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Featured Shop: Kai Samuels-Davis

Jun 15, 2017

by Valerie Rains handmade and vintage goods

If every artist’s arc had a single-sentence takeaway, Kai Samuels-Davis’s might well be: Never underestimate the power of figuring out what you don’t want. It’s a theme that’s played out in the Bay Area painter’s experience more than once, often in life-changing ways. The first big boomerang came in art school, when Kai, who had dabbled in everything from printmaking and photography to drawing and sculpture as an undergrad, enrolled in the graduate film program at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. Almost instantly, he realized his mistake. “I didn’t know what the film industry was,” Kai explains. “Going to film school just made me realize I wanted to be a painter.”

That realization wasn’t without its woes. “I had a mini mental breakdown, because I was already way in debt for the program,” Kai says. “But I slowly transitioned to painting, and started taking more and more painting and drawing classes instead of my film ones.” While Kai ultimately completed the film program, he managed to get the thing he needed most from the experience: an artistic focus to build his life around (nevermind that it wasn’t the one he got a degree in).

Today, Kai’s distinctive style of work comes out of competing and conflicting desires: his compulsion to create realistic, beautiful, and traditionally and technically flawless work, and his greater urge to mess up that work before the paint has even dried. Kai’s decision to turn his back on that first impulse is precisely what makes his work so compelling—just ask his 47,000-plus Instagram followers.

We chatted with Kai to learn more about his path to becoming the painter he is today. Read on to discover his story and shop the collection.

How did you get started with painting? Were you always artistic?

I’ve been drawing and painting since I was a kid; in first grade I made a whole series of weird pencil drawings of these toucan-penguin hybrid birds, and I would sell them for a quarter apiece to kids in my class. Then I’d use that money to buy the junk food I wasn’t allowed to have at home. I was like, “This is great!”

I like that you were monetizing early—you weren’t just in it for the love of art.

I was in it for the junk food. But yeah, art was the only thing that ever held my attention, and the only class I ever cared about in school. There was never a question in my mind when people asked me what I was going to do. I’d say, “I’m going to make art.” I grew up in upstate New York in a pretty small and sort of sheltered town, so when I’d say that, people would look at me like I was crazy, like, “Well, okay, you’re going to make art, but what are you going to do to make money?”

What about your parents, what did they think about your chosen path?

They were really supportive. For my 16th birthday, they got me four classes at the Woodstock School of Art; I spent that whole summer going to art school and doing sculpture and painting and drawing. It was the first time I’d ever been really immersed in making art instead of just a class here and there for half an hour. That’s what clinched the deal.

What led you to open an Etsy shop?

When I finished grad school, I met my wife, Clare, who is also a painter, and got a job working for a really successful artist. That was the first time that I’d pursued a job in art. He had, like, a 10,000-square-foot space in Santa Monica and sold paintings for $100,000. To be working in that sort of environment was surreal. I was like, “Making art got you this? Holy crap!” I got to sweep that room, and he got to paint there. That was a good kick in the pants to really get my own stuff going.

When we moved to the Bay Area in 2009, Clare and I each set up Etsy shops while we were looking for work—just any kind of jobs to pay the bills. We got a couple sales on Etsy, then we got a couple more. Clare’s work started to get a lot of attention: She was a Featured Shop on Etsy and she got some mentions on big blogs, and it just took off from there. All of a sudden, we were like, oh, we have jobs now. We don’t have to keep looking for crappy jobs.

Today, most of my income comes from selling paintings, and the prints subsidize things. At the beginning, it was really hard to justify working on a painting for months when I didn’t know if or when it was going to sell. Etsy made it so I could afford to just focus on my painting. Without Etsy, I don’t know what we would have done.

Do you and Clare give each other feedback on your work—or advice on running your Etsy shops?

Yeah, both. I think I gave Clare more advice on Etsy in the beginning and now she gives me more advice. We’ll brainstorm together and give each other advice and feedback; I think we’ve each really helped the other’s work grow a lot. It’s great to have someone right there who can relate, that you can bounce ideas off of. And with Etsy, neither of us had done anything like that before. We’re always talking about pricing structures and the logistics of shipping; we ended up where we are now through a lot of trial and error.

How long have you been working in the style that we see in your shop today, and how did you arrive there? Has your work evolved a great deal over the years?

I always had intentions of my paintings being in between representational and abstract. I wanted them to be expressive, sort of a balance between chaos and order, where you had to figure out what it was. For some reason, a few years back, one side of my brain was winning over, and my paintings started getting more representational and just very literal. I think I kind of lost focus. Around the end of 2012, I got really fed up with myself. I’d look at the paintings and think: These are boring, this is not what I want to be doing.

So I was like, I’m going to paint a blurry, messy face—I’m going to paint it just for fun and to break me out of my funk. That was the painting “The Beginning,” and that pretty much started the style I have been working in since. It was such a eureka moment, to be working on a painting and having so much fun. I got to explore while I was working on the painting, and then that translates to the viewer, where there’s more for them to explore.

