An inside look into Kiwi artist Peter Waddell whose paintings hang in the White House

Peter Waddell's studio in Georgetown is not very orderly.  

Dry paint brushes rest across their pallets, copies of the Washington Post are folded on a bed in the corner of the room, and a small collection of wooden chairs seem to get in the way. What else would you expect from an accomplished artist? 

But it is not the clutter that catches my eye. 

Sitting in the centre of the room on a large easel, is a portrait depicting the White House in the 1920s. In the foreground is America's sixth President John Quincy Adams rowing an abandoned boat while his son strips down to swim in the Tiber Creek. The details are incredibly intricate, the colour is striking. 

This work has required more than painting skills because hours of historical research are essential to ensure its accuracy. There were no photographs of the White House for another 25 years, so Waddell has had to rely on other records. 

"Mostly, it's written accounts, and people really wrote a lot with pages of description, and it takes a lot of time, and things are hard to find," he told Newshub.

An inside look into Kiwi artist Peter Waddell whose paintings hang in the White House
Photo credit: Supplied / Peter Waddell

There are other portraits sitting in Waddell's studio as well, and no research is required to find out who those characters are.

The Hastings-born artist is smiling with former President Barack Obama, there is another one with Mrs Obama, and in another frame, he is sharing a laugh with Hillary Clinton. Waddell mentions that he also met Melania Trump a few years ago too and found her wonderful. 

Waddell landed in Washington in 1992, a city he did not expect to fall in love with but admits he did - immediately. The artist has historical works hanging in museums across the city and has recently been working on a piece for the former First Lady, Laura Bush. I ask him if he has had any paintings adorning the White House walls, and he replies that he thinks two are hanging at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue right now. 

You would think receiving compliments would come easy, but that is not the case. After 32 years in the United States, he has kept his accent, and the self-effacing nature New Zealanders often carry with them. 

"When I'm showing new work, I say to whoever I'm with that as a New Zealander I cannot trumpet my own work, you'll have to do it for me. Someone has to say something nice about this, but it won't be me," he said.

An inside look into Kiwi artist Peter Waddell whose paintings hang in the White House
Photo credit: Supplied / Peter Waddell

Luckily for Waddell, he has others more than willing to do that for him. He is the artist in residence at the city's historic Tudor Place Historic House. Its executive director, Mark Hudson, is also impressed by the Kiwi's efforts to illustrate accurate depictions through his works. 

"One of things I have been most impressed with, is his work as a historian, and the way he works with historians to make sure that the paintings he does are accurate and complete and depict events as they would have occurred," Hudson said.

After spending time at the Tudor Place studio, we venture out to the George Washington University Museum, where his works 'The Indispensable Plan' and 'The Village Monumental' hang. Waddell reveals something he admits is a little "cheeky" - that aspects of his works are inspired by New Zealand. 

For instance, in one Pierre Charles L'Enfant, who designed the urban plan for Washington DC, rests against a large tree overlooking the city. The long grass surrounding him is inspired by Waddell's memories of long grass during a Hawke's Bay summer. In another painting, the central image is surrounded by long red drapes, resembling ones seen at a music hall. They are inspired by his time at the Hawke's Bay Municipal Theatre as a child. 

An inside look into Kiwi artist Peter Waddell whose paintings hang in the White House
Photo credit: Supplied / Peter Waddell

"New Zealand things for me are sort of archetypal, so if I've got a tree, it will often be a New Zealand tree, if it's not important that it be an oak tree." 

The final stop on our art tour is at the Normandy Institute. Waddell has created a piece depicting an exact moment from the D-Day landing at the beaches of Normandy during World War II. Dr Tom Long is the academic director at the institute and couldn't wait to show me both intricate details of the work and vouch for Waddell's professionalism. 

He even tells us a story of when the pair travelled on an educational trip to Normandy in recent years, when Waddell decided to leave the tour group to swim at the beach. He wanted to get a better understanding of the area he was painting. All worth it, according to Dr Long. 

"Two or three generations down the road, people are going to look at this and they are going to marvel at the complexity and the size and difficulty, and it conveys that in the way no textbook can," he said.

Waddell has no plans to retire and loves life in Washington DC. But despite painting another country's history a long way from home, he feels he is still representing New Zealand along the way. 

"I hope I'm representing it in a decent way."