contemporary realism portrait painting
Stephen Bauman, "Like Lotus Leaves, 12 x 20 inches, Oil on linen

Contemporary Realism > “While my formal approach to painting and drawing is rooted in observing nature, I find great joy in exploring imaginary elements as they are a source of endless possibilities.” Read more from Stephen Bauman, and be inspired >>>

Rhythmic Narrative

(originally written in 2014)

When I was a student in Florence, Italy, I was trained in the Academic method of Classical Realism, surrounded by a beautiful city rich with museums, architecture and a deep artistic history. In contrast to this, I came from a background as a graffiti artist who listened to punk rock and new wave while skateboarding through downtown Miami.

My education in Florence, so unlike anything I had known before, was astounding, and furthered my understanding and appreciation for the harmony and beauty of nature. The technical foundation I was provided, studying under the direction of Daniel Graves at the Florence Academy of Art, is at the core of how I work today. In the years since I graduated, my understanding of these principles has continued to grow deeper, a fact that speaks to the richness and substance of the method taught at the FAA.

My current work has become a blend of my exposure to art and training in Florence and my background in graffiti. Although the tradition and appearance of graffiti and that of classical painting seem diametrically opposite, I find that there is a lot in common. For example, the appreciation for linear gesture and rhythmic shapes in graffiti echoes the gestures and rhythms we find in the contours and forms of the human body. The symbolic elements essential to my work as a graffiti writer in the 1990s have reemerged in my work today.

In those days graffiti in Miami was branching out into different forms. Along with other members of my crew I was interested in incorporating figurative elements, not just words. I was depicting faces and bodies in iconic poses gesturing with their hands at the passing crowds. At the time of my graduation from the FAA I felt there was a conflict between these two worlds, and it took me some time to see how they could co-exist. Rather than suppressing that influence, I am now embracing it in my work and in the process I am gaining a greater perspective on my identity as an artist.

Central to my vision is the exploration of an emotive human experience. Linear narrative is often at the periphery of my investigation. My objective is to capture a moment or a glimpse, a crystallization of what it feels like to be alive. I wish to celebrate the experience of life in my work, whether this is through painting still lifes, or capturing the tender expression of my wife, the rhythmic gesture of hands, or the ominous presence of a skull.

I often include symbols in my work: skulls, floating lights, or geometrical shapes stand in contrast to the softly modulated forms of the figure. These elements of imaginary origin also infuse the image with a deeper significance and an otherworldly context. While my formal approach to painting and drawing is rooted in observing nature, I find great joy in exploring imaginary elements as they are a source of endless possibilities.

My image-making process is fueled by curiosity. This means that I often set myself up to be outside my comfort zone, where the search becomes a central ingredient. I enjoy a sense of unpredictability when developing a motif, and sometimes the unfamiliarity of a different approach.

This tension entices me to stay alert in both mind and heart, making me more receptive during the journey. I will always have an idea in mind of the central element of the picture, what the composition is going to be, and the feeling that I want to convey. I then allow the image to unfold through free association, which sometimes results in a picture that is far from the original idea.

Contemporary Realism Artworks

Other Voices

Graphite portrait drawings
Stephen Bauman, “Other Voices,” 29.5 x 25.5 inches, Graphite on paper

While I am confident with the mediums I use most often, such as oil paint, charcoal, and graphite, I also enjoy the problem-solving that a new medium requires. For example, “Other Voices” was my first experience with powdered graphite. I mixed the powder with distilled water and applied it with a watercolor brush. This creates a vastly expanded range for the medium, enabling me to go from drawing with a crisp dark line to a broad and soft wash. Through this experiment I found a very pleasing fusion of painting and drawing.

When I began “Other Voices,” I had the central figure in mind, while the other portraits surrounding her head found their way into the image during the drawing process. This can be attributed to my passion for portraiture and investigating various expressions. I also found that as the surrounding portraits and the skull appeared, the content and emotion of the image surfaced. This development gave me the interest and momentum to investigate the sentiment further and to push the formal qualities of the drawing.

The peaceful and calm expression of the central figure is contrasted with the serious expressions of the portraits, along with a looming symbol of mortality. Through the visual and thematic contrasts, the space for questions and interpretation of the motif arise. Are the voices inside her head? Are they consoling her? Does she know that they are there? Is she at peace with her inner and outer world?

Alone Together

contemporary realism portrait painting
Stephen Bauman, “Alone Together, 16 x 20 inches, Oil on linen

In “Alone Together,” the visual contrast is largely between the refined painting of the hands and portrait, juxtaposed against the rough, abstract atmosphere surrounding the figure. The impression of soft skin is in contrast to an almost metallic background.

Here the geometrical designs behind his head direct us towards the look in his eyes, while a ghost-like echo of his face lingers next to him. I wanted to capture a sense of the moments and experiences we carry around with us through our lives—the way in which the person we meet here is a combination of his past experiences and his present self.

When I Was Young

Contemporary realism narrative paintings
Stephen Bauman, “When I Was Young, 60 x 45 inches, Oil on linen

While “Alone Together” may have a touch of sinister ambiguity, I wanted “When I Was Young” to be an absolute celebration of life. It depicts a young girl with an ethereal halo and a glowing finger. To me this painting is about the great potential embedded in youth. It is a physical expression of the feeling that anything is possible.

While woman and man, young and old may experience life from different viewpoints, I think the flickering light at the core of what makes us human is the same. The wish for acceptance, love, beauty, belonging and the potential to connect to one another is a red thread that runs through all of humanity.

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