On a warm, sunny afternoon a few months ago we took a scenic drive through rural Montgomery County, passing churches, fields of grazing cattle and the sprawling estates of the landed gentry before finally arriving at an ordinary-looking two-story home on a shady, quietly prosperous street in Magnolia. Inside, we were greeted by a man wearing a formal black tailcoat and clip-on black bowtie. The tailcoat was spattered with paint in every color of the rainbow, as if an enormous bag of Skittles had exploded in his hands.
May 22–24. $25–134. Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana St. 713-224-7575.
Dan Dunn, 57 years old and perhaps the world’s greatest speed painter, usually dresses more casually for his performances—jeans, an untucked dress shirt and Chuck Taylors. He buys the jeans and shirts online, in bulk, since he has to dispose of them after every gig. But for fancier events, like charity galas or the show he’s doing with the Houston Symphony this month, he brings out the tailcoats. Dunn found this one at a garage sale. “This is after just one performance,” he tells me, gesturing at his attire.
Growing up in Spring Branch, Dunn dreamed of drawing Spiderman comics. Instead, after studying art at Sam Houston State, he drifted through a series of advertising and graphic design jobs before eventually discovering his true métier as a caricaturist. Soon Dunn was being hired to provide entertainment at parties all over the city. The growing demand for his services—his ability to draw a caricature in five minutes helped ease his late-career transition into speed painting—forced Dunn to hire other local artists. At its peak, the company he founded employed around a dozen caricaturists and worked 200 events a year. “I became the top caricaturist in Houston, working the bar mitzvah circuit and all that,” he says. “I put five kids through school on that.”
But in 2004, Dunn reached a personal crisis—his family was swamped in credit card debt, and caricatures just weren’t paying the bills anymore. He thought back to 1981, when he saw Denny Dent (yes, a real name, just like Dan Dunn) appear on The Late Show with David Letterman. A scraggly-looking artist with an unkempt beard and a beer belly, Dent had nonetheless painted a profile of Jimi Hendrix in approximately two minutes. “I started screaming for my wife,” Dunn remembers. “I said, ‘Oh my God, this guy has invented a new kind of rock and roll! Look at what he’s doing!’”
Years later, while suffering from financial woes, Dunn discovered that Dent—a speed painting pioneer—had recently died, which left the field open to potential successors. Dunn rented a 12-by-14-foot storage shed in Spring Branch and spent the next nine months learning to paint really fast. His first public appearance was in 2004 at The Woodlands’s annual Fourth of July festival, Red Hot and Blue, although his breakthrough moment came two years later when a producer in Atlantic City booked him as part of a variety revue at Resorts Casino. Video of that show, in which Dunn used a rotating easel to paint a tabletop-size portrait of Ray Charles in a little under six minutes, became an early viral sensation on YouTube. (At its peak, the clip was the site’s 45th most viewed.)
Fame, and even some fortune, followed. Since then, Dunn has performed in 27 countries, from Nigeria to Azerbaijan, and appeared at countless fundraising events and halftime shows. He’s performed twice at Madison Square Garden too, but his favorite memory is a 2010 appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. (“He’s a prince, and he was a fan of my work.”) To Dunn, it felt like following in his idol Dent’s footsteps.
For his Houston Symphony performance, which will be led by Principal Pops Conductor Michael Krajewski, Dunn plans to execute between eight and ten paintings—more than double the number in his standard act—so he’s been rehearsing 12 hours a day in his studio while soaking up the music to which he’ll be painting. “I’m a rock and roll guy, and this is classical, so for the last year or so I’ve just been listening to more and more classical, trying to get some education along those lines,” he said. “I listen to The Planets”—selections from which will be on the program—“all the time around here now. That’s fantastic music. But I keep coming to Michael and going, like, can we do ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ or something?”