Artist of the Month: Barney Levitt

9 Jan 2008

Massachusetts-based artist Barney Levitt creates rich and detailed oil paintings from precariously placed still lifes.

by Naomi Ekperigin

A Fine Balance
2006, oil on panel, 16 x 19.
Collection Garrett Demarest
Minnie Smells a Trap
2007, oil, 16 x 20.
Collection the artist.

“I prefer not to label myself a still-life painter, although still-life objects dominate my work,” says Boston artist Barney Levitt. Looking at his paintings, it is easy to see why he shuns labels. His still-life setups combine rich, naturalistic detail with quirky, off-beat compositions that juxtapose ordinary objects in ways a viewer doesn’t expect. “My paintings are the result of combining photographic references, direct observation, and imagination—with a lot of artistic license thrown in,” Levitt explains. He primarily uses objects of personal interest, but also incorporates found natural objects. Once the items are collected, the composition is his next focus. “I spend a great deal of time arranging and rearranging it until I’ve found a workable composition,” he says. “Oftentimes I have to glue objects together, such as the arc of stones piled on top of one another in A Fine Balance.

After the composition is complete, Levitt takes a photo and scans it into Photoshop image manipulation software, where he can place the finishing touches. When it is time to paint, the artists uses both the altered and original photographs as references. “I prefer to work from actual setups, but I like to have photos handy when the natural light becomes inadequate.”


2006, oil, 18 x 24.
Collection Garrett Demarest.
2005, oil, 24 x 24.
Collection the artist.

Levitt works in stages, graphing out the composition on the canvas and then loosely establishing a dark/light study using an underpainting of burnt sienna. The task of choosing subject matter and finalizing the composition is the most time-consuming portion of his process, though the artist also spends up to 12 hours painting in a single session. This is due to what he calls his “obsessive attention to detail,” born out of a love of great realist painters. He cites the Dutch Masters and contemporary realist painters such as Stone Roberts and Gregory Gillespie as some of his major influences.

While Levitt’s realistic and detailed style evokes the work of Old Masters, his compositions and subject matter take classical technique and turn it on its head. “I try to create a narrative from the chosen objects that will elevate and give new meaning to their ordinariness,” He says.  “I also strive to create a sense of mystery or humor from seemingly disparate objects.” This is evident in the paintings in which he uses a natural landscape as a backdrop, which sharply contrasts to the strategically spaced items in his still life. For these backgrounds, he relies on photographs he has taken of landscapes. He then adds his own interpretations, which are heavily influenced by the subject matter.

Levitt often likes to create visual puns, and his still lifes seem to take on their own personalities. In the piece Minnie Smells a Trap, popular iconography and a lovable cartoon character are placed in a dangerous situation. “I wanted to spin a tongue-in-cheek visual pun. She has it all—a doting boyfriend, a huge jar of candy, but…beware!”

For more information on Levitt, visit or contact him at

Naomi Ekperigin is the editorial assistant of American Artist.

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Neice Jessie wrote
on 17 May 2007 1:34 PM
Dear Favorite Uncle, I'm verty proud of you. (When you become rich and famous can you throw a buck or two my way?) Love, your doting neice
jude hutchinson wrote
on 18 May 2007 12:42 PM
Wow! So nice to see such an accomplished artist selected to be Artist of the Month, Congrats! Am teaching a Marketing Class to JPAa artists on 5.28.07 and will share this site with them. What a great site to see local artists! Just me, Jude
Beth Nichols Taylor wrote
on 18 May 2007 5:33 PM
Dear Barney, How cool is this? Cousin Robin sent me this article. How come you got all the talent out of the gene pool? All Craig and I got were receding hairlines and cellulite. Seriously this is awesome. Love, Cousin Beth
Jenny wrote
on 27 May 2007 9:19 AM
WoW Barn! Thanks to Cousin Rob, most of the family is able to view your amazing work. I must echo the sentiments of our shared neice Jessie - I am extremely proud of you, proud to know you, and simply in awe. Gifted accomplishments, my friend. Love, Jenny PS: I wish I had ten cents.
Marie Cummings wrote
on 10 Jun 2007 9:45 AM
Barney, Your work is original, fun to look at and inspiring. One day I hope to see your work in person. If you could bottle your imagination, I'd buy one. Your creativity combined with your sense of design and technical expertise is masterful. Sincerely, Marie