Get to know Nadine Robbins, the hyperrealistic oil painter whose work graced the cover of Create! Magazine Issue #33! Based in Rhinebeck, New York, the artist’s work serves to echo the reality of the American experience—one that is diverse, fluid and multifaceted. In her own words, Robbins says, “My nude and portrait paintings tell the stories of ordinary people from all walks of life with an undertone of defiance and irreverence for societal norms regarding gendered ideas of behavior, identity, and sexuality.”
In this candid interview, Robbins tells us all about her journey as a self-taught painter achieving an incredible level of detail and realism. Join us in conversation as the artist offers tips on how to create a successful portrait and discusses some of the challenges she’s faced becoming the artist she is today. Plus, Robbins gives us a sneak peek at a video project she's been working on!
Your photorealistic paintings are absolutely unbelievable! What has your journey been like learning and perfecting this incredible skill?
My journey has been incredible. Around 2008, I began as a self-taught painter, knowing little about my medium or the art world. Still, I loosely painted ten 6'x4' couples portraits over a few years for my first solo show, "8 portrait Peaces," about making peace with my past and the excitement of starting a new career. Although they were well received, I felt limited by my lack of knowledge and decided to do something about it if I wanted my career to blossom. I was fortunate enough to have master painter Paul McCormack nearby. So for two years, every Thursday, I studied with him. Everything changed after that. With more confidence, I began to use color as a way to achieve realism. Since I was always a photorealism fan, I studied artists like Richard Estes, Audrey Flack, and Chuck Close and photographers Annie Leibovitz, Cindy Sherman, and Robert Mapplethorpe. In the process, I discovered my passion for detail. It was addicting to build layers of paint into art that resembled photos. After a few years of wanting more emotional weight in my work, I began by adding more of my personal feelings to my paintings. The transition started with a self-portrait that kept my love for detail but made it grittier with exaggerated details and saturated color. It represented a time in my life of deep depression about aging. Showing the weight of my feelings by holding my head up high with leather "skin" gloves. I was so excited about this piece, and some of my favorite galleries were too. But just when things were going great, everything stopped due to an eye injury that forced me to find a new way to paint.
I could no longer paint as precisely as before, so I used a mistake I made as the basis for a new technical approach. I had trouble with my depth perception, and my brush kept hitting the canvas before I wanted it to. As a result, my brush strokes became more like messy dots and lines. Finally, I was tired of struggling, so I gave in. Today, my process remains similar to my earlier works, except for how I painted the details. I used to paint in three layers: the block-in, the primary layer of thicker paint, and the third left for the details. I still paint the block-in, but the subsequent two layers are merged. The second layer of paint is now a mix of layered dots, lines, and focus points, which achieve a unique hyperrealism approach in my paintings, such as "Just Try and Stop Me" and "Kara." Even though my journey took an unintentional direction, it was exactly what I needed to keep painting the details I love so much.
What is your process like choosing your subjects? Do you paint people you know, or do you get to know them through painting them?
This is a fun question! Choosing subjects is one of the best parts of my process. Of course, my family and friends are always fair game. But I also have been known to stop people on the street and give them my card. I also find unique-looking people on Instagram, like the model I used to paint my portrait entitled "Lady Marmalade" or a selfie by my hairdresser with yellow hair that inspired me to photograph and paint her with blue hair to match her gorgeous eyes in "Kara." For the subjects I don't know, for commissions or the street people I approach, I like to meet with them over dinner to get to know them better and pick up on a conversation that gives me a concept or emotion that stimulates my ideas. It's crucial to establish a connection with my subjects. It adds intensity to the final piece of art. I always have clear intentions when doing photoshoots, but usually, the final choice of the reference photo is something that happened unintentionally. Those are the best paintings.
What do you feel is the key component to creating a successful portrait?
Aside from likeness, a key component for me is establishing a visual relationship between the viewer and a portrait by capturing an emotional reaction between the two. For example, many people reacted to "Just Try and Stop Me." They wanted to know why she was angry and why I would paint her this way. Because they are already emotionally engaged, I love that people first want to understand why she is distressed. The best part is when they ask why I painted her in this state of mind. It's because there's a reality to how she feels everyone can relate, whether they love the portrait or not.
I'm more familiar with your portrait work, but I would love to hear more about your Oyster series–which is so textural and sensual.
Ah, my luscious oysters. I'm obsessed with them. They hold a special place in my heart, associated with childhood memories of eating oysters in Charleston with my family. They are feminine, decadent, and sustainable creatures who simultaneously filter water to eat and clean it. Each oyster is so unique. What's not to love? Unfortunately, I had to take a break from painting oysters while learning to paint again. But I'm excited to say that I just started to paint them inspired by the veritas painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
What has been a particularly memorable highlight of your art career so far?
There are several events that I'm incredibly proud of. First, in 2019, I was invited to exhibit three oyster paintings at the Louis Meisel Gallery in NYC for an exhibit called "Food for Thought." One of the galleries I've dreamed of exhibiting in since I began my journey into photorealism! The same year, I was invited to exhibit several portrait paintings from my "Bad Habits and Guilty Pleasures" series at the European Museum of Modern Art (Meam) in Barcelona for International Women's day. And lastly, I was invited to show my entire body of work at the Arnot Museum in Elmira, NY, for an exhibit entitled "3 AMERICANS: Masters, Muirhead, Robbins, Contemporary American Greats."
Painting with such fine detail, it must take a lot of concentration and discipline. How do you recharge or rest when you need to step away?
I've always dived into projects with such intensity and passion that I get overwhelmed and burn out quickly. It got so bad that I took several months off last year to reflect and recharge. Besides meditating, I now take better advantage of living in the country, and at lunchtime, I step out of the studio to exercise and walk my dog. I've learned that to be successful, I need to slow down, pace myself, focus on painting and not as much on marketing, and, most importantly, know when to say no.
Do you have anything coming up that you would like to share?
Opening on April 21, the European Museum of Modern Art (Meam) in Barcelona invited me to show in a new representational art exhibit called "Minesis." And I'm very excited about finishing a new painting video about how I would paint an eye. It's a 4-hour long-form video showing my unique painting technique described above. I discuss my story, aspirations, and inspirations while offering practical tips and tricks about painting and the art world. Here's a link for early access https://us2.list-manage.com/contact-form?form_id=718cac5672306211ba9b84a3ece62c18&u=f3dd5930c9cde9d1e761aa993