When painting the figure, an artist may see the person as purely subject. The body can be symbolic, a stand in for a concept, idea, or experience. For London-based artist Nina Baxter, her figurative portraits are a gateway to intimacy, a way to deepen her relationship with friends and acquaintances. For her, the portraiture process allows her to celebrate those brief moments of intimacy. Join us in conversation as we discuss Nina's dreams for the future, her interest in poetry, and her return to figurative work after a decade of dedication to abstraction.
Born in London (1992), Nina Baxter received a BA in Art History from the Courtauld Institute of Art and currently lives and works in London. Her paintings have been exhibited internationally, including Beijing (The Field Art Centre, 2019 & 2018), Bologna (Galleria De Marchi, 2019 & 2017), Madrid (Espacio Prado, Ateneo de Madrid, 2018), Texas (Steidel Fine Art, Wimberley, 2018) and Miami (Red Dot Miami with Steidel Fine Art, 2018). Selected exhibitions in London include The Society Of Women Artists 157th & 160th Annual Exhibitions (Mall Galleries, 2018 & 2021), Affordable Art Fair (Hampstead Heath with Steidel Fine Art, 2018), Sunny Arts Prize (The Sunny Art Centre, 2017), The Royal Arts Prize 2017 IV Edition (La Galleria Pall Mall, 2017). Online exhibitions include Symphonia (The Holy Art, London), Serendipia (Capital Culture House, Madrid & La Paz), Euphoric (Procrastinarting - Joséphine-May Bailey, London) and Nostalgia (The Artistellar, London).
Nina Baxter’s paintings have recently been featured in All She Makes (2021), Artist Talk Magazine (2022), Create! Magazine (2022) and Art Maze Mag (2022). Her poems have been published in The Cannon’s Mouth, Acumen and Reach Poetry. Paintings held in private collections in the U.K., Ukraine, Czech Republic, U.S.A. and China.
Have you always focused on the figurative? When did you make the move into painting realism?
I’ve actually returned to figurative painting fairly recently, after a decade of exploring abstraction. I wouldn’t necessarily describe my current work as ‘realism’ (in the 19th-Century-Gustave-Courbet sense of the word) but it is certainly closer to realism than any of my previous work in its subject matter and painting style.
The transition into my current figurative style occurred gradually between 2019-20, predominantly because my previous abstract geometric paintings began to feel very far away from me. I was working with concepts and ideas concerning landscape and theories of abstraction in a way that was intellectually very stimulating, but I was feeling increasingly personally detached and creatively constricted. I felt like my heart wasn’t in it anymore. I knew something needed to change with my work, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what. A couple of years and a global pandemic later, I switched from acrylics to oils, began painting figuratively again for the first time in years, and the new work just started flowing out of me. In many ways, I feel like I’ve already had a whole career as an abstract artist, and by changing my style, I began a new career more or less from scratch. It’s been challenging but absolutely worthwhile.
Who are the people in your portraits? Does your subject matter come from your interior life?
Recently I’ve been painting portraits of old friends, new friends, close friends, and friends of friends. I love the way a portrait can elevate and celebrate a brief but important friendship, rekindle a lost friendship, or capture a specific moment in time of an evolving friendship. Just by the nature of the way it is painted and studied, a deep looking occurs that imbues the portrait with a kind of magical quality.
The paintings I am making now are the most personal my work has ever been. I fell in love, with painting again, and with someone else, and its inescapable in my work.
Your paintings capture such intimate moments. Has COVID and social distancing affected the way you approach your subjects?
Interestingly, but in some ways unsurprisingly, the pandemic coincided with my work becoming more personal and intimate. This shift had already started before COVID erupted and changed all of our day to day lives, but it certainly exacerbated it. You could definitely draw a line between being stuck at home on my own, away from my friends and partner (who lives in Italy), with then wanting to paint pictures of, and inspired by, my partner and friends.
I understand you also write poetry. Which came first: painting or writing? Do these two practices influence each other at all?
Painting came, and almost always, comes first. Having said that, I have always really enjoyed writing, but I still view it as more of a side project. Before the shift in my work back to figurative painting, I would scribble away for hours in notebooks, mostly recording memories of events, thoughts and feelings. Now, my main method of recording is taking thousands of photos, which I constantly refer back to as source material for my paintings.
I’m slowly working on a couple of poetry projects that I dip into from time to time, mostly when I need (or have) to take a little break from painting, but I’m keeping them quite private for now, until they get a little bit closer to fully formed.
How has growing up in a large city like London shaped your perspective? Where are you currently based?
Growing up in London meant that I had a wealth of arts and culture essentially on my doorstep. I think this accessibility helped inform my belief that I could be a painter, even if living in a city like London can sometimes feel a bit unwelcoming or excluding for someone who doesn’t work best in the 9-5 structure.
At the end of April I picked up the keys to my new studio in Kensington, West London. This is my third studio in London, I left the last one, in Bermondsey, right before COVID broke out and was working from my bedroom throughout the pandemic. Having a studio space really is essential, but finding one can be such a daunting and frustrating endeavor. I really lucked out with this one. After a few weeks of decorating, moving my work (and a decent number of plants) into the space, I’ve now got a good working routine, and I’m so excited to see how the new space will impact my work.
What part of the creative process do you think is the most overlooked (whether it be by others or by the artists themselves)? Is there a specific part of your own process that you enjoy the most?
Sometimes I find myself trying to rush through some of the essential parts of the creative process. It can be easy to dismiss the importance of integral stages such as looking, watching, listening, thinking, imagining, recording, doing, playing, and experimenting. Often I just want to speed ahead to the final stage of painting. Yet all these other stages are absolutely necessary, they just don’t feel as much like work sometimes. I’m definitely guilty of giving myself a hard time for feeling like I’m not ‘producing’ enough, when I’m moving through some of the earlier stages before sitting down to paint. Once I’m in that final stage, with time to solidly paint and enjoy the process, there are very few things that can beat that feeling.
What are some of your big dreams for your future (art related or not)?
One day, at some point in the future, I hope to have a place of my own where I can live, work, and be surrounded by nature. In an ideal world, this place would have a pond, so I could have some ducks, space to grow fruit and vegetables, and a big shed-like space separate from the house where I can paint. Basically, I dream of a cross between Jackson Pollock’s shed studio set-up and Monet’s garden at Giverny. That would be wonderful.