Melanie Norris – Portrait Painter
You know those people who have a talent so profound that it’s almost incomprehensible? “How do they do that?!” you think in awe. Melanie Norris is one of those people. This North Carolina based artist is known for her portrait works, in which she paints the person’s inner being. Her process is to talk with her subjects, soak in their presence, and paint them in a way that is free from their material environment. Pretty incredible, huh? We’re so excited to introduce you to Melanie today!
Who or what inspires you?
Anything that helps me tap into the strangeness of humankind – other people, conversations, the purity of nature, anything really. I’m also very influenced by other art forms; I find instrumental music really moving because I don’t understand how to create it, so instead of analyzing it the way I would a painting or drawing, I just open myself up abstractly and appreciate its emotion. The same with books – Milan Kundera’s writing has been quite influential. His interpretation of the world is psychological and quite stark, yet it’s layered under a dreamy narrative and setting – sometimes nightmarish.
I can be very anxious about my work being derivative of any other visual artist’s, so I like to be influenced by art that is peripheral, ie: music and literature, so that it doesn’t quite make sense how it relates to my own work, but for me there is a strong attachment. I try to paint the way some people write or compose; it’s all the same thing, really.
How would you describe your artwork? What makes it unique?
I do abstract watercolor portraits. I’d say the style in which I approach the face makes it unique. I use a transparent layering technique that makes the portraits very much an abstract color field painting up close, but they arrange themselves into faces as you back away.
Your paintings are a portrayal of a person’s soul, not just their physical being. How do you go about finding the “soul” of every person that you paint?
Observation and silence. It’s fascinating how much you can tell about someone simply by the way they carry themselves, the way they form words in their mouth, and what they do with their hands when put in a situation where they’re aware of being watched. I’ve learned over the years that a session can be completely ruined if I talk more than is absolutely necessary. Allowing silence brings up a beautiful self-consciousness in both the subject and myself. This allows all the right things to come up to the surface, but not break it. If I can capture that moment, then it’s golden. If I can’t it becomes more about how the person looks than how they feel, and I lose it. It might be a good painting after that, but not the right painting. The soul comes from that delicate interaction.
You’re clearly passionate about exploring who a person is and depicting their inner being in your artwork. As an artist, why have you chosen this as your focus?
In my older series, Tinkers, the paintings were character studies of people who I found intriguing. I visually investigated them and created paintings that were reflections of my interactions and observations. It was a really interesting series and great for establishing my style of painting, but once it was finished, I felt that it was simply scratching at the surface of what I could do with portraiture. Since then, I’ve been using the face as a ground for portraits of the mind. In my new series, Hallucinations, the paintings are more attuned to universal emotions and an aesthetic that people can instantly and personally respond to. When they look at these paintings, I want them to think: “Oh, I know exactly how this feels” rather than “I wonder who that person is.”
Who was the most interesting person you’ve painted? Why?
Every person is the most interesting person! I’m living inside the painting while I’m working on it, so each time it’s the most fascinating thing I’ve done up until I start my next one. It cycles along really quickly. Sometimes I feel like I’m in this constant dead sprint in the evolution of my style. I have to make myself slow down and flesh out or explore a concept more fully. The faces are vehicles for this. They matter less than how I feel I can paint them in a lot of ways.
How did you learn to paint?
It’s impossible to pinpoint. I feel like my whole life has been leading up to this career. I spent so much time painting and drawing and doing creative problem solving as a kid. I think Legos contributed just as much as my paintbrushes did. It’s a way of thinking and a way of life, being an artist. So I think, yes, the hours devoted to copying faces from magazines and old masters are part of it, but painting is also a way of seeing the world, a way of responding to it – like a visual journal.
The short answer, though, I suppose would be a lifetime of practice. And I’m hoping to keep getting better as the years go on. Never-ending room for improvement.
You’ve painted a lot of subjects. What are some observations about people – human beings as a whole – that are beautiful? Is there a common ground that you’ve found that all humans possess?
For me, it comes down to skin. We all have skin – it looks different on everyone and we live in it uniquely, but skin behaves the same way. There’s this morbid fascination I have with the fact that we’re all dying…as we age, our skin sinks down toward the ground, the dirt that we came from. From that physical perspective, life is a slow death. And to contrast this, we have a soul – an animation that transcends this terribly fatalistic reality. Our souls are, like skin, unique to each person, but the simple fact that we have souls that react and rise against our human bodies is comforting to me. The duality of soul and skin is beautiful and probably the main reason why I’m a portrait painter.
What advice do you have for artists who are just starting out?
Show up to work each day. Whether you’re painting full-time or not, I think it’s incredibly important to have painting (or whatever medium) be a part of your routine and lifestyle. It must be a part of you, or it will start to slip. There will of course be times where you’re not painting much, but open in a very creative way with your receptors out to the world absorbing all sorts of inspiration. Some days I don’t go to the studio, but I feel and react to everything very acutely, like my antennae are up and looking for something I can include in a painting.
I personally find creativity to be cyclical. There will be times when I can’t paint enough, and others when just a simple drawing eludes me completely. I think it’s important to listen and be aware of that, but not shut it down when things become difficult or frustrating. Some of my most ambitious work came from days when I didn’t feel like being there.
In your opinion, what is the best way to find your passion? Any advice on how to go after it?
Experiment and be self-aware. Have check-ins where you evaluate what’s going on in your mind. I find journaling or just jotting notes down quickly help me stay on track, following what I feel most passionate about. Sometimes it’s easy to be swayed by external pressure or opinion, but I find that if I start to make paintings just because I think they’ll be popular or well-received, I start to feel very lack-luster about them and more anxious about how people respond to them.
If I’m painting on a brink, where I’m pushing my style to a place where popular opinion is probably just not going to understand it, then I feel very satisfied. That’s evolution, that’s growth, that’s good. Even if I step back and decide to take it down a notch and pursue a different vein, my work has still evolved because of that side-step, I think it’s very dangerous to sit in a pocket too long. Work becomes stale and people can feel that.
So to me, pursuing passion is remaining attuned to yourself while keeping your ear to the ground on what’s going on around you – and how you and your work fit into that. Beyond that, it’s just work, work and more work.
What drives you?
I’m not sure what it is; sometimes it feels like an addiction. I think there’s a misconception that artists must be happy or joyful because they get to do what they love all day. There is certainly satisfaction in that, but sometimes art will break your heart. It’s passion, and that comes in many iterations. There are days when I feel that buoyant joy, and then there are days of dark moods, days of burning anger in my gut, days of triumph where I feel like I can accomplish anything. Certainly a rollercoaster, but this is what drives me. The fact that my painting helps me to feel the world more deeply. Sometimes that stings, but in the end it’s always, always worth it for me.
What does being creative mean to you?
I think creativity is much more than doing things with your hands. It goes beyond the studio and is very much a lifestyle. It permeates your interactions with others, the way you receive and respond to things. It’s the filter through which you see the world. Many times, this manifests itself in a painting or drawing or sculpture, but the seed is so much deeper. I know many people who don’t make any paintings, but the way they live their life is a work of art, and I really admire that. Creativity is such a deep well that it doesn’t really hold much of a definition for me anymore. It’s just about boldness and unique vision.