Edgar Degas said, “Drawing is the artist’s most direct and spontaneous expression, a species of writing: it reveals, better than does painting, his true personality.” That is certainly the case for artist, Sophie Kipner. In utilizing the simple drawing technique of blind contouring she learned in art class, Kipner has created a style of portraiture that is expressive, whimsical, and unselfconscious.
Since debuting her “DONTLIFTUPDONTLOOKDOWN” series in 2015, the response to her artwork has been overwhelming. Kept busy working on commissioned pieces, with more commissions coming in everyday, it is clear Kipner has tapped into something great here, but how did this all come about? I had the distinct pleasure of speaking with the busy artist about her work, her process, and how she stumbled upon her distinctive style.
AF: When did you become interested in art?
SK: I’ve always been interested in art since I was a kid. I grew up in a creative family. My dad was a musician and my mom was a ballerina, so it was always very encouraged to be creative. My mom would take me to art classes after school as an extracurricular activity, but I never really thought I could do it as a career. I took a figure-drawing course at Otis College of Art and Design. I majored in journalism at the University of Southern California, but I took oil classes while I was there and continued to draw and do illustrations for certain stories I would write.
AF: How did you come up with your blind contouring technique?
SK: About a year ago I was in London and I came up with this idea for a dinner party I was hosting as a game to do around the table. I gave everyone a pen and paper and told them they weren’t allowed to look down or lift their pen and they had to draw the person across from them. So it started off as a fun thing to do with friends. In no way did I think it would become something I could make into a series, let alone a way to make money. In college when you do blind contouring they never are shaded, it’s just usually an outline, but I started playing around with it. On the bus ride to work, I’d do the blind contouring of all the faces and shade them in with charcoal and then I started posting my drawings on Instagram and Facebook.
AF: What was the initial response to your work?
SK: To my surprise people were like, “Hey how much is that?” Or, “Can I get one of those of my husband?” And then all of sudden the commissions started coming in. So it wasn’t even me trying to pitch it, it just happened organically. I had a show at the Santa Barbara Art Walk with Ca’Dario Gallery and since then I’ve been busy prepping for upcoming shows and doing commissions. With this one series, since I started at beginning of May 2015, I have done over 110 pieces, and have 35 commissions in the pipeline. So it’s all very exciting!
AF: How long does it take you to complete an average piece?
SK: If it’s black and white and I’m just shading, and I really hustle, I can do two a day. But the painted ones, like this family portrait I just did for Christmas, that took me about a week and a half, but I took my time to go back and build the color. I also work on multiple paintings at the same time. I’ll start on a big one and get the sketch down and a bit of shading, and then I might move on to something else and go back to it later.
AF: What interests you about portraiture?
SK: I love faces. I’ve always drawn faces. Even before this blind contouring series, when I was painting in a different style, still searching for my thing, I was still drawing faces. I don’t know why, I love a good face! It’s a character thing. I feel like in the eyes, there is so much vibe in there. I do some animals, and recently I’ve been trying to do city skylines and cars, but I’m most interested is faces and people.
AF: You’re a writer as well, does that figure into your art at all?
SK: Totally. Art is another way of storytelling. Portraits give you the story, give you the character, and the landscape is the setting. All of my stories are people focused and voice focused so they relate to my art in that way.
AF: Do you work from live models or photographs?
SK: I do a combo. If they are commissioned pieces I’m doing for someone’s family then I’ll typically have them send me a photo because most of the time the people aren’t available to sit for their portrait. But I have done probably 20 portraits where people have come to my studio in Los Angeles, or I’ve gone to their homes. But the easiest thing for most people and me is if they send a photo. And for the portraits of famous people, my only option is to work from photos.
AF: Is there a difference between working from photos and working with live models?
SK: There is an element of anxiety when you are face to face with someone, and it is quite intense because I’m staring at them and I’m not looking down so it’s kind of like a blinking contest. It’s really fun, but it’s nerve-racking! What I like about working from photographs is that I feel more relaxed, and have more time to draw the portraits a few times. When it’s in person they can see it and so you feel under more pressure. You want it to turn out great the first time.
AF: Because of the nature of the technique, the portraits are not always the most flattering, have you ever had an unhappy patron?
SK: So far I’ve been really lucky. No one has complained. The only time I had to re-do a piece was when it was a gift for somebody else and they knew that that person was insecure with one of their facial features. They loved what I had done, but were worried that the person might be embarrassed. So I shaded it in such a way as to hide the part that they didn’t like. I want people to be happy so I will give them a few options, if they’re paying me to do it and going to have it on their wall, I really want to make sure they love it. When I first started doing children I was nervous that the parents were going to freak out because the kids looked like aliens. There’s one little boy that I did, 4 years old, he was a beautiful little boy, but every time I drew him he looked like Elton John! I thought the dad would hate them, I did it 10 times, but he loved them. So I just keep doing my thing, and people know they come out the way they come out.
AF: Do you have any artistic influences?
SK: I’ve always loved Picasso, Basquiat, and Egon Schiele. I gravitate to artists with portraits of distorted faces. Current artists also inspire me. It’s amazing when you look at what’s going on right now, even in LA. I feel excited to be back in LA and be around so much talent. It’s really encouraging.
AF: Do you have any rituals that help you get into the creative zone?
SK: I always listen to music. If I’m working on a musical icon then I listen to music by that icon. For example, I’ve been working on a Janis Joplin piece for an upcoming show, so I’ve been listening to only Janis Joplin. Her music is on repeat and it helps me get into the zone. I have my coffee, I play music, and I move my canvases around a lot. I don’t want my brain to get too used to where things should be. I want to keep it fresh.
AF: How do you see the role of artists in society?
SK: We can all be looking at the same thing and have a myriad of different interpretations of that same thing. So, I think the duty of the artist is to show people what they might not be seeing.
AF: Do you have a favorite painting?
SK: I love many of them, but I have a special love for The Beatles one. I did that painting on a really wonderful night. I felt it come alive. You never know how it’s going to come out, but I think something was aligned that night. The person who bought it was a friend of mine who I hadn’t seen in a while and the painting is in India now, in Amritsar, near the Golden Temple. It’s so cool that something I did in my living room here in LA is being shared now in India. It’s really exciting to see where my paintings end up. I have pieces in Jamaica, England, Wales, all across the United States, and Tasmania!
AF: How do you sell your pieces?
SK: I’m selling mostly through my social media and website and through galleries. All of my commissions come from me posting online, and people will tag their friends, so strangers will contact me. People will post it when they buy them and share it with more people.
AF: Do you have any art shows coming up?
SK: I have a solo show, DONTLIFTUPDONTLOOKDOWN, in LA on March 5th at WNDO Space. It’s a really awesome venue. It’s part of a giant artist studio warehouse and this is their street level gallery. I’m also collaborating with a photographer in New York, Alex Pines, where we’re superimposing my drawings on her landscape photography. It’s really cool. Somehow it creates a really odd dreamy photo. I’ve also been accepted into LA’s Chocolate and Art Show. That’s on February 19th and 20th at the KGB Studios in Downtown LA.
You can see more of Sophie’s work on her website, www.sophiekipner.com.
By Graham McLean
Photos courtesy of Sophie Kipner