Moving from Puerto Rico to California manifested a sense of Resilience for this inspiring artist. Bonus: Includes a contemporary realism art lesson.
Gaining Strength Through Art: Contemporary Realism Portraits and Figurative Art
BY AIXA OLIVERAS
I paint in order to process the events of my life. My work is a mirror of my internal emotional state — a reflection of the interior workings of my mind. I convert my experiences into my own symbolism of archetypes that reference death, rebirth, loss, and change. I portray death and rebirth not as a singular psychological event but as a process that is ever present in our lives. This theme reflects not only my current situation, but also my life experience growing up.
I was born and raised in Puerto Rico, but moved to Florida when I was nine years old, following my parents’ divorce. The process of adapting from one culture to another was a rebirth of sorts. I had to create a new identity for myself. The process repeated itself when I moved back to Puerto Rico to live with my father, and once again when I moved to California to pursue my Master’s Degree in Fine Art at Laguna College of Art and Design (LCAD). This sense of reinvention of identity has found its way into my work.
I’ve always had a fascination with psychology — what does it mean to be human? What makes us tick, so to speak? This influence can be seen in my work. The work of Carl Jung is especially fascinating to me. He speaks of a collective unconscious — a connective thread found in all mythologies.
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The Art Nouveau and Symbolist art movements have also influenced my thinking about art. For me, both movements express a feeling of mysticism and otherworldliness, yet are grounded in human emotion. I love the use of Byzantine pattern in Alphonse Mucha’s work, as well as the sumptuousness present in Gustav Klimt’s paintings.
Some of these influences can be seen in my last completed painting, “Resilience” (shown at top). At certain times in the year, the MFA program at LCAD books models to come in so the graduate students can take reference photos for future paintings. The model and the resulting reference photos for “Resilience” came from one of these sessions. I had taken many photos of the model for other paintings that I had planned. But once we finished the session, she turned to put on her robe, and I had time to see the tattoo on her back in more detail. The image caught my attention instantly, and I asked her if I could take a couple more photos of her and the tattoo.
Those early photos are the basis of what became the painting. It was a tattoo of an angel, wings outstretched, holding a spear. The idea that immediately came to mind was “defense/protect.”
At that point, I knew what the figure would be but I had no idea what would become of the background. It was after a lot of deliberation and experiments with other techniques that I settled on the botanical pattern of the deadly nightshade flower. I needed something for the angel to defend against, and it made sense to me to incorporate a flower that, as it turns out, is one of the most poisonous plants on earth.
The idea for the painting evolved from there, with the image becoming a physical manifestation of the figure’s psychological state. I wanted to show that even in the presence of fear and threat, there is inner strength from which we can draw.
These themes came about from the events that I have experienced since leaving Puerto Rico. Around mid-August of last year, I moved to California to pursue my Master’s Degree in Fine Art. I had been working as a professional artist as well as keeping a day job before then, but I found that I felt “stuck” artistically.
I needed artistic input in the form of knowledge that I knew the college would bring — life experiences and also feedback from other artists. So I decided to take the risk and move to California.
Almost a Different Planet
When I first arrived in California, it felt at times like I was traveling through an alien planet, it was so different from my home in Puerto Rico. Even though both places have a Spanish influence (in the architecture, the food, and the language), California is a very dry place. It’s very close to the desert, which can be quite strange for someone who spent so much of her life living in places with high humidity. The mountains are another aspect that made it feel alien-like. We have mountains in Puerto Rico as well, but not in the way that you can see them looming large in the distance as you’re driving.
Also, the light here has a different quality to it. It’s brighter and more intense. Spanish is also spoken here, but it’s a different kind of Spanish than the kind spoken in Puerto Rico. We have our own idioms, colloquialisms, and forms of expression that are unique to Puerto Ricans. The same thing happens in California, but in an altogether different way. All of these elements put together had me feeling like I had landed in an alternate universe.
A month after I arrived, Hurricane Maria passed through Puerto Rico. Seeing how the place where I had lived merely a month before was affected by the storm truly shook me. I also worried about my family who were still living on the island. Thankfully, the storm didn’t destroy their homes and they were safe. But they were also without water or electricity for three months.
They are now doing well, but those first few months were filled with worry on my part. Also, shortly after the hurricane, my grandmother passed away from natural causes. Losing someone that was so important to my family while I was so far away was especially hard. I couldn’t attend the funeral. I couldn’t be there for my father while he was grieving.
All of these events were a shock to my system, and it took me some time before I could process it all and have it be reflected in my work.
Contemporary Realism: A Step-by-Step Painting Process
The painting “Resilience” is a piece that reflects all of that life experience, and it speaks to the broader theme that my thesis work will be about — death and rebirth. This painting in particular symbolizes the inner strength that I needed to draw from in order to manage all the hardships and sense of loss I was feeling. In a sense, my old identity was dying.
