Frequently Asked Questions

How did you get the idea for your portraits painted to the human body ?

I wanted to see what it would look like to put black paint down on shadows. Soon it evolved to painting all the colors as they existed in a 3d space on top of themselves. I realized that by painting in this style, I was able to seemingly collapse depth, making the entire scene, human and all, appear to be a 2d painting.

Are you a self taught artist?

Before I started making my paintings on people, I hadn't practiced painting in 6 years. I took some sculpture classes in college that really influenced the way I viewed space and relationships between objects. I often times draw upon my past in sculpture in thinking about how to push the concepts in my work.

Artist Alexa Meade: Full talk from Wired 2012 

Do you think there are some aspects about a career in politics that mirror what you now do in art? 

Working on the side of the politics that dealt with spin and PR, I became really fascinated by how we interpret information and the mismatch between what is said and what is heard. I carried over my interest in spin into my art, prompting me to explore the different ways that visual perception can be manipulated.

Did you ever paint on a canvas?

The last time I painted on canvas, I was 16 years old at summer camp. I don’t draft sketches for my 3D paintings on 2D canvas. When I’m conceptualizing a new composition, I like to think about the subject matter as a complete space rather than the static image.

What is the most difficult part of your process?

That once it's done, it's done. You can't go back and use fresh eyes to touch things up. This is really challenging. Sometimes I'll make what I think is a perfect painting and then when I later look at the pictures, I might notice a stray brush stroke or something has gone weird. Because I don't paint in photoshop, whatever photo I snapped, that is what I'm left with to exhibit. 

It's not a static painting, but a real person, so there are the awkward in between moments. There are eyes half closed, and people that are having bad hair days a traditional painting there's no such thing as a bad hair day unless it's an intentional decision.

Photo by Jose Luis

Photo by Jose Luis

What projects are you currently working on?

I’m working on a couple of tech collaborations playing with augmented reality as well as virtual reality. I’m creating some tessellating shape tiles as a design toy that helps build spatial intelligence. I’m also turning my house into a funhouse. I built all sorts of contraptions with Chris Hughes like a periscope mirror system that allows me to see outside all of the windows in my house while I’m lying in bed. My pantry doubles as a mini disco hall. My bathroom closet has a neon jungle and demands special diffraction film eyewear that turns the world into rainbows. 

Photo by David Pike

Photo by David Pike

What do you like to call your style of paintings?

My paintings are a like a reverse Trompe-L’Oeil. Unlike a traditional Trompe-L'oeil painting which tricks the eye into thinking a 2D canvas might be a real 3D space, I do the opposite: I take the 3D world and create the illusion that it is a 2D painting. 

You don’t paint the eyes. Why not? Was this an artistic decision or purely for practical purposes?

I have done some experiments in the studio with painting eyes on top of closed eyelids, however, I often prefer the look of leaving the real eyes as is. I like the effect of the subject's gaze piercing through the paint and gripping the viewer, making the whole painting come to life and creating a tension between two and three dimensions. 

What is your process for portraits? 

I like to paint as much of the background and clothes as I can before the day of the final painting and photo session. I can spend 2-5 days painting the walls, floors, and props used in a full body portrait. Painting clothes can take 1-4 hours depending on the extensiveness of the drapery and any patterned printI need to paint the clothes on a stand-in model's body in order to effectively capture the shadows of the drapery. 

On the day of painting the final portrait, my real model puts on the pre-painted clothes and I just paint the face and exposed skin. I like to minimize the time my model has to pose during the painting session so that when it's comes to the photography, the model feels more lively and engaged. 

How do you select the people for your paintings?

I used to have to beg friends and family to model for me. I would frequently paint my little sister in exchange for buying her a kabob sandwich.

I don't have the same problems finding models anymore. They are often people I encounter in real life who for one reason or another captivate me. I get emailed a lot of requests from people who want to model and keep a list. When I am traveling, I may look through this list to find a local model to paint. I also do commissioned portraits. 

What famous artists have influenced you? 

I love Robert Irwin’s explorations of shadow and perception. His biography, “Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees” has been highly influential in the development of my work.

What type of paint do you use?

I won't list specific brands, but I can give some advice. First off, make sure you use paints with the AP safety seal of approval on them! "Professional" or "artist quality" paints can be made with traditional "pigments" that may include heavy metals that are dangerous for skin contact. Studio grade paints are made with synthetic "hues" that are safer for skin contact. For example, you want to choose a label that says "cadmium red hue" and NEVER "cadmium red pigment." Stay safe!

A secret weapon I will use to prevent cracking and increase the longevity of the paint is a layer of liquid latex put down first to prime the skin. First make sure your model doesn't have a latex allergy by asking and then double check with a spot test. Avoid putting latex on the eyebrows and other hair you want to keep on your subject. Make sure that the skin below the liquid latex is cleanly shaven - that includes ladies peach fuzz - otherwise it can be uncomfortable to take off, like removing a bandaid. 

Photography by Mark Seliger

Photography by Mark Seliger