I recently spoke with French painter and illustrator Leni Whitford, who creates captivating portraits with watercolor and oil. Inspired by her own experience working as a nurse, she began creating portraits of these caregivers to lift up and shine a light on the life-saving work that they do as well as the mental toll it takes during our current pandemic. In this in-depth interview, Whitford tells me about the long line of creatives in her family, her experience as a nurse, and the joy she finds in the details of realistic paintings. Join us in conversation as we discuss the parts of being a professional artists that fall outside actually creating the art--which can be the most challenging of all!
My pencil line was already inscribed in my genetic code, thanks to my illustrator father and my maternal aunts, who were painters. As a child, I created comics and caricatures my loved ones, then I worked to serve others by creating logos and illustrations. and about finding painting later in life. Later, I embraced a career as a nurse in intensive care and then in the operating room, motivated by my thirst for learning and improving myself. The impact of the pandemic in 2020 led me to my first artistic project, "Portraits of Caregivers". Little by little, as a mother and former nurse, I crossed the barrier between the medical world and the artistic world by painting my own experiences and those of my colleagues during the health crisis.
I gave my soul and emotions to a series of seven works made available to public hospitals. Four of these “Portraits of Caregivers” are currently part of the UNESCO exhibition “Creative Resilience – Art by Women in Science,” which is touring the world (Paris November 2021, Dubai February 2022…). It is by means of figurative art that I now express my feelings through painting in a realistic style, adapting my decorations and the light to stage my subject (often linked to current events) in order to extract radiance and emotion.
In your bio you talk about growing up in a family full of creatives. Can you tell us about this experience and how it shaped who you are?
Creativity is a part of my genetic code. My mother comes from a large family, many of whom are painters or musicians, whether professionally or in leisure. My maternal grandmother taught my cousins and myself how to make our toys, create our costumes, etc. It was as if there were no limits to how much creativity we could bring to our childhood games. Later, even when I embraced a career as a nurse, I always continued to create my clothes, restore old furniture, and draw for any occasion. The person who marked my experience making art the most is undoubtedly my father. He was an excellent caricaturist, even if he never made it his profession. His passion for art took the form of a collection of vinyl records that rotated frequently at home and several bookcases filled with comic and art books. The comics inspired me the most. I spent my childhood reading and rereading them or creating my own stories inspired by them. Until three years ago, I expressed my creativity by making caricatures of my work colleagues and illustrations in a comic strip style.
Where did you learn your incredible realistic skills in art?
I did not learn to draw or paint. It was my favorite activity for as long as I can remember. I was introduced to painting about three years ago by enrolling in a workshop where I went for two hours a week. Seeing my first portrait was like an electric shock and I began to paint more and more frequently. I also asked one of my aunts, a watercolorist, to help teach me her techniques. I tried different ways of painting, and realism is my favorite. It’s hard work and demands being meticulous and organized. I’m constantly learning with each painting.
Your work tends to be figurative, but they seem more closely to be related to a narrative and/or allegory than portraits. Can you talk about this aspect of your work?
My art is indeed figurative, as it is what speaks to me the most. I particularly like portraits. I have always used drawings to express myself. When I was little, my response to an injustice experienced at school caused a caricature of the person responsible. Humor through a drawing was my way of getting the message across! It was also a way of showing my affection or interest. My use of paint today is triggered in the same way. Each painting subject springs from an emotion, a difficult situation to bear, or a cause in which I would like to commit myself. Allegory has imposed itself on me to illustrate my anxieties or my sadness. The artwork tells a story--sometimes with humor, sometimes with empathy. Comics, anchored in my appreciation of art, make me want to create movement, to insinuate an action to tell part of the story. I almost always add text to my compositions, through a tattoo, a logo, jewelry, or an inscription.
The dramatic lighting and poses of your subjects bring to mind Italian Baroque paintings. What genre or era of art do you find the most inspiration from?
I am very happy that some of my works remind you of the Italian Baroque style! I particularly like the way they sublimate their characters and deal with subjects inherent to their times in inadvertent and symbolic ways. The light, the texture of the fabrics, the muscles, the hair...everything is almost palpable. The grace of the representation and the richness of the details are elements that I greatly appreciate when I observe a painting. In the same way, I take a lot of pleasure integrating these types of elements in my works, thinking that the spectator will appreciate this tedious work and find it interesting.
