AS I WRITE ABOUT the landscapes Billy Solitario is famous for, I am struck by an irony similar to what must have been felt by the composer of Nat King Cole’s famous “Christmas Song’’ which is better known by its first line, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire.” Mel Torme wrote the lyrics on a particularly hot July day in Toluca Lake, California. Conversely, I’m peering deep into Billy’s ultra-detailed paintings of the summer skies of Horn Island, but I’m physically located under the New Mexico sky during a blizzard in late April.
Billy Solitario is a prolific artist whose paintings are represented in galleries throughout the Southeast. Billy started having difficulty reading and spelling as a child in third grade due to dyslexia, but his drawings were something he could be proud of. The way a dyslexic mind is wired often lends itself to creativity and advanced spatial awareness. Drawing turned into an obsession because Billy recognized that creating art was something he could control from beginning to end.
Growing up on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Billy was puttering through the water in a Jon boat from a young age. Located seven miles offshore, Horn Island remains his favorite destination. Part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, Horn Island is several miles long but less than a mile wide of undeveloped coastline. Billy paints many of his landscapes here, focusing on the clouds and storms in the summertime. Through his art, Billy shows people this part of the country that is dear to him.
Billy reveals what he sees in nature, and humbly admits that he doesn’t need to improve on it. He makes it sound so easy and effortless, yet I know it’s not because I am someone who can barely draw a stick figure. I am enthralled by the fact that Billy’s landscapes are so realistic they appear to be photographs at first glance. That is one of the reasons he says he is trying to loosen his style a bit because, when viewed on the computer, brush strokes are lost.
In winter, he focuses on still-life oil paintings. According to Billy, “ I get hyperexcited, so I’m a very fast painter. That’s why I have such a large body of work.” Although he says he tries not to repeat his subjects, Billy is apologetic when it comes to his favorite theme- the blue crab. “Crabs are just so glorious.” He marvels at the intricate details and striking colors and does not tire of portraying these crustaceans. Fascinated by the magical properties of Mother-of-Pearl in an oyster shell, Billy views the natural world with an enduring sense of wonder. As Billy explains, “I want the image to inform you fully without doing too much.”
This fine detail that Billy employs is a result of years of intense study to learn the craft of oil painting under the direction of Auseklis Ozols while attending the New Orleans Academy of Fine Arts. Billy also completed an MFA at Tulane University. Over the course of his career, Billy has developed a system that works for him. Typically, he has three works in progress at various points in the process. First, he draws to design the idea he envisions. Secondly, he does large blocking of color and value to get the general sense of the entire canvas. After that, Billy begins to notice smaller areas of value changes and color shifts. The final step is highlighting with a little brush for very small detail work. With each step, Billy’s brushes get smaller. He starts with a one -or two-inch brush at the beginning and works down to a small round sable brush at the end.
What’s next for Billy Solitario? Billy intends to explore some new still life subjects. He lined up an order of fiddler crabs and has already completed one painting. He really wants to paint an alligator. That is his obsession right now. With summer approaching, Billy will be getting out into nature, camping, exploring, and creating new work based on those activities.
Billy Solitario Fine Art Gallery on Magazine Street reflects the season. If Billy has just spent time on Horn Island, that is what is hanging on the walls of the studio. Naturally, carnival paintings line the walls during Mardi Gras. If it has been particularly cold and rainy, still life studies pop up in the gallery. Billy’s work is constantly changing. That’s what makes stopping by the studio so much fun!