As things got more fragmented in my work—the blurs, the places where the background and the subject sort of merge and break apart, things like that—I felt like I was getting my intent across more, translating the emotions better. You’re not looking at it as if it’s a portrait of a specific individual, it goes past that. And everything has evolved from there.

Even now, though, there’s a part of me that says, make that eye look perfect. I have to remind myself that it can be messy and still be good. But I still hear that voice in the back of my head telling me to make it look pretty, and it drives me nuts.

How do you combat that voice?

One big thing I figured out was that I was spending too much time trying to get my paintings perfect before I could start messing them up. I would go crazy for days in the studio trying to get one proportion right, and I didn’t like that struggle. I do like some struggles with painting, but that one didn’t feel worth it.

So I got a projector, which I was always very against—it felt like cheating to me—but when I tried it, it was fantastic. I could project a very simple outline to get the basic proportions, spend a few hours blocking in the whole painting, and have my nice realistic painting done so much faster. And then take a squeegee and destroy it instantly. Instead of spending weeks getting to that point, I could skip the not-fun step and just get it out of my system—like, alright, I painted a realistic face, there it is, and it’s boring, just like I thought. Now I can put it aside and have the starting point for the actual painting.

What’s your workspace like?

I work in a studio that used to be the garage of our house. All the walls are covered with paintings in progress, and the easel where I work is in one corner. In the opposite corner, there’s a sitting area with a couch and coffee table and mini-fridge, where I can sit and see everything at once. It’s great to be able to scan the room and notice what’s working in one piece that I could carry over to another, whether it’s an element or mark or line or color. I also have a small wood table for working on watercolors. I’d like to get back into inks and watercolors more, maybe do some studies for larger paintings and put those on Etsy too.

Is there a particular piece that has seemed to resonate with buyers the most?

My most popular piece used to be “The Disappearing Boy“; for a long time, that was 80% of the prints I would sell. That phased out, and then it became “The Beginning,” and another one called “The Decision,” which is kind of a blurred, shaky face. It’s a little more graphic, just black and white and flesh tone, and fairly neutral so it works in a lot of spaces. Plus, they’re not too specific; a lot of people don’t like having portraiture in their house, because they don’t like looking at a stranger.

Has there ever been a buyer that you connected with in a special way?

I sold a small oil painting to a woman in England years ago, and then she contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in showing paintings in a gallery shop she owned called the Cold Store in Norwich, England. I’ve gotten a lot of those requests before, and it’s usually a cheesy touristy gallery, someplace my work wouldn’t fit at all. But I went to check out her shop online and it looked really nice—very simple and clean and a very small selection of stuff. I liked the other artists and artisans, so I said yes.

That was 2010, and we’re still working together today. We’ve never actually met or talked on the phone—she did an interview with the British Homes & Gardens and described our relationship as being like old-school pen pals. It’s been a great connection to have. I think we’re finally going to meet this summer when she comes to the Bay Area. In the gallery world, it’s hard to find people you really get along with and who are honest, so if a relationship like that develops, you try to hang onto it.

What’s next for your work and your Etsy shop?

I’ve known for a while that I want to have some smaller stuff in my shop, and I’ve done one batch of watercolors already. I think moving forward I want to start doing some studies and sketches and smaller pieces on paper that I think will be nice to have on Etsy. I like having the prints of my larger paintings, because it makes my work accessible to more people, and we got a large format printer so we can have substantial, good-quality prints. But I think my goal for the next year is to have a smaller selection of prints for select paintings, and then a lot of studies and smaller originals.

The whole last year was consumed with crazy house renovations and working on my last show, and my wife and I also just had a baby, so the last six months have been about trying to keep another person alive. It’s been pretty incredible, but neither of us has gotten much done in the meantime. I have a solo show coming up next April though, and I need to have half the work ready by the end of September. I thought it would help to start doing some smaller pieces as warmups, and I’m going to start listing those in my shop soon.

Follow Kai Samuels-Davis on Instagram and Facebook.

Photographs courtesy of Kai Samuels-Davis

Shop Kai Samuels-Davis


  • PrimCountryCurtains

    Francine from HomespunHeartofMine said 4 years ago

    What an amazing journey, Kai! Your work is mesmerizing!!! My favorites are The Treasure and Of Wonder....stunning pieces! Congratulations on the feature and many blessings for your continued success :)

  • evolvewithmary

    evolvewithmary from evolvewithmarycrafts said 4 years ago

    Love this interview & peek into the process that lead you to be a successful seller on Etsy - thanks for sharing & congrats on the feature!

  • gardenmis

    Priscilla from Gardenmis said 4 years ago

    Loved reading your story! What an amazing place your little one will grow up in, a home with two amazing artists in residence! Congrats on the feature and best wishes for achieving all your goals and dreams :)

  • bedouin

    Nicole from KarmaCodeOne said 4 years ago

    Terrific feature ~ A favorite for a long time ~ It's wonderful to read about the artist and see behind the scenes a bit. We raised our kids in the same area in the 1980's and the inspiration has forever carried magical and fond memories. Cheers to much continued success !

