Rebecca Adams is an artist based out of Providence, RI. She graduated from RISD in 2006 with a BFA in photography. Her paintings focus on black and white portraiture referencing stylized and graphic photography and film. She transitioned into painting after school, utilizing her skills in photography and lighting to aid in her subject matter.
Hi Rebecca, you completed a BFA in photography, what drove you to refocus on painting after you completed your studies?
Once I graduated from RISD, access to equipment and a darkroom was much harder to find. I was avoiding the transition into digital photography, and much more interested in traditional processing and making prints. I always painted on my own throughout school, so it seemed natural to go in that direction. It really came together when I started photographing my own subjects to paint. It felt very natural to be able to combine both mediums, and gave me a sense of control over my work I didn’t feel I had before.
Do you feel the time spent on a painting allows you more time to develop the piece compared with the more immediate nature of photography?
Yes, definitely. While I do paint directly from my photographs, I have found that shooting a photo for reference is very different in the sense that I’m not worried about the lighting or cropping being perfect. I edit all of my photos before I start painting, so I have a lot more freedom than if it were the final product. Its kind of like sketching. While painting, I tend to focus on one section at a time, so you really get to see how the shadow and lights shapes the image. You build everything up gradually, but with a photo everything happens at once.
“While painting, I tend to focus on one section at a time, so you really get to see how the shadow and lights shapes the image. You build everything up gradually, but with a photo everything happens at once.”
The subjects of your portraits are mostly women, arguably the most commonly painted subject. What do you hope to convey through your portraits?
So much of my imagery is about taking the ordinary and transforming it. I like to work with pattern, light, and reflection to abstract the environment and make these surreal settings. I like the idea of having something recognisable, such as an image of a person, and putting them in dreamlike states, even though their surroundings are somewhat mundane or not particularly noteworthy. Its more about striving for that vague sense of the unreal.
Your portraits feel very intimate, are they a collaboration and ongoing process between yourself and the sitter, or do you very much guide the vision?
I usually go into a photoshoot with some kind of idea of the image I want, but working with another person almost always influences the final product. I really feel like every shoot is a complete experiment, it never looks exactly how I envisioned it. But that’s not a bad thing at all, I actually used to go into shoots worried I didn’t have enough ideas. Now I know a lot of the best ideas happen in the moment and unexpectedly. I have to go into open minded and knowing too that my original idea might look terrible translated into an image, or the lighting might not work for whatever reason, but I think my process is fairly simple and allows for me to be flexible in those situations.
Your paintings are distinctly photographic and graphically very arresting, with a lot of shapes, patterns and fabrics, accentuated with your cinematic lighting, highlights and shadows. Is this a direct result of your background and how would you describe your style?
I have clearly been influenced by film and photography, especially with lighting and composition. I often describe my style as “film noir” inspired because of my aesthetic and color palette (or lack of). While I heavily relied on the use of pattern on fabric in my earlier pieces, I really wanted to explore alternate forms of pattern-making and how they can abstract the scenes I create. My use of reflections, spotlights, and projected images all point back to my cinematic influences, and simultaneously create a surreal setting for my portraits.
“I like the idea of having something recognisable, such as an image of a person, and putting them in dreamlike states, even though their surroundings are somewhat mundane or not particularly noteworthy.”
Your use of patterns, geometric shapes and doubles works very well with your black & white palette, and you can definitely feel the influences of film noir. Do you feel this palette allows you to abstract the subjects of your portraits more so than colour would?
I think the use of a black and white palette creates a visual harmony, but also simplifies the images and allows for a certain level of abstraction. There is a strong visual continuity within the piece as well as within the entire body of work. I don’t think colour would take away from this, but I also feel that the simplicity of the image is what allows the viewer to feel they are looking at something other worldly. The graphic nature of my images certainly is amplified by using grayscale, it really allows the light, shadows and patterns to stand out. I am actually very interested in using colour at some point… The time just hasn’t presented itself yet! I still feel like I have a lot to explore in this particular body of work before I start expanding into other ideas.
You talk about pattern making and abstraction, how do you see your work developing from here?
I have definitely been interested in experimenting with what a “pattern” is recently. Pattern on fabric was very visually engaging to me in my first pieces, and while I still use that imagery, I found that I was interested in pushing that idea further and finding other ways to use repetition. More recently I have been using reflections to create symmetry or abstracted spaces, but also elements like water and glass that create very chaotic patterns and their own abstraction within themselves. I have also been including details such as a tattoos that I normally would crop out, they are an interesting contrast/compliment to the rigid pattern on fabric. I have some plans in the works to do some portraits of men as well. Using only women models was somewhat unintentional at first but then it became about keeping the continuity of the body of work intact, and I think I am finally hitting that point where I can start to mix things up a bit more. I also plan to do some larger scale works that feature multiple models, I am curious to see how the work changes when the scene is more about the people in the painting interacting with each other rather than one person interacting with me behind the camera.