B.D. White got his start as a street artist, transforming New York City’s streetlight bases with his distinctive spray paint and stencil art, despite being paralyzed from a spinal injury. B.D. started his artistic journey on the streets of New York, creating “mindful vandalism” in Manhattan and Brooklyn, with works placed uniquely low due to his seated position.
Using street art as a springboard into the art world, White has since left mindful vandalism behind in favor of a full focus on testing and expanding his technical abilities on his favorite painting subject, the astronaut motif for which he’s become famous.
Overcoming his physical limitations, B.D. follows in the footsteps of artists like Renoir and Chuck Close, proving that creativity can transcend any barrier. His work has been featured in group exhibitions across the U.S. and in Berlin, with significant installations and displays, such as at the World Trade Center and Saks Fifth Ave., solidifying his growing reputation and collector base.
BW: You got your start in street art, described as mindful vandalism. Are you still a mindful vandal?
BDW: I haven’t done street art for many years. I did a ton 10 years ago. It was a means to an end, aiming to get into galleries and sell studio work, which worked out. Some lamppost bases I painted are still around.
BW: Why did you move to New York City in 2009?
BDW: To pursue art. New York City is one of the best places for that.
BW: And you dropped out of college early, about five years before moving to New York?
BDW: I moved to New York in the beginning of 2010, graduated high school in 2002, and attended college until around 2004. I got hurt before college, which messed up the timeline. I moved to Utah for a rehab program and took a few classes, then decided I was done with college.
BW: What were you doing in the meantime? Were you creating art for yourself?
BDW: Yes, I was trying to make paintings and shopping them around to galleries. But none of the galleries would look at my work. The market just wasn’t for the kind of work I wanted to make, especially where I lived. All the galleries had landscapes and wildlife paintings, which wasn’t what I was painting.
BW: What kind of work were you making at that time?
BDW: I was doing portraits of musicians in a colorful, loose oil painting style. They were realistic but also impressionistic.
BW: Since then, you’ve become known for your astronaut image, a recurring motif that’s resonated with artists in the NFT space. You were one of the first to claim that motif, and I know you’ve painted these astronauts hundreds of times. Your process involves hundreds of layers of spray paint and oil paint. What’s going on in the mind of this astronaut, which seems like a cipher for yourself but also an every person?
BDW: I like the astronaut because I enjoy figurative works, but the face being covered makes it easy for people to put themselves in the situation. The paintings usually represent an adventure or feeling from my own life. I hope they’re universal enough that people can see the astronaut and put themselves in that person’s shoes, connecting with the same experiences.
BW: With the rest of the painting providing context clues to the mood or state of the astronaut, what are some compositional elements you lean into to modulate the astronaut’s ambiance? Obviously, color is a factor. How do you think about the whole composition knowing it will feature an astronaut?
BDW: Yeah. It’s mostly about the pose of the astronaut to convey the feeling I’m aiming for. I also incorporate text with the work, and that adds to it too. But I like to keep it vague enough so people can instill their own meaning. I don’t want it to be so on-the-nose that there’s only one interpretation. I want people to be able to extract different meanings from it. That’s the goal.
BW: You once described your work as featuring astronauts and women. However, in your most recent work from the last year or two, there have been no women. What has changed in your life or artwork that this is no longer a recurring motif?
BDW: To be honest, the reason there are no women in my NFTs is that I struggle to make a woman look good digitally. I included women in previous paintings because love was a big theme. The absence of women in my NFT work is simply because I haven’t figured out how to represent them digitally without it looking goofy.
BW: Do you ever tire of painting the astronaut?
BDW: No, not really. I think astronauts are cool and interesting to paint and look at. I still enjoy it.
BW: I know you follow a lot of astronauts and space exploration enthusiasts on Instagram. Do you have a particular interest in space? And has anything you’ve learned from them influenced your work?
BDW: I love outer space and am a huge science fiction fan. Although I wouldn’t say I’ve learned anything specific that I can accurately repeat, it’s all very interesting. How can you not be interested in space?
BW: Can you tell me a little bit about why you chose to create elemental variations of your iconic astronaut Gemini statue?