My favorite painter is Salvador Dali. I love the precision and realism he can bring to his works as much as his double meanings and his limitless fantasy. I never tire of contemplating his books and dream of going to see his exhibitions as soon as I get the opportunity.
Can you tell us about your portraits of caregivers, a series you began during the pandemic?
My portraits of caregivers represent my entry into an artistic career, it is my first collection of portraits. At the time of the pandemic, following our move to another city, I was no longer a nurse and I found myself homeschooling my three children. In France, with the inhabitants locked up at home, every evening at 8 a.m. they cheered for a minute at their window to thank the caregivers who were dealing with the pandemic. It only lasted a month. However, as you know, the health crisis has continued. I started thinking about this project in reaction to these sudden expressions of recognition. I wanted to represent caregivers as they were before and would be after, without visors or antiviral protection. My goal was to highlight values such as courage and strength, to show teamwork and the importance of humor and cohesion as well as darker elements such as worry or burnout, which some of my friends and former colleagues have suffered. I asked these same colleagues to pose at their homes by mimicking certain actions with good lighting and the best possible appliances. I was able to work on my first five portraits in watercolor (a technique that I could use in the evening during lockdown using electric light). For the last two subjects, which were more complex, I threw myself into oil painting, which is now my favorite technique because it allows me to do large format painting.
I then took my works to photographers specializing in art reproduction to offer the collection to hospitals on a voluntary basis. My first exhibition of my seven portraits as enlarged print was at a Toulon hospital (South of France), and the response from the public and the press has been beyond anything I could have imagined. A dozen articles in the press, four TV shows (including national news), and UNESCO, who incorporated the works into their Resilience Creative collection! Since then, I will always make my prints available when a hospital asks me to exhibit these portraits and I would be honored to do so abroad if the opportunity ever arose.
What part of your journey as an artist has been the most challenging? What advice do you wish you had at that moment?
Challenging myself is a need. I always want to try to go further and set myself more ambitious goals for the next work (format, realism, new techniques, more and more complex staging of the models, etc.). I would say that what is most difficult for me is everything that is not painting but is mandatory, such as communication, self-promotion, finding places to exhibit, etc. That takes time and a lot of energy, and luckily, I have plenty to spare - energy not time!
For all these aspects of the artist work, I gradually surrounded myself with benevolent people, artists, photographers, or friends working in communication and their help and support occupy a very important part of my evolution. There is a big part of inertia in the artist's career--a phase of production without any financial return or recognition. To pass this stage, it is important to have support, encouragement, a benevolent glance on behalf of your close relations, and also from people understanding this stage.
If you are having an off day at the studio, what do you do to get yourself motivated?
If one day I lack motivation, which almost never happens, what helps me the most is playing motivating tunes. I always listen to music while painting, it is the first step of my installation. The playlist is in accordance with the stages of the project, the state of mind I need, in order to be close to my subject. The choice of songs can be an additional source of inspiration.
I also love sharing all my creative steps with my aunt, Brigitte Willers, a super talented watercolorist. Explaining to her what I'm about to always helps me see things more clearly. Having her listen and give an outside look is also very motivating!
Do you have anything coming up you’d like to share? If someone wanted to see your work in person, where could they go?
I’ve been working on commissioned portraits since last September. I am currently working on a large format diptych for offices. The oriental theme of the Bedouins of the Syrian desert, requested by the client, is very inspiring. This project required me to spend a week exploring their way of life, I even made a costume using their folklore and used a photography studio to shoot my models.
My next collections of paintings will require similar preparation, such as soliciting models, organizing professional shoots, and creating objects that will be part of the staging. My next collection will have the theme of ecology, and I intend to work in collaboration with a marine research laboratory in Montpellier, France. I also envision working with students for a painting on cyberbullying. I am thinking of spacing out my portrait commissions for individuals so that I can follow up on my next projects.
To see my work in person, I only have my studio for the moment. I open it several days a year to the public during special occasions. I am also starting to participate in exhibitions, which I announce regularly on social media like Instagram, Facebook, orLinkedIn.