Portfolio | Painting the Figure

Meet 6 artists who paint people in myriad styles and mediums

This story was featured in the November 2017 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art November 2017 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

C.M. Cooper

C.M. Cooper, Recollections, oil, 10 x 20.

C.M. Cooper, Recollections, oil, 10 x 20.

Although painter C.M. Cooper is inspired by many masters, such as Sargent and Valentin Aleksandrovich Serov, she’s also deeply influenced by many living artists, like Scott Burdick, Susan Lyon, John Asaro, and Joseph Mendez, with whom she studied for four years. Cooper started her art career in fashion illustration but very quickly found her work replaced by computer-generated renderings. “You had to reinvent yourself,” she says. “That’s how the art world is, you have to keep evolving.” Acquiring a strong base of traditional art skills allowed her to remain nimble as trends have come and gone.

Today Cooper is a full-time fine artist and instructor who calls herself a contemporary traditionalist, painting with “more traditional techniques, but contemporary subjects,” she says. “I don’t relate to the historical scenes,” dressing up models in period clothing, although she admires the people who do that well, she says. Instead, Cooper paints subject matter that is of her time and to which she can better relate, such as her beloved cats and the innocence of childhood. But what she most loves to paint is the female figure. Known for her young heroines lounging in dreamy repose, Cooper depicts the elegance of the female form, leaving the mystery of what the subject is feeling for the viewer to fill in.

Cooper’s work can be found at Dean Day Gallery, Houston, TX; Evalyn Dunn Gallery, Westfield, NJ; Richland Fine Art, Nashville, TN; Tirage Fine Art Gallery, Pasadena, CA; Waterhouse Gallery, Santa Barbara, CA; and at www.cmcooperfineart.com. —Laura Rintala

Diana Kirkpatrick

Diana Kirkpatrick, Portrait of Emmy King, oil, 21 x 15.

Diana Kirkpatrick, Portrait of Emmy King, oil, 21 x 15.

Diana Kirkpatrick can remember the day her high-school art teacher took the class to the Kansas City Art Institute. “That was when I got to see an original painting for the first time,” she says. “I had never seen anything like it.” From then on, Kirkpatrick focused her creative energy on painting and drawing, eventually receiving her master’s degree in fine art. But she didn’t begin her full-time art career until later in life, after her kids had moved out. She returned to her favorite subject matter: people. “There’s always something about a person that attracts you to them, and in my case, it’s not always [something] pretty,” she says.

Kirkpatrick attended several workshops and studied under mentors who helped her improve her techniques. Today the artist works with her models over an extended period of time. “I like to give the model a little time because there’s so much more to a person than that shell on the outside,” she says. “They have to have time to break down and really be who they are.” With years of portraiture under her belt, Kirkpatrick says she is hoping to move forward by adding other things into the backgrounds of her pieces, such as flowers or skulls. “I’m very inspired by vanitas that help portray that inner life,” she says. “Some people say it looks sad or scary, but it’s those emotions that strike a chord and attach people to paintings.” Kirkpatrick’s work can be seen at Bowersock Gallery, Provincetown, MA. —Mackenzie McCreary

Bonnie Conrad

Bonnie Conrad, The Doll Collector, oil, 16 x 20.

Bonnie Conrad, The Doll Collector, oil, 16 x 20.

In her loose, painterly portrayals of Native Americans, cowboys, women, and children, Bonnie Conrad seeks to capture fleeting moments that express the human experience. In her depiction of an elderly Tarahumara basket weaver silently working over a lapful of reeds, for instance, Conrad wanted to communicate the woman’s lifetime of “character building” and self-discipline. “Sometimes, the excuse to paint is as simple as the cutest face of a child,” she adds.

Conrad has lived on ranches throughout the West, and today she and her husband reside in Mendon, UT. Naturally, the artist stages many of her paintings in western rural settings, and while contemporary narratives periodically inspire her, she more routinely portrays her models in pioneer-era attire. “I love to rent clothing from photography studios or theaters and dress children up,” she says. “Who has more fun than children? They are my favorite subjects.”

On more than one occasion, serendipitous events during her photo shoots have provided Conrad with stimulating scenes to portray. “I once photographed a cowboy riding a two-year-old gelding he’d been training on,” she recalls. “Unexpectedly, the horse began to buck. I got the most superb shots of the cowboy staying glued on in various twists and gyrations!”

Throughout Conrad’s work, the triumph of the human spirit is a reigning theme, and her interests in the uplifting aspects of paint support that motif perfectly. “I’m a painter of light and a colorist,” she says, “and the quality of brush strokes, masterfully applied, fascinates me beyond measure.” See Conrad’s works at Logan Fine Art Gallery, Logan, UT; Sorrel Sky Gallery, Durango, CO; and Art Works Gallery, Cedar City, UT. —Kim Agricola

Lisa Kovvuri

Lisa Kovvuri, Akhila, oil, 12 x 9.

