In the incandescent light of Trevor Young’s paintings, tender is the night. Past the shimmering surface of his polished art, isolated buildings and distant roadways inhabit an unsettling landscape, where high- and low-voltage currents charge the nocturnal stillness.
Painting on the dark side comes naturally to Young. In early evening seven nights a week, he turns on his music playlist, thumbs through selected art books for inspiration and shifts into painting mode. “I’m a true night owl,” says the artist, who continues working until 3 a.m. and often later. “There’s something uplifting about the mind at night. It’s a creative time. There are no windows in the studio. I don’t think of the world outside.”
Young’s workspace occupies the second floor of a commercial building in downtown Silver Spring. Like the artist’s paintings, his studio—with paint-splattered easel, bins of oil paints and brushes and no WiFi—is a throwback.
“Painters are so dedicated to something so outmoded,” Young says unapologetically, adding, “There’s no way to explain to someone drawing on an iPad what it feels like to squeeze paint onto a palette. It’s not about image-making. It’s about the sensation of painting. It gets in your DNA.”
Striding across the room, he points to one of a half-dozen paintings in various stages of completion. It depicts a mid-sized glass building glowing from behind bare, dark trees. “It’s the new Museum of African American History,” the artist says of the image, explaining that in preparation he took some 200 photos during all phases of the building’s construction. He found the perfect moment, one wet night around 1 a.m. “It was super-cold, ” he recalls. “People were working. The light was warmer inside and cooler on the outside. It pulsed.”
The artist’s real work started then. To intensify the central light, he experimented with a new technique: applying semi-transparent layers of liquid gold and silver pigment. He reshaped and moved trees up front, forcing viewers to look through open branches before seeing the radiant focal point.
On a recent visit to Young’s studio, that painting was almost finished. He headed to another that had been in progress for a year. A hefty 60-inch square, the image showed a gray airplane, its mammoth frame resting like a beached whale. “I saw an airplane in a dark hangar in my head,” he explains. “I had to work out a way to make it exist.”
While the painter starts out each evening with a strategy, reaching the end goal can be elusive. “I’m looking for dynamic space, an intensity, a mood, if I can find it,” Young says. “I’m moving forward and hoping something happens. Sometimes you move past it; you lose the intensity, and you have to do it again. There’s no sentimentality toward it.” To meet the challenge, he has layered as many as five paintings on a single canvas.
For the past few years, Young’s art has followed a formal rulebook, minimizing space, color and light. He has recently introduced trees, rain, even a sunrise. And the bar has been raised for drama.
The artist himself—with swept-back black hair, a five-o’clock shadow and penetrating eyes that never rest on any spot for long—is a figure of dramatic intensity. He could be cast as the passionate artist in a film-noir movie. In fact, the painter credits those classic films as an influence on his work. They share a mood of mystery. And Young has started to include high-contrast light and shadow, a hallmark of black-and-white cinema.
In his own story, too, Young could be a player in one of those films, pounding the funky streets near his studio for almost his entire life. Raised in Takoma Park, he attended school in Silver Spring and took summer classes with the legendary painting teacher Walter Bartman at Glen Echo. Between early college years at the Cleveland Institute of Art and graduating from The University of the Arts in Philadelphia, he took time off and set up a studio in his parents’ basement.
During that period, he often painted on location in a parking garage on Silver Spring’s Bonifant Street—at night under fluorescent bulbs (“great light,” he says). Twenty years later, Young found himself back on that street searching for a studio. He bumped into a man who recognized him from those long nights painting in the parking lot—on the same street where his studio is now located.
That parking garage, a gas station in Kensington, a diner in Detroit and other drive-by spots have been transformed into American archetypes through Young’s luminous art. “Night is my favorite,” the artist confirms in sparkling tones. “I love working at night: how it looks, how fast-food restaurants glow. There’s a potency that doesn’t happen during the day.”