Contemporary realism - oil paintings -
John Rowe, “Kara,” oil on canvas, 48 x 36”

The story of artist John Rowe’s career reads like Homer’s Odyssey — filled with triumph, love, deception, failure, and so much more. We discovered his work through the article “An Artistic Odyssey” at, and invited him to tell us more about his contemporary realism oil paintings.

Contemporary Realism: Behind the Scenes of Three Oil Paintings


1. Kara

“Eyes are like windows to the soul”

Never is that truer than when those eyes have begun to see the world anew.

There are times in a person’s life that are pivotal and transformative and when Kara modeled for me, she was at exactly that age. Eleven years old. Not really a child, not a woman. She agreed to pose then covered her face with her hands. Hands that wore the marks of a child, paint from her art project earlier in the day, dirt under her fingernails from playing in the yard, but those hands covered the eyes of the women she would become.

Her eyes shone green – the rarest of eye colors – radiant and bright in stark contrast to her shyness. It was a privilege to be allowed to see her at this moment before her cocoon opened and her transformation to an adult unfolded.

I started with her eyes! And only once they began to feel real and look back at me did I begin to lay in the rest of the painting, always returning to her eyes to console me and keep me on track in my quest to capture her spirit.

Contemporary realism - oil paintings -
John Rowe, “Acceptance,” oil on canvas, 36 x 36”

2. Acceptance

“…We find only one tool, neither created nor invented, but perfect: a human hand.”

I intended to pose and paint my model in a traditional head and shoulders pose. As she stood in my studio with her arms wrapped around her telling me about her life and how she was now alone with her son to provide for, and looking for a new career, I began to see something else. I saw her hand covering her as both as tools to move forward with and as armor to protect her her future.

An image of strength, personal acceptance, and reliance spoke to me clearly through her hands and arms holding herself. The hand can be both strong and gentle, complex and simple, and has carved within its form the story of a person’s life. A hand can impart the gentlest touch or exert the most powerful grip and, in this situation, felt like the most appropriate image to tell her story.

Since one hand was the focal point of this painting, I looked deeper and more clearly at the shapes and forms and texture, but especially the color. Every color in this painting is taken from life. Each morning as I returned to work on this piece, I discovered another tiny variation or hue I had missed before and seemed critical to add now to help those hands come to life.

For an artist it is very gratifying to discover and share the wonder and beauty that is present in everyday life.

Contemporary realism - oil paintings -
John Rowe, “Shelter in Place,” oil on canvas, 18 x 24”

3. Shelter in Place

“There is no place like home.”

Across the world we have been seeking shelter, safety, and comfort in our own homes. This painting represents both my reality and the thoughts that keep going through my mind.

The delicate and beautiful flower represents fragile and beautiful life while the now extinct saber tooth tiger represents the fleeting nature of life and is reflected on the pure water that nourishes the new life. The tablet’s reflection reveals that the saber tooth tiger globe is really a clock counting the time. The time to live? Time to die? Time to wait? Maybe all of that and more.

The tablet also says something about the interconnectedness of us all. As I paint this beautiful still interior it is not lost on me that my family is extremely fortunate to be sheltered in such comfortable surroundings. Many around the world are not.

I took special care to prime and sand the canvas until it was very smooth and to render each object in a crisp and beautiful manner to create a harmonious and pleasant feeling that would contrast with the dichotomy that this was a painting about life and death.

To view more works, including contemporary portrait paintings, visit John Rowe.

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