Long before people could brighten a photo with the tap of a smartphone, Rembrandt demonstrated the sweep of sun and shadow across a face, Caravaggio the drama of ivory light against inky darkness, and Vermeer the illuminating qualities of a rustic window. It’s easy to imagine any one of these Baroque-era influencers setting up an easel in the downtown Birmingham, Alabama, loft of William Rushton, who at thirty paints like he’s four centuries older.
In the top-story unit of a circa-1918 former furniture warehouse that doubles as Rushton’s studio and residence, unimpeded sun streams through eleven-foot-tall metal windows, throwing a checkerboard shadow across the original pine floor. Raised in Birmingham, Rushton moved into the building in 2020 after five years studying at the Charles H. Cecil Studios, an atelier in Florence, Italy, where he learned the “sight-size” method of portraiture (a re-creation of proportion and color as seen from a distance) and, in his free time, practiced sculpture.
The loft’s abundant light and floor space—the latter necessary for striding to and fro in the sight-size painter’s dance with perspective—made it a natural home base for the rising artist. Its built-in patina, including painted advertisements on walls that once faced the street, helped too. “A lot of the apartment is aged and out of perfect condition, so I don’t have to worry about spilling anything,” Rushton says, downplaying the cool factor of the faded Anheuser-Busch logo overlooking the studio.
Because Rushton paints from real life, never photographs, the space required some polishing before it could host his commissioned subjects. To that end, he enlisted the good taste of his mom, Lia, and her longtime interior designer, Betsy Brown, who consulted on a few decor details. Brown’s own frequent collaborator, the architect Paul Bates, came on to address some floor plan quirks, including a plywood-box bedroom a previous owner erected at the unit’s center, obscuring the soaring windows.
Bates grasped the solution immediately: relocating the partitioned space to either side of the loft to reveal an interior corridor and as much sun-infused chiaroscuro as the old masters could have desired. One side would enclose a pantry and painting storage behind a gallery wall with a low-hung mantel; the other would shelter a kitchen, bath, bedroom, and walk-in closet with laundry nook—all arrayed in minimalist white to set off the moody industrial spaces. “It takes a minute to see it and a year to build it,” says Bates, who took a gamble on removing the plaster ceiling and was rewarded with gorgeous steel joists.
Bates’s first-ever artist client, Rushton brought a laissez-faire streak to the design team. Paintings went up wherever there were nails in the wall. A preexisting patch of jet-black flooring, no longer aligned to any particular room, stayed put. Furnishings—not counting a pair of 1950s Ico Parisi chairs purchased from the website 1stDibs—are a mishmash of heirlooms: A midcentury Danish teak dining table and paper-cord chairs belonged to his maternal grandparents, while his metal-edged studio table, an antique French butcher’s piece, did time in his childhood breakfast room, with the cat scratch marks to prove it.
Smaller personal artifacts adorn the shelves, including a vintage camera his grandfather used during the Korean War, a cast-iron calla lily Rushton fashioned during a high school metalsmithing program at Birmingham’s Sloss Furnaces, and a life-size mold of the mouth of Michelangelo’s David. Even the view plays along; Rushton can look out across Birmingham’s Southside neighborhood and spy his parents’ house on a distant ridge, while a statue of Vulcan, god of fire and forge, channels the city’s steel-making history (and Rushton’s classic aesthetic) on another hilltop.
Everywhere, the colors of his art find repetition. The alternately black and warm brown floor slats mirror a pair of bronze and terra-cotta sculpted heads displayed nearby. When Rushton talks about the earthy “limited palette” of his paintings, he might just as well be describing his loft’s brickwork, the Oriental rug handed down from his paternal grandparents, or the weathered Victorian facades all around the city’s warehouse district.
The neighborhood may feel a world away from the glitz of New York City, where Rushton is hunting for a place, or the red-shingled warmth of Florence, where he still spends three months a year refining his craft. But no matter the trajectory of his career, he plans to hang onto his Southern address. “The South tends to be more traditional in many ways, and that includes keeping the tradition of portraiture,” he says. And in the end, it may be the grit of downtown Birmingham that shows his timeless work in the best light.