Matvey Rezanov picks up a can of orange spray paint and aims it at the brick wall of a bar near the I-405 underpass in Northwest Portland. Paint flecks dot every piece of visible clothing he wears, even the patterned knit scarf wrapped around his neck on this chilly winter afternoon.
The can hisses as he waves his arm in broad strokes to make sure he defaces both the brick and the wooden “Slabtown Underground” sign erected just minutes before.
All in the name of good television.
Rezanov is one of seven full-time production painters employed by the NBC fantasy-drama series Grimm — and one with an unusually extensive background in fine art.
He capped off 14 years of formal art education with bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Surikov State Art Institute in Moscow, where he focused on Russian realism and monumental art, a discipline that encompasses mural painting, mosaics and other building ornamentation. His oil paintings and watercolors have hung in galleries in Marseille and Provence, and he’s financially supported himself through his art since he was 18.
Now 39, Rezanov’s job as a set painter mostly entails just that: painting sets. A psychiatrist’s wood-paneled office, the sprawling innards of a police station, even an underground sewer tunnel. Many tasks entail painting a surface in a way that makes it look three-dimensional or older than it is, or painting fiberboard to resemble some other material, such as pristine mahogany trim in a stairwell, crumbling bricks in an archway or ceramic tiles in a shower.
“My job is to do my best, collaborate with other people and be fast,” says Rezanov.
But his favorite part of the job is the occasional assignment to paint what is essentially art. A mural depicting RVs in the shadow of Mount Hood. An abstract painting for an office set that ultimately wasn’t shown. A framed work showing two yellow birds perched on a branch of a tree that hangs in the home of Nick Burkhardt (played by David Giuntoli), one of the show’s main characters.
Painting original artwork is “the most fun, but also the most challenging part, because you work under really tough deadlines,” Rezanov says. “I have to, for example, paint a painting in one day that will be a permanent painting on the set. That’s a lot of pressure, don’t you think?”
Rezanov’s online portfolio demonstrates his skill and versatility in both style (realism, impressionism) and technique (oil painting, watercolors, illustration, animation). He scored his first paid art job at age 15, painting sets for a Br’er Rabbit production in his hometown of Sevastopol, Ukraine. He later made and sold his art in both Russia and France before coming to the U.S. in 2006 to marry his wife, a Portland resident he met in 2001 when she was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine.
In Portland, Rezanov landed a job at Laika, an animation studio, where he painted sets for the stop-animation film Coraline and later for ParaNorman. There he met Jo Brown, who hired him in 2011 when she became paint supervisor for Grimm, which is both filmed and set in Portland.
Brown considers Rezanov one of her more “creative” painters who she can assign to more “open-ended” projects. Usually, Rezanov is given a style and an approximate composition to paint from, such as a sketch or a reference image, sometimes one that’s been tinkered with in Photoshop. “We make sure we don’t cross that line between copying artwork and getting inspiration from artwork,” Brown says.
When asked about his favorite Grimm painting during an interview at his North Portland home, Rezanov pulls up a digital photo of a 7-foot-high canvas portrait of the character Khloe Sedgwick (played by Nora Zehetner). It’s one of about two dozen he painted for the second-season episode “Kiss of the Muse,” in which a trove of paintings of Sedgwick are found in another character’s loft.
Rezanov says the art director provided reference images in various colors and styles, and asked for paintings that demonstrated an obsessed artist descending into madness, Rezanov recalls. The one he likes best features a lifelike visage encircled by colorful shapes that drip down the canvas. “I like the combination of realism and abstraction — it was fun to play with. I’m almost proud of it,” he says dryly.
One reason Rezanov tempers his pride is that almost none of his artwork for Grimm is his alone. The set painters work as a team to save time and spread the workload, according to Brown, who oversees the crew.
For example, Rezanov was once called on to help produce a series of original paintings that represented “Fauvism meets Modigliana” for a scene that takes place in an art-gallery opening. Brown rotated Rezanov and two other colleagues “like musical chairs” through about eight canvases she set up throughout one of Grimm’s warehouses in Northwest Portland. Brown touched up each painting, and the production designer gave each canvas a few final brushstrokes. The whole process took about a day.
“It was a great exercise in detachment,” Brown says. “They are all learning about how to paint for the camera, instead of for themselves.”
Indeed, the painters’ dispassionate view of their own work was evident on that recent frigid afternoon outside Slabtown. Set painters Bree Judah and Sarah Lydecker, who had spent the better part of a day painting a building sign for the next night’s shoot, watch as carpenters affixed it to the bar’s Northwest Marshall Street exterior. Then the two women grab cans of spray paint and make the sign look like it’d been there awhile by blending it into the surrounding graffitied wall — in effect, defacing their own handiwork. Rezanov helps, too.
“You can’t get attached to it,” Judah says after tagging her work.
“’Done is good,” Lydecker adds, reciting a variation of what Brown says she often tells her crew: “Finished is beautiful.”
Rezanov acknowledges that it’s difficult to accept making a less-than-perfect product. “I have a master’s degree in art, so I kind of know how to paint fast,” he says. “But if it was up to me, I would not be as fast as I have to be for the job.”
Says Brown, “I always say ‘Matvey, lower your standards. Let’s go. Move on.’”
Rezanov would love to earn a living making and selling his own art, but doubts that’s very feasible. “I heard the average American spends about 10 percent of what a European spends on art,” he says. “It’s just the harsh reality, and I have to deal with that.”
And right now, with long workdays and two young boys at home, ages 3 ½ and 1, Rezanov says he doesn’t have time to pursue any personal art projects. He has some sketches of things he’d like to paint when he has time to construct a home studio, maybe when shooting for when the third season wraps in the spring.
He says he’s also interested in making a picture book for his kids.
“It could be a really cool way to introduce my kids to what I do,” he says. Not to mention a way to get back to making art he can truly call his own.