BDW: I really like the image of the astronaut, and it’s been one of my most popular creations. I don’t produce large quantities of work, so I wanted to make the astronaut available to more people. At the same time, I’m new to 3D animation, modeling, and texturing, so the past few years have been a learning process for me. It was interesting to experiment with different textures and offer something new to more people, rather than always having such limited runs.
BW: Can you walk me through your technical development as an artist, from brush painting to intricate stencil painting to goldleaf painting, bronze sculpture, and 3D art?
BDW: I get bored really quickly because I have pretty bad ADHD. Right now, I’m working on new paintings for an upcoming show next year, and I’m not doing any stencil paintings because I’m bored of them. So, I’m trying new things like watercolor, oil paintings, and acrylic paintings. I like constantly trying new things.
BW: You’ve returned to brush painting. What have you learned from that?
BDW: I enjoy it a lot. I started doing stencil paintings, but 98% of that is working on the computer, which is very tedious. After weeks of going through hundreds of layers, I needed to reset. So, I decided to do a brush painting for fun, expecting it to look like garbage. But it came out really good, even though I hadn’t painted in 10 years. That was a surprise, and I decided to see where that takes me because I’m getting sick of stencil paintings.
BW: How did you upskill to work with watercolor, acrylic, and oil?
BDW: I had never done watercolor before, so I watched a lot of YouTube videos for tips. It’s very different from oil or acrylic, especially working from light to dark instead of dark to light. It was a learning process, but the paintings came out surprisingly good. I was happy with them.
BW: Has the process changed for you moving from stencil to brush painting?
BDW: Brush painting is faster and cheaper than stencil painting. I can just make the drawing, transfer it to the panel, and get going. It feels much less tedious, even though there’s still some prep work involved, but it’s nothing compared to stencil painting.
BW: Does the idea evolve on the canvas away from the original conception?
BDW: No, I’m very plan-based. I always have a distinctive plan of what it’s going to look like and I’m just filling in the blanks.
BW: Can you share the mindset shifts and learnings from when you started painting in Utah to your first gallery show in 2017?
BDW: I did a lot of street art after moving to New York. It was a way to get noticed by galleries. I gave away art for free until galleries took notice. My first show happened because someone saw my street art and commissioned me to paint a portrait. That led to a martial arts studio offering me a one-night show. A friend got me into the New York Times for that show, which was a success. People at the show worked for NYU and offered me a window display, where I showcased the statue that got the attention of the gallery I work with now, Elia Ty and IV Gallery.
BW: What were the kid portraits like?
BDW: They were of their two sons, around eight or 10 years old, embracing in a hug and laughing. It was a large pencil painting, about four feet by three feet.
BW: Were you making statues at the time? How did you do that?
BDW: I created them on the computer through 3D modeling, had them 3D printed and then milled out of foam at a prop warehouse in Florida. They coat it in a hard plastic resin and send it back to me to paint.
BW: Is the process similar for the bronze sculptures?
BDW: Yes. The statue behind me is 3D printed and painted to look like bronze. If someone wants a real bronze statue, like the one I did for the Gemini offices, we take the 3D printed model to a foundry. They use it to make a mold for casting the metal.
BW: Cool. I want to provide other artists a window into what they should know to advance their careers. Besides putting art out wherever possible and saying yes to offers, is there anything else you think is crucial for success?
BDW: One thing that worked for me, as someone once said, is to say yes to everything when you’re starting out, until you have the ability to say no. Then you start saying no. But at the beginning, say yes and try to get your work out as much as possible.
BW: How do you balance the career aspects of an art career with actually making art? What does your day-to-day look like?
BDW: It depends on what I’m working on, but it’s all about making artwork. There are different projects and steps to execute, so you just work on stuff every day.
BW: Is there a lot of time allotted to social media or maintaining an internet presence?
BDW: There should be, but I’m bad at social media. I have ADD and get lost on my phone for hours, so I try to avoid it during the day. I should post more, but yeah, I don’t. Oops.
BW: I have one last question, a pet question of mine from the last few months. It’s inspired by Brian Eno, who pointed out that every culture has some form of art or unnecessary decoration. So, why do humans make art? What is its purpose?
BDW: I think it’s a drive to express oneself and leave a mark. It’s also enjoyable and fun, providing a sense of discovery and accomplishment at the same time.