Thanks so much, Elena, for taking the time to speak with us about your incredible painting practice and inspiration! Could you please tell us a little about your personal journey that led you to painting?
Beginning oil painting as my medium of choice for portraits has been the result of a slow evolution of trial and error in my art process. Over the years, I have tried multiple different mediums for portraiture: for many years I drew in grayscale, using pencil and pen- I was scared of color. Then I began doing sculptures, loving the ability to work in 3D, creating portraits where I could literally feel the emotion in the texture beneath my fingers. Painting began as the next chapter in my search for ways to illustrate the visions in my head and stories that I wanted to portray. With painting, portraits come to life in a way that neither black and white nor clay could ever impart.
How did you first learn about the various media that you use—especially paints?
I had experience working with clay throughout high school – I had a wonderful pottery teacher who taught me many things about how to work with clay and glazes, however when I moved on to painting, I had to teach myself. I began by researching my favorite artists, watching YouTube videos, reading biographies and interviews where artists explain the techniques that they use. I taught myself using all these different forms of research. I bought supplies based on the tools that other artists used. I taught myself how to mix colors and use different techniques watching videos, by trial and error.
Where did you learn your incredible skills?
I love to study the ways other artists use techniques. I am particularly fascinated by hyperrealism, and I aspire to keep practicing to get to that level of detail.
When did you discover that portraiture was the subject matter you wanted to explore most deeply?
I have always been intrigued by faces, by expressions, and especially and most importantly by the stories that eyes can tell. Eyes are truly the window to the soul, and I want to create artwork that people can connect with an emotional level- where you can look into and feel the soul of the portrait, identifying with different emotions that went into the painting, that the subject feels.
Much of your art centers on your personal view of the American experience; could you share with us a little bit about the people, experiences, and places that have shaped your art practice?
One of the perspectives that is a common theme across my recent paintings is of the experience of being black in America. I have used my family members, friends, and even acquaintances from social media to exemplify portraits and pieces of black American life. These pieces address the pain, fear, resilience, and strength that is present in our every day lives living with black skin in America. ‘Erasing Innocence’ for example uses my two grandsons as the focal point of the portrait, the older cradling and protecting the younger, and they are surrounded by the images of the dark history of violence against black men in America. That I fear for their safety is never far from my mind, as well as erasure of innocence that happens as they become aware of the events surrounding them. They are the most precious to me, and yet they are surrounded by things that are profoundly frightening: the violence that sees them not through an innocent lens, rather as threats. Yet to me they are purely innocent and in need of protection. ‘They may tame the flesh but they may not tame the spirit’ is a portrait of my daughter, my youngest. I see the fire in her eyes, the fight to never settle for the status quo, yet women, and especially black women in this country are muzzled. What inspires me, and what I identify with is that fighting spirit that rages on inside, and can never be taken away. ‘Broken promises’, my latest painting, was painted in the middle of the pandemic, during the surge of California wildfires, as Americas promises fall like ashes for so many across the country. And yet her strength, her internal fire is ever present. You can see the resilience and the strength in her eyes. I want to uplift that strength to push forward, to fight despite all the things that attempt to hold you down, the promises broken: because we create our own promises, and we create our own destiny.
NEP was lucky enough to share our Complete Eco-Friendly Oil Paint Kit with you; how has using the kit recently changed your creative practice?
I am so thankful that I found these paints! I really love the colors; in mixing them I have discovered new color palettes I was unable to create previously, which really works with portraiture, because I’ve been able to create more realistic skin tones. I work in my home (I don’t have a professional studio, my living room is my studio) – so it’s incredibly important for me to not be using substances and solvents with toxic fumes in my living area. Particularly, I am prone to severe migraines, and I needed a product that would not emit fumes that aggravate this issue. I have been able to paint for much longer periods of time, using the nontoxic products, and I am truly grateful for this.
Do you have any tips for artists who want to speak their own truth through their art like you do? What were the challenges you faced when you started creating your portraits, and what made that process easier for you?
Just do it. I think it’s always a little bit nerve-racking to present strong messages, or images that potentially can create great controversy. However, I feel that the more truthful I am with a message that I am trying to get across, the more powerful the painting becomes. I have struggled with insecurity, trying to make something beautiful according to others opinions, or creating artwork based solely upon someone’s desire for me to create a portrait for them. I stopped doing commissions of portraits, and started creating storytelling pieces, simply what I want to paint. It brings back the fire into my work, I’m able to let myself be free in the mind and explore wherever that may lead me. I’m much happier now with my creative process.
Where can our audience see more of (or purchase!) your work?
I am new to showing my art. You can visit my website at: cobygallery.com to see some of my current and previous work, and I look forward to having prints and originals available for sale in the coming weeks.