Chinese Artists Will Transform Your Instagrams into Oil Paintings

Watch your back, Richard Estes. A photo and, at right, the resulting Pixelist painting.

Make 2014 the year that your Instagram masterworks break free of their pixellated prisons and start a new life as…photorealist oil paintings! That’s the transformative promise of Pixelist. The startup offers handmade oil paintings of any image you can capture or create, with “commissions” starting at $150. How? A bunch of willing and able Chinese painters sourced by founder Will Freeman, an Emory grad now based in Hong Kong. He made time to answer a few questions about the burgeoning business.

How did you get the idea to start Pixelist?
Pixelist came from a love of all things custom and creative. We’ve spent years designing our own clothes, shoes, furniture, and art and hunting for the best craftspeople to bring them to life. So we were naturally attracted to the idea of harnessing the popularity of Instagram to revive commissioned painting.

That part really describes me and my years in China and Hong Kong. But my business partner, Conor Colwell, originally came up with the idea. Conor and I used to work together and would always bat around startup ideas on our lunch break. I took him to visit one of China’s “art villages” in Shenzhen and he was hugely impressed by the painting quality. Conor has always been into Instagram, so he thought it would be a great way to immortalize photos people already loved. I loved the idea because I was already deeply into getting things custom made.

How do you descibe Pixelist to someone who has never heard of it?
Well we have our normal spiel: Pixelist: your pixels, our paint. Pixelist offers photorealist oil paintings of any image you can capture or create. We are a new means to enjoy the tradition of commissioned oil paintings. Immortalize your most cherished memories, or create your own painting from anything you can photograph or design. Whatever you chose, our talented professional painters will help you adorn your walls with unique and personal art.

If you and I were having an informal conversation I would say that I run a little startup called Pixelist that reproduces your favorite Instagrams and photos as hand-made, photorealist oil paintings.

Tell us about the artists who create the paintings: How do you find them? Where are they located? How many artists do you work with?
I’ve lived in China for the past eight years—mostly in Beijing. If you live in China and speak Chinese, China’s “art villages” tend to be common knowledge. In some cities, these are actual villages where artists live and work together. But the most famous villages are really centers of art export—Dafen in Shenzhen is the most famous example. So when we started talking about the idea of Pixelist, I went out to Shenzhen to find artists to work with. Our first tests didn’t work out so well, so I hunkered down and used the internet and my own connections to find more artists. It turned out that Xiamen had much better artists (and it’s a lovely little city), so I focused my efforts there and kept testing and testing and testing until I found a stable of artists who could deliver consistent, high-quality paintings. We regularly work with 10 to 15 artists.

What is the most unusual or unconventional photograph that Pixelist has transformed into a painting?
Good question! I think the most unusual photo we’ve done is one of Conor’s shots of a friends’ shorts (pictured above). This was actually one of our test paintings. We thought the pattern and wrinkles in the shorts might be hard for an artists to re-create. It wasn’t.