Copper in the Arts

May 2010

High Art: Perspectives of a Roofer Turned Copper Artist

By Rebecca Troutman

Tim Spillane Timothy Spillane with a recent piece

Photograph by Paul David

As a roofer specializing in the installation of slate, tile and copper roofing, Timothy Spillane gained a hands-on appreciation for copper over the years.  He started a small roofing company 20 years ago in the suburbs of Philadelphia, employing half a dozen people and working on homes with some of the most marvelous copper architecture in the area. But the visionary artist in him saw something more, and it was only a matter of time before his extra scraps of copper and old cans of exterior paint began to suggest possibilities beyond the roofing trade. Today, he walks the line between roofer and artist, connected serendipitously through copper. 

Although he graduated with a degree in liberal arts from Colorado College, where he admits he had the opportunity to take one watercolor course, Spillane has always looked at life through an artist's lens. He began to experiment in oil paint, verdigris, ink and lacquers using extra scrap copper as his canvas, and was surprised and intrigued by the copper's glimmering effect. Depending on the angle of light and the viewer’s position, the copper would create the effect of the light of the sun—or moon—moving through the forest. It seemed to bring his scenes to life. “I loved what the copper did, says Spillane. “It’s so luminous and the way its affected by the natural elements really fascinated me.”

Spillane is especially fascinated by the work of Jackson Pollock. Famous for his splatter paintings before his tragic death in the 1950s, Pollock’s abstract expressionism challenged the conventional idea of what is considered to be “art.” Inspired by Pollock’s life, Spillane’s artistic streak renewed itself when he started to play with abstract work and splatter painting on copper scraps left behind from his roofing projects.

Tim Spillane Painting Birch trees on copper canvas

Photograph courtesy of Timothy Spillane

Impressed by how the abstractions looked, and interested in what he could do with the copper’s natural warmth and luminosity, he started bringing his landscape paintings to the medium. 

“If you have a blank piece of canvas in front of you it can be very overwhelming and intimidating—you are going to bring forth a vision from a blank thing,” he acknowledges of other mediums. “But copper has an ability to express itself.”

Elaborating on his process, he is often inspired by how the copper has changed according to the effect of the weather or natural oxidization. Large sheets of copper used for his business are sometimes kept outside and have developed a new color, or streaks of unique definition. “There is inspiration in that,” he says. “The sheets of copper have their own personality to begin with. Sometimes that sort of reminds you of a hillside, so I pick up on that and paint a tree and some grass coming down the side. Somehow you’re working with the piece of copper itself, and I love that.”

Since he his mostly inspired by the light changes in nature, and how they reflect upon the beautiful stark while trees, he often plays with a color palette of whites, darks and turquoise blues. The painting accentuates tall birch trees, which are usually depicted from the roots up to mid-level, truncated as though from the camera lens of a hiker. While some landscape painters prefer to focus on rolling hills and fluttering streams from a distance, abandoning very small detail to show the overall landscape they find beautiful. Spillane, however, prefers the intimacy of a single pair of eyes on a piece of a forest. This way he can share his personal experience of natural beauty.

Timothy Spillane at work. Roofer and artist Timothy Spillane in his studio

Photograph courtesy of Timothy Spillane

His process begins with the raw roll of soft copper, used frequently in the roofing trade. In his most recent series he has been painting on a surface 24 inches wide, and 5 feet tall. He sketches the outline of the theme with Magic Marker, and then begins the paint process. He uses exterior oil paint that you could find at a home improvement store, which is much more watery than oil paints, so he must paint on the ground to prevent the paint from rolling—another nod to the style of his artistic inspiration, Jackson Pollock.

From there his process continues to develop the composition with the use of patinas. Outdoors it may take up to 20 years for the copper to verdigris to blue-green, so Spillane prefers to use a chemical process to enhance his backgrounds. “The patinas have a spontaneous relationship with the copper,” he notes. “I can paint a birch tree a million times, but it’s the work with the patinas that is always exciting and different depending on how old the copper is and what weatherization it’s gotten.” After this he will layer the painted areas with additional coats of exterior paint that has a glossy finish. Spillane admits you might think the glossy addition would be gaudy, “but the flat paint looks kind of dead on the copper,” he says. Spillane then completes a piece with a lacquer finish which keeps the copper from continuing to age and allows him to exhibit them indoors or outdoors.

Timothy Spillane paintings. Birch trees on copper canvas

Photograph courtesy of Timothy Spillane

Spillane says he is eager for the future and that painting is so new to him, he has really been enjoying people’s responses to his work. He also spends much of his time devoted to social issues and public health. Wanting to address the crippling issues of HIV and AIDS in Africa, Spillane went back to school recently to complete his masters in Public Health and was awarded a grant to work with a student group at Drexel University in Philadelphia to build a health center in Ghana. The groundbreaking was in 2005 and since then its been run by a health service in West Africa and successfully involving U.S. students in his operations.

On a typical day, Spillane is devoted to his roofing contracting company, and tries to make time for his painting during the rare quiet moments he has to himself. He has even found inspiration while working, a credit to his artistic vision. 

“Certain artistic people, perhaps, have a sort of innate quality,” he wonders aloud. “When I’m working on roofs I’ll spend some time looking, sitting on a high section, seeing and using my vision.” Although he says his co-workers couldn’t care less about the view, he has often marveled at the soft pinks, purples and blues he could find at dawn. “I spend time just enjoying that,” he says.


Timothy Spillane, 372 Styer Rd, Glenmoore, PA, (610) 458-5906

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