  • ClassicMemories

    ClassicMemories from ClassicMemories said 4 years ago

    Terrific story. Congrats on the feature.

  • MegansMenagerie

    Megan from MegansMenagerie said 4 years ago

    Your story is wonderful! Congratulations on the feature!

  • janetnelson5

    Janet Nelson from RelikkandCo said 4 years ago

    What a wonderful story! As an artist myself, your story really resonated with me. So happy you are finding success! Admire your work!

  • TropicalGarden

    TropicalGarden from TropicalGarden said 4 years ago

    Amazing pieces! Congratulations on the feature!

  • isewcute

    June from isewcute said 4 years ago

    Your work is fabulous & so unique! Congrats on the feature!

  • RandMhandmade

    Renee from RandMhandmade said 4 years ago

    Congratulations..amazing shop!

  • GTDesigns

    renee and gerardo from GTDesigns said 4 years ago

    I've loved on this shop for a long time!!! Congrats congrats congrats!!!

  • msbijouxbeads

    Cathy from msbijouxbeads said 4 years ago

    Amazing work, what a journey! Great feature

  • blackbirdtees

    Jody and Karl from blackbirdsupply said 4 years ago

    We're longtime fans of both you & Clare, and it's wonderful to see you featured. Congratulations!

  • nicemiceforyou

    Natasa from nicemiceforyou said 4 years ago

    Nice work! Beautiful and inspiring!

  • bonesbags

    viena bone from bonesreusablebags said 4 years ago

    I love your shop! Your paintings are far from boring! I really enjoyed reading about the progress of your shop and art. Congrats on the feature and success!

  • skirtingthetissue

    Dig Deep Vintage from digdeepvintage said 4 years ago

    wow-amazing work

  • LadyInPurple

    Jennifer Tyson from UrbanDesertNM said 4 years ago

    Kai your work is so unique, congrats on the feature! The Defender is my favorite and the photo with your baby holding a paintbrush is so sweet! I hope your show is a prosperous one!

  • aressa

    aressa from OriginalBridalHanger said 4 years ago

    You work is really unique....How awesome! Congrats on the feature!

  • accentonvintage

    accentonvintage from accentonvintage said 4 years ago

    Awesome work! Congrats!

  • monabergin

    M B from BeachStudio7 said 4 years ago

    A true artist story! I love the perfect imperfections of your art. In my opinion hand painted anything should never be perfect, It's the reason why clients pay so much for hand painted and not computer created perfection.

  • thewildplum

    Christina from TheWildPlum said 4 years ago

    Congratulations. Brilliant work and feature. Your work moves and inspires me. Thank you for sharing your fabulous journey with us.

  • westernartglass

    Brian Western from westernartglass said 4 years ago

    I've been a fan (from a safe distance, eh?) for awhile. I remember the Trappist Belgian Ale bottle caps rendered in paint that worked wonderfully for Treasuries I was gathering at the know? when we all were curating treasuries before the corporate axe fell...cue the soundtrack to Terry Gilliam's Brazil! In other words...congratulations, and beauty playing!

  • EykisBlue

    Kat Smith from EykisBlue said 4 years ago

    I love this article. Very inspiring!

  • riveranancy

    Priscilla Cancel said 4 years ago

    Totally inspiring! :)

  • gilliannorthcott

    Gillian Northcott from esanivintage said 4 years ago

    Fantastic work. I love your painting style. Well done and keep up the great work. PS wish I could pain like that.

  • FieldsOfVintage

    Fields Of Vintage from FieldsOfVintage said 4 years ago

    Awesome art work. congrats on the feature

  • gilstrapdesigns

    Debra Gilstrap from gilstrapdesigns said 4 years ago

    Beautiful work I love the look of all of your paintings. Your garage that you've turned into your studio where you work looks so large, open, lite, and airy with perfect natural light. I would love to have a space to work in like that. The colors are all so beautiful I could see your paintings looking good in any setting. Much continued success to you and your wife both of you have really beautiful work!!

  • suzannerorick

    Suzanne Rorick from SRorickArt said 4 years ago

    Your story is very inspiring Kai! Your paintings have beautiful colors and depth and I find them very intriguing. Congratulations on your success!

  • rhondastubbs2

    Rhonda Stubbs from RhondaCorner said 4 years ago

    Great story and love your paintings. Congratulations on your feature and I wish you the very best on you future endeavors.

  • BelkaUA

    Olesya Bagriy from BelkaUA said 4 years ago

    Lovely shop. Congratulations on the feature!

  • DecoUno

    DeUno from DeUno said 4 years ago


  • Simag

    SimaG from SimaG said 4 years ago

    LOVE this interview! Your work is beautiful !!! Congratulations on the feature and success!

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