Keeping Oil Painting Alive through Dark, Powerful Images

Rachel Bess creates art that focuses on the intimate relationship between the viewer and the painting itself. Looking at her grim and organic images somehow reminds one of Goya’s “Black Paintings”, which expose vice through haunting and grotesque personification, all in his unique style. However, the comparison wanes when considering the beautiful darkness in Rachel’s art. Representing the intricate turmoil of human emotions and experiences, her paintings also bring forward strength and hope: “I think strong people are people who have seen rough times and weren’t broken by them”, Rachel says.


The Fury” is a series of miniature paintings representing “women taking control”. They vary from 6″ x 4″ up to 10″x10″ and are intended to capture the viewer’s attention in a personal, confidential manner. The American artist thinks that their small size allows her to concentrate on details, and help intensify this feeling of intimate secrecy.

Rachel’s paintings bring out subtle shades of reaction through their particularities. As the artist says, ”to over-sexualize the relationship between the viewer and the painting would trivialize it. It would be easy to settle for an image that only makes the viewer lust after the subject, but creating a feeling of a more nuanced form of intimacy is much more rewarding.”


The Plus: Could you tell us a bit more about the format of these paintings?
Rachel Bess:
I like to make work that creates an intimacy with the viewer, and captures a mood rather than portraying a specific narrative. The Fury paintings in particular are painted of women taking control.
They are all very small with tiny details because large paintings can be imposing and ‘shout’ their message to you, but I wanted the viewer to be complicit; to come close to the painting and have that power darkly whispered to them.

TP: These images seem to emanate triumph; is this a fair comment, and if so how do you go about capturing that?
Triumph indicates a final victory. In some cases, these women are triumphant, other paintings are capturing the subjects mid-journey, but all of the women are definitely strong and determined. The subject of Furies, historically, implies vengeance, so the paintings have a little of that going on too.
As for how I capture it, it’s heavily inspired by the models and finding an expression and pose that resonates with me. I then plan out the work, paint many translucent layers, and keep at it until the painting looks and feels the way I want it to.


TP: Part of the mood seems set by the fact that your subjects are well-drawn in terms of character; were you inspired by any people in particular for these paintings?
Thank you and yes, the models for these paintings are all people that I know. Working with models is very much a collaborative effort. I often set out with an idea, or give them loose wardrobe requests and we just go from there and I give them space to be themselves.
The models I love working with are fascinating people that have complex (and usually tumultuous) thoughts and histories. It is fun to paint beauty and it becomes much more interesting to also try to capture deeper things, like mood and slivers of personality, that make the painting feel like it is revealing more of the whole person and the world they inhabit.


TP: In what artistic direction do you hope to expand your collection in the future?
I am working with some new models and am excited to see how that may shape the future work. I have certain persistent aesthetic sensibilities and set out with a few technical or compositional goals when beginning a painting, but I don’t always know right away why I’m attracted to specific models or where they may take me.
As a group of paintings get completed, the commonalities between the works becomes more apparent and a series develops. I don’t really know where the next body of work will go, but I’m excited to get there.