Based in Suffolk, Karen is an award-winning figure artist whose oil paintings are a commentary on the weight of expectations.
Born in London in 1978, Karen spent many of her school years in Geneva, before returning to the UK to attend Hampstead Fine Arts College in London. Now living and working on the Suffolk / Norfolk border, her work focuses on the physical body and the scrutiny to which it is commonly subjected.
Her paintings explore what society expects of a woman, the ways in which a woman’s shape is often considered to define her, and the impact that this has on her life and sense of self.
An examination of the inherent bias against, and at times discrimination of, fat bodies, Karen’s paintings challenge the traditionally narrow view of who can be considered beautiful, as she sensitively presents her subjects in a way that both celebrates and normalises.
In 2020 Karen’s work was selected for the Portraits for NHS Heroes exhibition and accompanying Bloomsbury book, and in May 2021 she was awarded the Institute of East Anglian Artists’ President’s Prize. Later in 2021 she was a finalist in the Holly Bush Emerging Woman Painter Prize and was shortlisted for the Women United Art Prize. In 2022 she has been shortlisted for the New Emergence Art Prize and Holly Bush Emerging Woman Painter Prize, and was recently awarded the Art Fluent Evolution Grant. Earlier this year she exhibited at The Other Art Fair in London, where she was selected as the Fair Director’s Pick.
A figure and portrait artist, my paintings concentrate on women and are a commentary on the weight of expectations placed on the female sex. With a particular focus on the physical body and the scrutiny to which is it commonly subjected, my paintings explore what society expects of a woman, the ways in which her physical shape is often considered to define her, and the impact that this has on her life and sense of self.
Leaving bare much of the clear-primed linen canvas, I place my sitters front and centre and depict them devoid of surroundings to represent the way in which women, their choices and their bodies are so often judged without context. Sometimes my figures are close cropped to represent the direct scrutiny a woman’s body is regularly placed under, judged not only on its ability to look pleasing, but also on its ability to live up to expectations around reproduction and motherhood.
Much of my work is inspired by historical representations of the female nude, and I like to subvert these portrayals of womanhood - sometimes depicting an 'imperfect' body in a traditionally Romantic pose, or replacing a nubile young Mid-Century pin up with an altogether fleshier model.
I work in oils without medium and wet on wet, applying very thin layers with a fine brush in order to achieve a delicately-blended end result. Colour is crucial as I seek to highlight pigments in the skin that can often go unnoticed, emphasising and sometimes exaggerating them in order that I might accentuate their beauty.
When was the first time you felt like you were an artist?
It was probably when I first exhibited at a fair, and stood in front of my work. I began painting during the pandemic and so much of what I was doing was hidden behind closed doors, other than what I was able to show on Instagram. Suddenly finding myself with a physical audience, who wanted to talk about – and even buy – my work made everything feel very real. That first fair was Art Fair East in Norwich in December of 2021, and I’m really looking forward to exhibiting with them again this December. In the meantime, I also took part in The Other Art Fair in London this year, where I was selected as the Fair Director’s pick. The show was an absolute whirlwind of a weekend – exhausting but utterly thrilling.
What would you say is the underlying thread that connects your work?
I always say that my work is about the weight of expectations placed on women – in other words, I paint about what society expects of women (and people born into a female body), particularly in relation to their size. My paintings are about society’s bias against, and discrimination of, fat bodies, and the intention is to both celebrate and normalize.
What is the most satisfying part of your practice?
There are loads of really satisfying elements, but probably the biggest is the simple act of painting. I have a fabulous home studio to work in, and can shut myself away for days at a time, listening to podcasts and producing. I often get lost in what I’m doing and find the painting creates itself – there’s nothing better than stepping out of an utterly engrossing podcast to discover the painting that’s been slowly emerging while I was lost in another world.
Tell us about a turning point in your artistic journey and/or career.
That will have to be when I finally plucked up the courage to pick up the paintbrush again. I returned to art in 2020 after a gap of 25 years, and initially I only had the courage to draw. I felt like I had really good control with a pencil, and was worried that I wouldn’t have that in oils, and that I’d be really disappointed with my inability to produce anything like what I was hoping for. Every now and then I’d make an attempt and give up, but finally in April of 2021 I started looking for plus size models to paint, and once I did that everything started to fall into place. I began painting a beautiful model called Keira, and everything that I produced suddenly felt right. I obviously needed to be painting about something that meant a lot, and fat discrimination has always been a big topic for me.
If you could show your work anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?
Definitely the National Portrait Gallery. It’s always been my favorite London gallery, and when I was young, I used to love viewing the BP Portrait Award there, and would dream of one day being good enough to participate. It used to be age-restricted and you had to be under 40 to enter (which at the time I thought was really old!), but thankfully there’s no longer an upper age limit so, who knows, maybe one day I’ll feel ready to give it a go…