ALAN SPENCER meets Bordelais artist Philippe Dufrenoy, who not only drinks his wine but paints with it too.
As soon as he wakes early in the morning, Philippe Dufrenoy slips quietly downstairs so as not to disturb his wife and starts work on his latest painting. Except that it’s not paint that he uses, but wine. Yes, wine. Just as it comes out of the bottle, and preferably a grand cru. Later in the morning his wife looks after their six-year-old daughter, Juliette, while Philippe works in the studio at the side of the house, a coffee and the radio at his side. ‘Painting for a couple of hours in the early morning is a wonderful experience,’ gushes Dufrenoy. An economic science graduate, his profession was carrying out project studies until two years ago when, at 53, he chucked it in to pursue wine-painting, a technique he discovered by accident. ‘I had bought some new brushes,’ he explains. ‘Sitting in a bistro in Bordeaux after lunch, I wanted to test their quality. So I dipped one in my wine glass and tried it out on the paper tablecloth. The result was startling.’ He went back to his studio to try some more. He discovered that different wines produce different colours. ‘Pomerol and Syrah give extraordinary nuances, but wine isn’t an easy medium,’ Dufrenoy says. ‘After a few careful brushstrokes, about 20 minutes, I have to put it on one side to dry out.’ Each picture needs six or seven layers, with each layer helping to give the features relief. Because he has to work in stages, Dufrenoy tries to have several works in progress and doesn’t spend all his time painting. ‘I’m not a mad artist ready to cut my ear off,’ he quips, ‘I only spend about a third of my time painting.’ He takes time out in New York and Canada and currently has exhibitions in two of Montreal’s top restaurants, Les Chenêts and Le Bistro à Champlain, well known for their cuisine and well-stocked cellars
Michel Gillet of Les Chenêts had his portrait painted with Château La Croix de Gay 1989. ‘I chose a marketing approach because I need to meet the person and understand his personality,’ Dufrenoy explains. Together they open the bottle chosen by the client and drink it before Dufrenoy takes a cupful back to his studio. ‘I need half an hour to study the person’s features thoroughly. Then the painting takes about a week and has to be left another three weeks for the wine to age on the paper.’If a drop of wine falls on a white spot on the painting, such as the white of an eye, Dufrenoy has to start again. The final picture, approved by the subject, signed and certified by the owner of the château the wine came from, is fixed chemically and covered with a sheet of fine plastic. Away from strong sunlight, the picture should last 10 years.
So far Dufrenoy has produced some 40 portraits in wine, many with the person’s own product, with names such as Mondavi and his wife using Opus One, Gérard Perse with Château Pavie and Bernard Magrez of William Pitters choosing wine from the family château, Pape-Clément.In the evening, happy to be his own boss, Dufrenoy tries to spend time with his daughter. He and his wife have a circle of close friends and are often invited out for a tasting and a bite before going to bed late. But painting in wine requires intense concentration. ‘I’m so tired sometimes that I fall into bed at 9 or 10.’ To wake to a cup of wine the next morning.