Who I am now is not the same as who I was merely a year before. The process of growth — growing into yourself, into a new identity — can be a process full of chaos. Chaos in the sense of opposing forces battling within you: your old thought patterns and defense mechanisms battling against the new knowledge about yourself that you’ve acquired. It is both of these inner and outer forces of chaos that I am depicting through the botanical pattern of the piece.
In terms of color, I chose red because not only is it a color that has been appearing repeatedly in my work (as if of its own accord), but because it fit with the idea behind the pattern. Red symbolizes not only danger, but also passion and life. And there are times when you need a destructive force in order to create new life. In that sense, the angel symbolizes the inner strength needed to not only face those outer chaotic forces, but also the strength to heal from past trauma and unveil the new identity that stems from that healing.
From a technical standpoint, the process of creating “Resilience” took many twists and turns. I had the reference photo available, but putting the final image together came about after much deliberation, which sometimes meant leaving the canvas aside and working on other pieces. But I did eventually come back to it, with more knowledge gained from interaction with other artists and also from the classes I had taken at school.
I drew the underpainting with burnt sienna and a medium of three parts linseed oil to one part Gamsol. I then started to block in the opaque layers of the figure using a color palette for a cool light scenario: lead white, yellow ochre, red ochre, cadmium red medium, Verona green earth, burnt sienna, manganese blue, ultramarine blue, raw umber, and ivory black.
One of the things I learned in my classes is that there is no “one size fits all” when it comes to color palettes. The palette changes according to your light source. That was an insight that opened many doors for me artistically. But for this particular painting I chose a cool light color palette since the underpainting was a warm red.
The botanical pattern presented me with quite a challenge, since it was the first time I had ever tried creating one. After looking at several images of poisonous plants, I settled on using the deadly nightshade because at first glance its form doesn’t give you the appearance of it being dangerous. At first I tried creating the pattern in Photoshop, but couldn’t figure out how to create a stencil from it, so I decided to draw the pattern freehand on the tracing paper.
I then used Saral paper (a type of transfer paper) to trace the pattern onto the canvas. After going through this process, I now definitely know how to do a botanical pattern without it being so time-consuming! Even though it took a lot of effort and time, I learned a lot from the process and can now adapt it so that I can create a stencil from it and have it be a much speedier process.
After getting the drawing for the pattern on the canvas, I then filled in the negative spaces between the pattern with a very light blue. I wanted to keep the red of the underpainting, so I picked blue in order for it to create a nice contrast with the red. At first, I was a bit concerned that the red would be too strong, but I decided to keep it because it kept in line with the idea behind the painting.
I started out as a tonal painter, so using intense color is something I’m still getting used to. But now I am glad I kept the strong red in the piece. I continued by softening the edges of the pattern and applying glazes of alizarin crimson to the leaves and flowers, as well as glazing the negative space with manganese blue.
Painting the tattoo was an altogether different challenge. I had never painted a tattoo before, so there was (and still is) a bit of a learning curve involved. I decided on using a turquoise color to have an interplay with the red in the background. I then painted in the tattoo in layers: one layer of turquoise, a second layer of skin tone, and then a second layer of blue-green. There are still some areas that could be tweaked, but overall the tattoo is done.
After a few more of these glazes, as well as touch-ups on the figure’s face and the tattoo, I felt that the painting was complete.
I feel that this painting is a transitional piece for me. It taught me that in a narrative painting, all the technical aspects are in service to the idea: in this case, strength and resilience made manifest. It reinforced a previous insight — that art is fueled by the personal, by our experiences.
It taught me that sometimes one must venture past the confines of our comfort zone, out of the familiar, in order to grow. In this way, creating art has been therapeutic during a time of tumultuous change for me. It has helped me to both process trauma and to learn from it. It demonstrates how art is not only still relevant in today’s world, but also how it can serve as a path towards healing.
Additional Contemporary Realism Works by Aixa Oliveras:
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Aixa Oliveras is an artist whose focus is representational painting and figurative art. She has participated in several group exhibitions in venues such as OBRA Galería Alegría in San Juan, Puerto Rico and Abend Gallery in Denver, Colorado. One of her paintings is also included in the Reyes-Veray Collection, a public collection of Puerto Rican artists. She has also been placed as a finalist in juried shows such as Artkudos Online Juried Exhibition and the National Oil and Acrylic Painters’ Society.
Born in Puerto Rico, Oliveras graduated Magna Cum Laude from the School of Plastic Arts and Design in 2007. She has recently relocated to the United States, where she is pursuing her Master’s Degree in Fine Arts at Laguna College of Art and Design in Laguna Beach, California.
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