Elizabeth Barlow's Hyperrealistic Odes to Nature
By Alexa Bouhelier-Ruelle
Elizabeth Barlow is a California artist, whose hyper-realistic paintings are inspired by nature. After her earlier work, which depicts “portraits” of people by painting their favourite objects rather than their physical figures, Barlow’s current series, ‘Flora Portraits’, elevates flowers in hyperreal detail. These paintings ask viewers to slow down and contemplate the calm beauty of nature and especially California's treasured ecosystems. This work recalls Barlow’s ritualistic art and meditation practices as well as her environment, in Carmel-by-the-Sea where her studio is located.
Elizabeth Barlow grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah, in a house filled with art and surrounded by flower gardens. Following a detour in the performing arts, she followed her inspiration back to painting. Barlow earned her BA at the University of Utah, and her Master’s Degree from the University of Virginia. After some years living abroad, she relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area, where she continued her art education at UC Berkeley Extension. There she studied drawing and painting with Donald Bradford and others, earning a Post-Baccalaureate Certificate with Distinction in Visual Arts. In 2007 she studied in New York City at the Art Students League. In her San Francisco studio, Barlow devised an innovative approach to portraiture, her favourite genre of painting. She collaborated with her subjects and made arrangements for their most meaningful possessions. She documented personal items such as jewellery, favourite clothing, books, and a variety of precious keepsakes. With an intimacy more characteristic of ordinary portraiture, these still lifes exhibit a powerful presence. Although she no longer creates them, the portraits in the ‘Absentia’ series were well-received and exhibited often. With her move to the Monterey Peninsula in 2016, Barlow’s work underwent a transformation. Finding herself immersed in the sea air and surrounded by forests and year-round flowers, she was inspired to take nature as her subject. In response to a commission, she began to paint flowers. Here & There met with Elizabeth Barlow to discuss her current series, ‘Flora Portraits’.
"I wanted to find my own voice with portraiture, a fresh, contemporary way to examine who we are."
What drove you to first choose to portray people through their favourite objects?
I’ve always loved portraiture—from Rembrandt’s haunting self-portraits to Vermeer’s poetic “Woman Reading a Letter” to Sargent’s exquisite “Lady Agnew of Lochnar.” Yet, early on, I wanted to find my own voice with portraiture, a fresh, contemporary way to examine who we are. That’s when I began using my subjects’ personal belongings to say something about their stories, memories, and inner lives. A collection of cherished objects can be a profound window into someone’s life and spirit. I called these paintings “Portraits in Absentia” and each one is a glimpse into a human life.
Why now switch from objects to flowers?
When we moved from San Francisco to Carmel-by-the-Sea in 2016, I left an exciting, bustling urban life and found myself surrounded by ocean mists, sea birds, twisting cypresses and year-round flowers everywhere. Almost immediately, I felt called to paint flowers. Shortly thereafter, I received a very important and emotional painting commission. A vineyard owner and his wife lost their home in the devastating 2017 California Wine Country Fires, barely escaping with their lives. Everything on the property was destroyed and the only things that survived were the vines and one rose bush. Even more, tragedy followed when the wife died several months later. But then something amazing happened. That single rose bush began to bloom gloriously. The homeowner decided to build a new house on the same site and asked me to create a 6-foot painting of that rose bush for the new house. I took hundreds of photos of the roses to use as references for my painting, but I didn’t want to paint an actual replica of the rose bush. I wanted to capture the strength and resilience of this beautiful living thing. We titled the painting “The Phoenix Rose,” because it literally rose out of the ashes. I learned with “The Phoenix Rose” painting that flowers are more than just objects of beauty, they can be potent symbols of strength within seeming fragility, of hope and renewal. Flowers can tell the stories of our lives in subtle and powerful ways.
What’s your creative process when it comes to still life?
Every painting begins with an intense desire to tell a particular story or idea. I write about my intentions for each painting in one of my many art journals, along with possible titles, inspiring phrases or poems, and sketches. Next, I gather the flowers and bring them to my studio, where I often take hundreds of photographs, always outside in the early morning or late afternoon light. I want to capture those gorgeous, long, violet shadows and golden light of that day. These are my reference photos, and I will use a combination of them for the composition of my painting. Next, I develop the composition of the painting, searching for that perfect dance and dialogue between the objects in the painting. This process may take several weeks. Once I am happy with the composition, I lightly sketch it on my canvas: always oil-primed, fine French linen. And finally, I am ready to begin painting! I do a first pass over the canvas, my alla prima layer. Once that layer is dry, I go back over the painting with multiple, delicate glazed layers. This is for me where the magic lies; it is these glazed layers that allow the painting to glow from within.
How do you find inspiration in your daily life?
My daily meditation practice and mindfulness readings deeply ground me in the luminous NOW, in this one precious, present moment. I am also endlessly inspired by artists working in other realms: ballet dancers, pianists, or poets. We all understand that devotion is one of the most important keys to being an artist. We must show up each and every day at the easel, the barre, the piano, and the blank page. The muses will always find us when we are working.■
Elizabeth Barlow’s work is currently exhibited in Flora Fauna, which examines such ecosystems, at the Monterey Museum of Art, December 8, 2022 - April 16, 2023.