guess now.” (He adds that Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers and Dinosaurs are now both available on instant stream, in case you were wondering.)
“With my other stuff, with the acrylics, I was so meticulous for the minute lines. Everything had to be bold and sharp,” Proton says. “What I like about the watercolors is that it is messy and you can have shaky lines. Because you can get kind of tense, but with this you’re just like, ‘Some color’s out? Who cares.'”
Proton is a self-taught watercolorist, and he’s not too proud of his earliest forays into the medium. “It’s definitely a trial-and-error thing with watercolors,” he explains. It doesn’t work the same way.” But he’s got the formula down for now, and he thinks he’ll continue with the medium, since it fits the TV characters. Proton has some family portrait commissions to get to after the show — as in real families, not fictional ones — and he plans to do a piece for himself of Bob Ross, the afroed hero of the PBS art instruction world and a huge inspiration for Proton.
“I’ve been watching him forever, since I was a kid,” Proton says. “We were kind of poor, so we couldn’t really afford painting materials or anything like that, so I just remember being a kid and being like, dude, whenever I can afford paint, I’m going to be that guy.” Now, when Proton needs to gets into the zone at his desk, he plugs his headphones into an episode from the 31-season Joy of Painting torrent he downloaded. We’re sure some of Ross’ positivity rubs off on Proton as he’s painting smiles onto Walking Dead characters. He’ll do his best to make a grizzled zombie-fighting sheriff look cute, because he wants to make people feel good.
“When you’re a kid, everyone wants to be JTT. No one wants to be Brad,” he says. “It brings on better times. Now you’re an adult and you have to worry about stuff — I just want to come home from school and watch Home Improvement.”