Weekend Warrior: Frank Palmer
Credit: Paul Joseph

DDB Canada CEO Frank Palmer paints for pleasure. Now he aims to inspire people to purchase his works

In many executive offices, the desk dominates the space. Frank Palmer’s is in a corner, facing a wall of windows overlooking downtown Vancouver. A thick three-ring binder of colour printouts sits on a coffee table between two couches. Genial and forthcoming, the 78-year-old advertising veteran rolls his desk chair over, leaning back in it to recount a story or forward to talk about the copies of some of his artwork in the binder.

“I always had an interest in art,” he says. Born and raised in Kitsilano, Palmer drew pictures of Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse as a child, did illustrations for his high-school yearbook and attended the Vancouver School of Art (now Emily Carr University of Art + Design) for two and a half years. When he was hired as a commercial artist at KVOS-TV, he thought he had died and gone to heaven because he was doing something he loved, but he knew he’d never get rich painting. At night Palmer designed logos and letterheads for private clients, making more money freelancing than at the TV station. By 1969, he was a partner in an advertising firm and increasingly focused on managing the company.

About 20 years ago, Palmer started painting again for pleasure, mostly watercolours or acrylics—“not too much in oils, because I’m a person who has to have something dry fast,” he notes. “I’m impatient.” He did watercolours for Giardino restaurant owner Umberto Menghi of his Tuscan villa and his previous eatery, Il Giardino. But much of Palmer’s work depicts native Americans, cowboys and icons like Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope and Mick Jagger.

“I like anything with bright colours,” reveals Palmer, whose style is bold and graphic. “I think it’s because my father liked going to Mexico,” he explains. “Then when I started going to Mexico, I fell in love with the tones of the tile floors and the sand and adobe. Maybe it was the margaritas, but it was the feeling I got from being in that atmosphere. And when I go to California, I just feel that I come alive.”

Sometimes Palmer is inspired by works on display in his favourite galleries in Palm Springs. “I walk in there, and I just feel that I’ve got to go back and do some paintings,” he exclaims. “I like that style or I like that artist. Wow! How did they do that?”

Palmer does most of his work in the garage of his Palm Springs home but plans to start painting in his Vancouver condo, putting a big piece of canvas on the floor so he doesn’t make a mess. “It’s not something that I would get up every morning and feel like I had to do it,” he says. But when he is in the mood, he can paint for hours. If he doesn’t like the result, he paints over it. “I’ll start working on it, and I’ll put it over there for a while, and I’ll start on another one,” Palmer remarks. “I could have four or five going at the same time.”

He was particularly dissatisfied with a portrayal of a cactus. “I don’t know how many times I changed the colour on it, because I didn’t like it,” he says. “It’s still sitting there in the garage.” And yet when other people see the painting, they often want to have it, which mystifies Palmer. “I look at it and I go, Why? I don’t mind it, but it’s not my favourite.”

Not that he has anything against cactus paintings. He has another that he plans to sell reproductions of, altering the colour on each to make it unique. “If you make one change, that’s an original again,” he points out. “That’s what Andy Warhol did.” A couple of shops in Palm Springs have agreed to display his work. “At this point in time, it’s painting to make a buck, not just for me,” Palmer says. “I want to paint something that somebody might be interested in purchasing.”

Warrior Spotlight

Forty-nine years ago, Frank Palmer launched the agency that became award-winning Palmer Jarvis Advertising. After he engineered a merger with DDB Worldwide in 1998, he became chair and CEO of DDB Group Canada, which includes DDB Canada, Anderson DDB Health & Lifestyle and Red Urban. DDB Canada brought the 3% Conference, a California-based movement to increase the number of female creative directors in advertising, to Toronto in 2016.