Figure painting from a female perspective

I have always enjoyed the challenge of depicting the human figure in my art. Technically, it can be the most difficult subject, but the beauty and complexity of the nude form intrigues me more than any other theme.

As a woman painter who is very drawn to figurative representation, I also find the nude genre somewhat problematic because of its history and the way it is sometimes perceived by the general public.

You don’t have to study art history to know that the rich tradition of figurative painting has always been grossly male dominated. Consequently, a devastating bias exists in the way women have been (and often still are) depicted in artworks made predominantly by men.

Art history is littered with portraits of women in private moments, dressing, bathing or in repose. Often unaware of being watched, they are passive, submissive, simple creatures. I believe such works are made to be looked at through an extremely narrow lens of one type of male observer, that is often degrading or outright offensive to women.

I once knew a man who used to love using the phrase ‘I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like’ whenever he saw a nude in an artwork. He thought he was being clever and a little bit cheeky, but it always made me feel extremely uncomfortable.

Do we blame the reckless artists or the ignorant audience for the problematic reputation of this sensitive genre? I would say both are responsible.

The term ‘male gaze’ was first coined by Laura Mulvey in her essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ in 1975 and quickly became an integral part of cultural theory and art practice. In basic terms it is used to describe the way art and cinema portray women as objects of desire, symbols of sexuality, metaphors for perfection and only casts them as small characters to support a story. The male gaze does not see women as protagonists, real-life human beings with passions, dreams and desires capable of agency and independent thought.

Understanding this history is crucial to me as an artist and as a woman. I feel incredible responsibility to develop acute awareness of the male gaze in art produced today, to rebel against any media that perpetuates ignorance in this area and most importantly be innovative in the way I represent women in my own art, working to convey my own honest and unique female perspective.

I paint women as real women, not just their empty shells. I work with a variety of models, women of various age, backgrounds and body types. All women are beautiful and fascinating in their own way, so I am never short of subjects. Our bodies are amazing, strong and capable of extraordinary things, they bring us pleasure and they can bring us pain. But we are also all different, some are inherently feminine, others are not. For example, I have always been more of a tomboy and feel misplaced in situations when binary gender roles are expected. On top of that, popular media focuses so much on just one type of woman, tall, slim, young, sexy, but this isn’t always beautiful, just repetitive, soulless and boring. Not many women relate to this kind of “beauty”.

There is power in our sexuality and our freedom lies in expressing it in our own way, not the way that the male dominated media wants us to express it. This type of sexuality is beautiful, born from the uniqueness and complexity of our experiences in the world. This is universal, it simply comes from being human.

Although visual beauty is most important to a representational artist like me, it is never just skin deep. I am always looking for a way to bring more depth, more truth and more meaning into my work.