BIDDEFORD — Illuminated only by a single spotlight, Rob Surette stepped in front of an oversized easel and with two paint brushes flying, made a series of sweeping strokes across a large black canvas.
Within three minutes, Surette stepped back to reveal a portrait of President Abraham Lincoln to a cheering audience of St. James School students.
Surette, a speed painter who has been featured on “Good Morning America,” “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and “The Tonight Show,” on Friday visited schools in Maine for the second time, performing both at the Catholic school and Biddeford High School.
His hour-long presentation, which he has given in more than 3,000 schools, focuses on encouraging students to dream big, but it’s his flashing paintbrushes that capture the attention of the audience.
“It was crazy how his paintings came together,” said 12-year-old Jackie Vallee, a seventh-grader who was in awe of the presentation.
With a rapt audience cheering him on, Surette pumped out paintings of Mother Teresa, Albert Einstein and – because it was a Catholic school – a 4-foot-tall portrait of Jesus. He showed other portraits he had painted of Martin Luther King Jr., Princess Diana, Walt Disney, Jim Henson and other celebrities.
“You kids can shine just like any of these famous people I’ll paint for you,” he said. “You should never say, ‘I can’t do it.’”
Surette, who lives in Andover, Mass., said he began drawing at age 3 with the encouragement of his grandfather. The 42-year-old, self-taught artist started painting 21 years ago.
The speed painting developed after he was asked by his former high school teacher to speak to students at an alumni event. Hesitant to speak, Surette instead painted a portrait of Martin Luther King. It took 18 minutes to paint it that first time, but Surette said he can now re-create the image in 58 seconds.
“I never aimed to be fast, but it became that way,” he said after the presentation, his black clothes splattered with paint.
Within four years of painting at the alumni event, Surette was working full time as an artist and began traveling to schools and other venues across the Northeast. His artwork now serves as the backdrop of the Bravo network show “Watch What Happens Live” and is displayed in five museums.
Surette’s speed in front of the canvas was especially exciting for 12-year-old Yuriy Reiter, who said it was impossible to choose which of Surette’s paintings he liked the most.
“It was just amazing how fast he painted,” he said. “Now I want to be a painter like him.”
Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at: