contemporary realism portrait paintings
Melissa Cooper, “Guardian,” 2020, Oil on Panel, 36” x 18”

Studying illustration led Melissa Cooper to discover her real love: painting and drawing in the realist tradition. “I can be a little bit of a perfectionist,” she says, “so the academic and traditional style of painting really resonates with me.”


I’m not sure if this is true with every artist, but on my own artistic journey, I have found that the more progress I make as a painter, the more I realize how much I have yet to learn. Sometimes I find this frustrating, but more often I find this exciting and extremely motivating. In order to create something as awe-inspiring as the Old Master paintings I see in museums, I have to challenge myself to learn new lessons with each painting I create.

Before I start a painting, I try to visualize how I want the end result to look. I carefully consider both the larger composition as well as key granular details, such as paint thickness and texture, or how crisp the edges of certain forms should be. I consider whether I should approach the colors as they appear in nature, or whether I should push the palette one way or another. I also try to bear in mind an old piece of advice that has always stuck with me: to consider what first interested me about beginning that painting, and how I might celebrate that element by the end.

My latest oil painting is of a magnolia and a butterfly. When I was first playing around with this arrangement, I was struck by the subtle variations of white against the warm wooden wall. Magnolia petals are so sculptural and have a thickness most flowers lack. So, while working on this painting, I really wanted it to be about the three-dimensionality of those petals.

Contemporary realism still life art
Melissa Cooper, “Magnolia with Butterfly,” 2020, Oil on Panel, 11” x 14”

I thoroughly enjoy the challenge of accurately representing elements of the natural world, and find the process of painting something like the petals of a flower very meditative. Not to mention that there is an unexplainable feeling of joy and pride when I feel I have done justice to my subject matter, as was thankfully the case with this painting.

My Artistic Path

Like most artists, I’ve been drawing since I was a young child. Early on, I used to re-draw my favorite characters from story books or cartoons. In school growing up, I always loved my art classes and any school project where I could include a hand drawn title page or a colored diagram. I liked pretty much anything design related. That being said, later in life when I first started college, I still wasn’t quite sure what my niche was.

In 2009, I enrolled at the New Hampshire Institute of Art where I started in the illustration department. A couple years in, I realized that all my favorite classes leaned toward fine art, rather than illustration. Specifically, I loved learning a more technical and realist approach to painting and drawing what I could see. Thus, I switched to the painting department. During these years, I really fell in love with oil painting, particularly painting the human figure.

After graduating with highest honors and receiving my BFA, I moved to Massachusetts. Though I’m not quite a full-time artist, I dedicate most of my week to painting and drawing. I’ve also had the amazing opportunity to take workshops with a few of my favorite contemporary artists, including Jordan Sokol, Jacob Collins, and Edward Minoff. These experiences helped provide me with a glimpse into the atelier approach to painting the figure and portrait.

I can be a little bit of a perfectionist, so the academic and traditional style of painting really resonates with me. I am also a huge admirer of paintings and sculptures from the late 19th century. These classical paintings provide me with a lot of inspiration and drive to paint.

Connect with Melissa Cooper:
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