Face time: Painter Caroline Nelson gets personal with her subjects

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Caroline Nelson’s large-scale portraits are on display at WriterHouse through August 31. Photo courtesy of the subject. Caroline Nelson’s large-scale portraits are on display at WriterHouse through August 31. Photo courtesy of the subject.

For fine artist Caroline Nelson, a person’s face speaks volumes.

“The smallest details, the wrinkles and the pores, are very telling,” she says. “There are people who I see and I immediately want to paint them. It can be their eyes or their skin tone, but there’s always something that I’m drawn to.”

Her large-scale portraits, currently on display at WriterHouse through August 31, feature luminous eyes, vibrant skin and shadows, people whose faces are splashed by water (and whose expressions are, frankly, priceless).

“I love doing faces because I see them as someone’s identity,” she says. “I’ve never been drawn to doing landscapes or abstract works because a face can tell you so much without reading anything about it.”

Though she’s only a sophomore at Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts, Nelson has been creating oil paintings for the last five years. She spent years painting her family members. “I am one of six siblings, so I have a lot to choose from,” she says. “Plus, my family was accessible. Like, ‘I’m going to splash you in the face with water, and you have to deal with it because you’re family and it’s for art.’”

Now a double major in sculpture and extended media and painting and printmaking at VCU, Nelson explores different methods of art making, though her work tends to revolve around realism and the richness and vibrancy of oil paint.

“I love the texture [of oil]. You can use varnish and glazes and make it really smooth. You can go as thick as you want. You can have that look that Leonardo da Vinci got because as it builds up, it looks like it’s glowing,” she says. “I have paintings that won’t dry for three months because I’ve laid it on so thick.”

In addition to experimentation in her studio, Nelson learns about glazing and layering as a decorative artist with Warnock Studio in Richmond, an ornamental painting studio that creates home murals and paintings on marble. She also researches classical art techniques, drawing from Rococo and Baroque styles to complement the contemporary training she receives at VCU.

These days, she’s focused on expressing personality through portraiture.

“People who have distinct life experiences, and it can show on their faces. Maybe they have dark times in their lives, and my work can reflect that,” she says. Describing “Maddie II,” a portrait of her older sister, she explains her choice of a dramatic light change to highlight the duality of human personality.

“[‘Maddie II’] isn’t specifically about the subject,” Nelson says. “Her face is really expressionless, which is what I wanted to go for. I wanted the color and tone to speak for itself. Because there’s a side to your face most people don’t see, a very vulnerable dark side that is typically hidden. It’s common for people to smile instead of opening up and expressing how they really feel.”

She considers it “a huge privilege” to be able to capture someone’s identity on canvas.

“I am in awe of people who say, ‘You can paint a picture of me and show every blemish.’ That takes courage,” she says. “I never want to paint myself. Portraits are a way for me to express myself through other people.”

Nelson says she’s really comfortable with some parts of herself—and not so much with others. After all, she points out, “I’m still trying to find myself. I’m only a sophomore in college.”

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