Lisa Kovvuri, Akhila, oil, 12 x 9.

Lisa Kovvuri’s simple portraits of everyday people are reminiscent of pastel paintings with their soft edges and distinct textures. But through several opaque layers of oil paint, the artist seeks to communicate the emotion within each person. “People have always been the thing that inspired me to start doing art,” Kovvuri says. “There’s a special kind of communication that you can read in a face or body language that isn’t there in any other subject.” Kovvuri’s art career began in printmaking, but she soon switched to oil paints when she wanted to experiment with color.

After years of practice, she began The Portrait Experience, a project designed to help her focus solely on the figure. “I wanted to promote the art of portraiture and get people involved so they had some personal stake in the process that would help them develop an appreciation for it,” she says. There was a lot of enthusiasm among people to participate by having their portraits painted, with some offering ideas for their pieces, and others giving her complete creative license. The artist says the inspiration for her portraits usually comes from the subjects themselves. “There’s a certain impact that can come from anything about them,” she says. It could be what the model is wearing that day or a certain quality or personality trait they reveal. “I will think about everything else I need in order to bring that quality out and make it a bit more tangible.” Kovvuri’s work can be found at Whistler House Museum of Art, Lowell, MA, and at www.lisakovvuri.com. —Mackenzie McCreary

Mitch Caster

Mitch Caster, Aurora’s Fairies, oil, 30 x 24.

Mitch Caster, Aurora’s Fairies, oil, 30 x 24.

Colorado painter Mitch Caster began painting figures when he was 16. After studying life drawing at the Rocky Mountain School of Art and in college, he began working with a local news station as a courtroom sketch artist. But in 1988, he decided to pursue a full-time fine-art career, beginning in watercolors and later moving to oils. While Caster’s oeuvre is filled with everything from landscapes to wildlife to portraits, his main fascination for years has been dancers.

Caster was inspired by the cultural dances and folkloric stories of ethnic cultures. He began to study many different styles of dance including flamenco, tango, and ballet. “The things I’m inspired by are the gestures and the lighting,” Caster says. “I’m trying to show that same beauty and excitement of the figure that I feel when I’m painting.” Caster works with the Colorado Ballet, observing performances and taking reference photos. When he returns to his studio, he designs each painting on a computer and spends time setting up his palette. Caster describes his work as realism, although his techniques tend to vary. “I’ve always concentrated on just letting it happen naturally rather than grabbing onto other people’s styles,” he says. “I’ve just wanted to do it my own way and let it evolve how it will.” Caster’s work can be found at Castle Gallery, Fort Wayne, IN; Santa Fe Art Collector, Santa Fe, NM; Marta Stafford Fine Art, Marble Falls, TX; Art Images Gallery, Denver, CO; and at www.zhibit.org/mitchcaster. —Mackenzie McCreary

Chantel Lynn Barber

Chantel Lynn Barber, Portrait of Youth, acrylic, 7 x 5.

Chantel Lynn Barber, Portrait of Youth, acrylic, 7 x 5.

Although she began learning oil painting when she was 12 years old, Chantel Lynn Barber didn’t want to be just another oil painter. So she turned to acrylics, which she disliked at first because of their quick-drying nature. But soon her love of the medium blossomed, and critics of the medium gave her a new mission. “I have this desire to take acrylics to another level and show that the same excellence can be achieved. It is not a less-than medium,” she says. Barber has always painted people, searching for the human spirit in each subject and bringing it out into the light. But she never had a mentor to teach her how to paint figures in acrylics. So she taught herself.

Barber says she is influenced by impressionism and utilizes the loose, painterly brush strokes in her own work. “I can admire a tightly rendered piece, but the ones that grab me are where you don’t see every detail,” she says. “It gives the imagination room to work when everything isn’t explained.” Barber uses this technique to convey movement whenever possible. As her brush strokes slash across the canvas, a figure emerges. The artist works from both models and photographs, crafting a story around each subject. “I want viewers to feel as if they’ve come into the middle of the story,” Barber says. “I want them to connect with the figure and that human spirit that we all have through emotion, color, and activity.” Barber’s work can be found at www.chantellynnbarber.com. —Mackenzie McCreary

This story was featured in the November 2017 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art November 2017 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

MORE RESOURCES FOR ART COLLECTORS & ENTHUSIASTS
Subscribe to Southwest Art magazine
Learn how to paint & how to draw with downloads, books, videos & more from North Light Shop
Sign up for your Southwest Art email newsletter & download a FREE ebook

COMMENT