Words – Erin Shea

Live music makes some people want to dance or sing along or scream or cry or, in some cases, paint.

 For Tom Roughton, music makes him want to mark up a canvas. The Brooklyn transplant from North Carolina has been painting to live music for five years. Yes, it is exactly what you think it is. Roughton paints during live performances, sometimes on stage, sometimes in the crowd. He’s worked up a painting resume with a number of well-known musicians including Sound Tribe Sector 9, Bassnectar, Moby, M83, Umphrey’s McGee, and SBTRKT.

 You can catch him at local shows, festivals, and the like. We talked to Roughton about his art and his quest to find his place here in New York.


How did you start live painting?


I first saw it when I went to a festival in North Carolina. But I thought there was something that those painters were lacking. They were just working on tiny details and you couldn’t watch it progress. It took forever to manifest.


I started doing graffiti when I was in sixth grade. The speed and immediacy of graffiti really grabbed me. So, I thought that I could do live painting fast and make it interesting to watch.


Was it difficult to get started working with musicians? Is it hard to get access to paint on stage?


Being on stage is tricky. For the first few years, I was really intent on painting on stage. Just because in the Southeast there are a lot of live painters, so if you’re the guy on stage, you’re the top dog. It’s really all about knowing the manager or the band or the promoter, because they can find space for you on stage.


But for last couple of years, it has been tough to get on stage because I’ve been moving up to bigger events where the stage is prime real estate.


Getting a spot near the front of the stage where I can interact with people is becoming more my thing. When I’m painting on the floor, I have people come up and talk to me. Whether they have the best idea or the dumbest idea, they can tell me.


Does the crowd play a part in your paintings?


Definitely a huge part. Being in a crowd that is just standing there with their arms crossed versus a crowd that is dancing makes a huge difference.


And having the crowd come up and tell me what they see helps. If I do something bad, I don’t have people coming up to me. But if I’m on the right track, I’ll have a lot of people come up and say it’s great. So it is a good indicator of where I am in my progress.


You’ve done a lot of painting with electronic music. Why this and not another genre?


I think that’s where the live painting came from. I think the first place I ever heard of it was with Sound Tribe Sector 9. People are more receptive to it at electronic shows.


Who have been some of your favorite artists to live paint to?


There is a band in North Carolina called Imperial Blend. This April they did a residency at one of the venues there where they played every Tuesday while I painted a four-by-five foot painting. Every week I had to build a giant canvas and paint on it that night. So that was a lot of fun.


I like when I have three or four or five good acts in a row. Jam bands are good and electronic is good, but I’m starting to branch out. That’s a reason why I moved to New York, it was to get out of the “hippie” scene. Most of the live painters paint like sacred geometry and Alex Grey[-inspired pieces] and that kind of stuff. I feel that doesn’t have a lot to do with the music, especially if they are working on a piece over five different shows. That doesn’t speak to anyone of those shows.


So you recently moved to New York. Why did you make the move and how has it been on your work?


I’ve known since high school that I wanted to be a painter. So I had just been waiting and waiting and waiting to move, and it was finally time – I couldn’t wait any longer. It was tough. Moving wasn’t tough, but starting to create again was tough.


It took me two and a half months to paint again, which is the longest hiatus I have taken in five years. It was a lot of new input for me to take in and a lot of looking at art here and finding out where I fit in.


Since moving here, I’ve realized that I need to paint less illustrative and more abstract, which has been fun but tough.


What goes through your mind when you’re live painting?


The first choice I make is a color. It starts with the color and that is influenced by the seasons, the feel of the band or the color of the lights on stage. A lot of variables go into that and it is still just loose. Seasonal colors play a lot into that. Or if there is a theme for the night.


So then, I have to dance around with the brush for a bit and find out how the music makes me move. Then, I make my initial marks and I just form from there. Layer-by-layer, I keep building and figuring out where the composition is going. Lately I’ve been doing these directional paintings. After doing it for so long, I know mid-way through I need to have an idea or a composition formed.


It is tougher with abstracts. When I was doing illustrative stuff, it would be, this kind of looks like a spider, so I’m going to make this a spider. With abstracts, I have this form and motion.


How does the length of sets affect your paintings?


Shorter sets are tough. I try not to get myself into situations where I will have an hour or less to paint.


I paint the whole night, I start when the music starts and I end when the band ends. I try to communicate with the band and figure out when they plan to end.


The clear ending is important to me. It is hard for me to paint at home because I keep working and working and working. At a show I have to work up to a point and then I’m done.


What do you see for live painting in the future?


In certain scenes, such as Asheville, NC, everyone wants to be part of the shows and everyone wants something to do, whether it’s vending crystals or being the DJ or being the light guy or the manager. Everyone wants to be involved in the music. So there is an explosion of live painters there. That makes it tough for people who are serious about it because there are more people doing it.


That’s another reason why I moved to New York. There aren’t as many people doing it here. Most cities have at least one big name live painter. New York has Alex Grey, but he has left the city. His paintings are amazing, but it is not “live” to me. I feel like there is a niche here for me to try to fit my way into.




Twitter: @TRaaaart

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