Joy – Imaginative Realism and Frida Kahlo

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How Much of Imaginative Realism is Pure Imagination?

A mini-meltdown on finishing my latest imaginative realism had me asking the question: How much of the art that we create is derivative?

It’s no secret that I never know what my imaginative realism whimsical ladies will look like until I start painting them – it’s one of the comments I always make on my Instagram stories when I’m posting my art process pictures. Some followers apparently now keep their eyes on my highlights when I’m painting the magical women just to see what my brain decides upon on the day I reach the face. It’s truly freeing, after working on commission for over 20 years*, to not have an outcome dictated to me. Of course, with art studies I tend to stick to the script, but when I’m painting my imaginative realism pieces, I like to be as surprised as you guys by who ends up coming through on the canvas.

A few times, I’ve accidentally painted celebrities and, not being the kind of woman to keep up with the Kardashians, I never realise until someone kindly points it out. To name but a few, I’ve accidentally painted Grace Kelly, Belinda Blumenthal and it was unanimously decided that my painting, Ritual, was Lana Del Rey.

Ritual - My Accidental Lana Del Rey Tribute

I promise you, that was not the intention, but I can see it now that it’s been pointed out to me… over and over again.

Why is Art so Derivative?

Usually, I don’t mind my unintentional celebrity representations. However, Joy was different. The first comparison I had was that my subject looked like Scarlett Johanson and I could see it. But then I was flooded by people pointing out that I’d done a Frida Kahlo. In fact, they weren’t just pointing it out, they thought I’d done it intentionally. And the thing is… it really is very similar to the subject of some of her work. Several people thought it looked like Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbirds, but from the moment anyone mentioned Kahlo, I just couldn’t stop seeing Me and My Parrot in my mind’s eye.

Following this influx of comments, I turned to my partner** and screamed:

“Why is everything so derivative?! I’ve done a white fucking Frida Kahlo! That’s worse than just derivative – it’s all… white privilege-y! It’s like what Elvis did to black people!” 

Although, clearly without the benefit of great fame.

Me and My Parrots by Frida Kahlo

Once he’d calmed me down, of course, I could see the funny side, but the whole rigmarole was an unexpected side effect of a painting that had been intended to be calming and playful.

What I Intended When I Painted Joy

Joy was partly a commentary on the emotions that lie beneath. I intentionally wanted to paint a woman with a very smooth, calm face with a fairly blank expression – a face that wouldn’t add too much busy-ness to such a detailed painting, but also a face that was a blank canvas in itself. I say it all the time – I’m happy to explain the meaning behind my artwork, but I’m more happy when people make their own interpretations. It’s fascinating when people tell me what they see and it’s something that hasn’t crossed my mind. As someone who has resting bitch face, I’ve been told to “cheer up” my entire life and a lot of the time, I’m perfectly cheery underneath my scowl. It’s just my face. So my girl’s expression gives nothing away… or should I say, it gives away exactly what emotion is projected onto her. 

But it’s the rest of the painting that takes the focal points. Female and male African Grey Parrots sit on her shoulders, their soft feathers brushing her face, almost obscuring it. Parrots represent joy and playfulness, and grey parrots are stunningly beautiful creatures with their contrasting neck feathers and beautiful vermilion tails; they’re mischievous birds that love companionship. I’ve been wanting to incorporate these feathery wonders into a painting for a while, so I left them until last to fill in.

Joy - Unfinished Imaginative Realism Piece (Pre Parrots)

The vermilion flycatchers add a splash of colour to the dark hair on dark, leafy backdrop – they are symbols of good luck. Where the African greys cover my subject’s face, the vermilion flycatchers are making themselves at home in her hair. I wanted the effect to be one of a woman enjoying her immersion in nature; surrounded by fortune and elation. For that same reason, my subject is naked, shielded from prying eyes by the wings of earth’s beautiful creations.


* Good goddess I’m getting old!

** Tom Bramall is a fantastic artist, by the way, and I’m not just saying that because I’m biased. You should check out his awesome digital character work over at Art Station.

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