I begin to think that there is no way out of the painting, want to scrap it and then I push myself to continue and somehow as if by accident or chance they appear.
A creative person her whole life, Dallas, Texas based artist, Mel Remmers, brings two of her greatest passions, ballet and fashion, together in her portraiture paintings. The self-taught painter’s work and experimentation with light, shadows, colors and her subject’s captivating expressions and eyes creates beautiful artwork made even more impressive when one realizes that Remmers only picked up a paint brush a year and a half ago.
You mainly paint portraits of women. How do you choose your subjects? Who are they?
When I first started painting I chose figures and added motion to them. Since I have moved into painting more stylized portraits of women they are images that I have found from any source I can get my hands on, Internet, magazines or runway shows.
The images I choose as my inspirations either have a unique expression to the model or an outfit that strikes me and more often it is the lighting in the photo. Some of my favorite fashion photographers have a sense of the drama and a sort of arresting effect on me. Sarah Moon, Paulo Roversi, Erik Madiganheck and Paul Westlake are among my most inspirational photographers for their dark, moody and at times playful images. I usually scan photos and one of them makes me stop, pause and take it in and then I know I have a photo I can reference later to either go off of the models gaze or just the tone of the photo that brings the painting to life. I also love to create my own design if I am not referencing a designer. Otherwise I create the face and hair as my own with my trademark colored shadow along the nose.
Do you use models or photographs or do you create your images freehand?
I mainly use photographs for my portraits and my dancing paintings are freehand. Since I do not draw out my paintings, I pick up my brush and the movement of the body or styling has a lot to do with my choice in what I will paint. Sometimes I will change the image completely once I start.
The ballet paintings that I do freehand are almost like dancing on the canvas. I move my brush along the curves of the body and the graceful fingers feel like an extension of my own. These paintings are the most affectionate of my paintings and almost give me the same sentiment I had in a performance finale.
The women you paint are all incredibly fashionable, wearing beautiful outfits, dresses, hats, and hairstyles. Do you have a background in fashion? Where do you get your inspiration for the fantastic styles you paint?
My background in fashion started when I was 14-years-old when I bought my first fashion magazines Elle and Vogue. It was the start of the “Super Model” like Linda Evangelista, Christy Turlington, Paulina Porizkova and Cindy Crawford. I was obsessed over the images of these women and the designers they wore. I tried my hand at making clothes or adding details to my existing pieces. This was short lived with my impatience for sewing. But when I discovered Thrift Stores (back when a blazer was .50) my imagination and creative energy for styling came together. I would wear 1950’s cocktail dresses with boy’s military shoes, kimonos and jeans, men’s blazers and vintage concert shirts and Indian salwars to High School. Getting dressed everyday was the only highlight of school except of course Theater class. This cross-generational and global fashion has been a part of my life ever since. It also later contributed to me becoming a clothing buyer for stores and my own private vintage shop.
In many of your portraits, the eyes of your subjects are very distinct in style and expression. What do the eyes mean to you in your paintings?
The eyes have always been an important part of my growing up and continue to be as I have very large and expressive eyes. My husband tells me I will never win at cards; I don’t have a poker face.
When I was younger, people were always curious about my eyes… it always led to questions of my nationality, people using the word “unique” when referencing me or then there was the endless inquiry “what is going on in your head? what are you thinking about?” because of my “intense” look. I was never sure how to take these comments or questions. I wanted my outfits to become my identifying mark instead, at least in my mind I wanted to detract from them. Now that I am older I realize the absolute value in eyes and their use for communicating well and expressing thoughts. Just looking into someone’s eyes can tell a story or be a mystery. So now I have a new identifier through my painting and it all starts with the eyes… and a dress, of course.
Because the eyes in your portraits are so mesmerizing, some of your work is reminiscent of Margaret Keane’s “Big Eyes” series. Has her style been a creative influence for you?
I have heard that reference several times as well as Modigliani and my passion when I first started painting was Kees Van Dongen. What I see as a commonality with these artists is the face and eyes are exaggerated expressions of their features to create a reaction. I am very influenced and drawn to artists that draw you in by the look on the face, the unexpected colors, a darkness or almost sadness to the painting.
Is there one thing that you find the most challenging in conveying your subjects’ emotions and expressions on canvas?
At some point all my paintings can feel like a challenge. I begin to think that there is no way out of the painting, want to scrap it and then I push myself to continue and somehow as if by accident or chance they appear. It’s all so unexplainable to me and that’s why I am addicted.
In your ballerina and dance portraits you are able to create wonderful lifelike movement and light effects with paint. Is this a self-taught technique?
To be honest all of my painting and “technique” is self-taught since I only picked up the paint brush for the first time 14 months ago. It started with my love of ballet, as I was a dancer for many years. There was a calmness in these black and white photographs that made me need to paint them. They were also a way of improving my eye to light and how it touches the hair, arms or fingers. I wanted to be able to use fine brush strokes since most of my work at that time was larger strokes and heavy paint. In the process I have become completely captivated and in awe of what light and shadows can create. The smallest brush stroke creates a whole new dance. It is magical to me.
Some of your portraits are vibrant with colors, some more subdued, and others are in black and white. How do you determine the color palate you will be using in each painting?
When I look at a photograph I see a color pop off the image and that is usually the color I start with. I love the contrast of vibrant color with a darker emotional feel. I choose the background color based on what I think the overall mood will be created in the end. Sometimes that changes as soon as I pick up the brush because there are many times that MY mood overrides everything else.
What type of paint do you work with and what other mediums do you use?
I use acrylic the most because it dries faster, once again referencing my impatience. I like to do my paintings fast so I can move on to the next one. I have so many ideas and visions that I feel at times I am making up for years that went unpainted. My favorite thing to do especially for hair is to add a visual contrast and almost 3D effect to my paintings by the use of pastel chalk and metallic paint. Every new tool and medium is exciting to me since I am discovering it on my own without training. Being self-taught means that there are no rules that I am governed by. My art has no rules, encourages my restless nature and the bigger the hair the better. Completely works for me!
Melissa “Mel” Remmers grew up in California and became a generation buster by being first in her family of 5 generations of Southern Californians to become a self-proclaimed gypsy by exploring and living in several different states along the west coast with her husband and children. Her history in art has always been what was around her, from old houses that she restored to watching foreign films. At an early age her love of thrift shopping inspired her to become a clothing buyer for many stores in the U.S. and a private vintage shop owner. Mel’s longtime love of ballet and fashion has unlocked a new door later in her life… she started to paint her memories. They call it self-taught but she calls it a new discovery, as it feels more like walking in a dark room, feeling her way and with each step the forms and shadows become clearer and have movement. The images of floating dancers and women adorned in color and couture is what has taken the stage. Currently, she is living in Dallas, Texas plotting her next destination.