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Nicole Carroll Art Consulting

Paint the People: portrait artist Nadine Robbinsby Ross Rice

Let’s, er, face it, we all like to look at faces. Humans seem to be programmed to respond to portraiture, be it modern photography, or like they did it back in the day, a painting by an artist. What’s the most famous painting in the world? A portrait of some Italian girl named Mona. There’s something to looking and seeing somebody looking back at you; in the case of portraiture, often across hundreds of years. But portrait painting is unfortunately becoming something of a lost art thanks to digital technology, where the human image can be captured and transmitted in milliseconds, instead of weeks. So why even bother? Painting takes soooo long, nowadays we’ve got Photo Booth to Facebook to printer in….bing!

Nadine Robbins—a.k.a. Portraitgirl—might have some answers to that, as she has surely cast her lot with her choice of subject matter. With her recent “Eight Portrait Peaces” series, she has found an artistic voice in the direct reproduction of interesting couples, often capturing the synergy between the painted partners that reveals much about what is so great about love, the human spirit, and the more permanent reality of paint on canvas. All with a healthy dose of compassion and humor to which jpegs do no justice.

The reason there are so few portrait artists these days: it’s an expensive luxury during economic hard times. Galleries don’t generally show exhibitions of portraits either, unless they’re old as hell, of people we either shouldn’t forget, or really should. And, well, to be honest, quite often the most interesting subjects these days are in absolutely no position to commission such a labor-intensive work for themselves.

But then there’s Nadine, who actually has documented evidence of being a portraitist as early as the age of four. A military child whose parents were divorced, she travelled extensively as a child, spending a lot of time in France with her mother, acquiring an early appreciation of art. Starting college at sixteen, at SUNY New Paltz in the 80s, she had a professor tell her portrait painting was no way to make a living. So she decided to go into graphic design, as a major “it was more practical, creating and making money.”

In 1984—while still in college—she got a grant that allowed her to attend a special graphic design conference in Aspen, where, “there was this tiny little room, with this little computer, a little box: the first Mac. With a picture of Lady Di on it, you could scribble on her and print it out.” By 1989 she made sure she had one of the top of the line Macs available—back when they were pretty expensive—and was thus able to work from home. “I was on the cutting edge, really took advantage of it.”

Nadine got her degree, went to Brooklyn and meanwhile became “pretty much a self-taught painter.” She had a sweet gig doing design work for Citicorp, “doing their branding. Then, I did it for Chase—I was in the financial industry when things were good!” When the market took a quick tumble in 1989, she was one of the thousands who got laid off. That misfortune plus a small inheritance inspired and allowed her to go freelance, and she never looked back, managing to keep a loyal and steady client base since.

But she’d met a special guy in New Paltz, whom she’d gone to school with, and eventually they decided to meet in the middle, marry, and move in together in Garrison. Then they moved to Rhinebeck in 1993, where she ran her design agency Namaro Studios—derived from the first two letters of her three names—while still working primarily with clients in the City. Meanwhile she was getting unique training from an unexpected source: “As a designer on Adobe Photoshop, I spent years of having to take guys and fix their ties, take out moles, add hair to them. And I was learning a lot about faces. And when I started painting again—around 1999—I was surprised that I knew more, just jumping in, than I thought I would.”

Things changed drastically in 2001, with the birth of son Wyatt, and, uh….that other thing that year. “He was born right after 9-11. And, you know, everything changed. Lost my edge, I guess, just went somewhere else.” One way that Nadine worked things out was to do her first major portrait: Wyatt. As somebody she would have no trouble looking at for long periods of time, working long hours to fill in the substance between the lines, he was of course the ideal subject. The portrait seems suffused with maternal warmth and invested spirit, and made for a great first work in the genre.

Nadine was still at a low, and around that time made a decision to do a large-scale project. “The story behind what I call the ‘Eight Portrait Peaces,’ is, like anybody else, that at certain points of your life the ‘shit hits the fan.’ I decided as I was doing these things to try to just get through different stages, try to re-figure out who I am. That’s why they’re called ‘Portrait Peaces,’ they’re peaceful things.” The project required eight portraits of couples, carefully selected from responses to a general email call, to be painted over a period of two years. “I have a process set up so that I’m sure I’m painting the right (people). Because it shows up if you like them or you don’t.”

Selected couples—many of whom are friends and/or acquaintances—then have a short interview with Nadine, where she gets to know them a little better, while taking notes and making observations, using her graphic design skills to get good concept ideas going. “After there’s some sort of idea or direction—we like each other, there’s a good vibe—we set up the photo shoot.”

Nadine prefers to use a neutral backdrop for the photos, keeping the focus on the subjects and their interaction, allowing for the shadow play with the lighting, which helps make the 3-D elements pop out more. Few props, but interesting (and no doubt resonant to the subjects) apparel is encouraged. “I’ll take 200 to 300 pictures, always looking for the one that all of a sudden, the people forget that I’m photographing them, and something really natural comes out.” Several shots are selected, with the subjects’ approval, and the photo is projected onto a canvas, where Nadine can start the basic outlines.

Once she’s into the painting process, it’s like she personally fills in the emotional blanks and brings these fascinating people to life on canvas. “There’s just something that happens. I don’t see myself as some sort of loose abstract emotional painter, throwing paint around. But if I paint something, and look at it in terms of the photograph, something happens: a warmth about it, they come alive. And that excites me. Whether it’s because it’s something in me that is coming out, or it’s the person I met, and they gave me something. There’s a connection between my eye and their eye, I think. It happens.”

The project gained momentum, and found its peak (so far) in an unlikely fashion. For Portrait Number Five, Nadine’s friend Michael—a sculptor living in Kingston—had an unusual request: “He wanted to be naked! But I was like, I don’t know if I want to…(laughs). Sometimes it’s too much, you can say more with less!” So an apron took care of the business up front. But the back…”they had props—the outtakes, the photographs that weren’t chosen are pretty funny too—and I just said, roll (the rolling pin) on the butt, just do it. And her look (on her face) is just priceless. I picked the image because it suits their personality too.” The woman happens to be wearing an apron with a Buckingham Palace logo. It’s a deceptively funny work with a slow reveal…what the, no pants, is she? The title is Rolling Buns. Ah, got it.

“I think for me it creatively happened when I got to this one—the fifth one. I loved the concept of it, it was just hysterical, and I thought ‘this is what I want to do…have a sense of humor!’ It just so happened that I sent it to this really conservative (British group), the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, thinking ah, just ten bucks, send it in. Well, I got in!” Apparently the British do have a sense of humor (or “humour”) as well. Nadine shipped the portrait over, and later followed it over for a special reception in London, “a huge opening, 300 people there, at a gallery right near Trafalgar Square.” 100 portraits were selected from roughly 1500 submitted. Seeing the other works—some she really liked, some not so much—she realized she was good enough to be there, her choice was affirmed.

Since then, she’s completed the sixth and started the seventh of the series….but there has become less to prove now that she’s achieved some substantial recognition. Still, she has her subjects scheduled, and her type-A personality won’t let her chill for too long; even as she takes a short summer break, she always keeps current with modern social media. And with her husband finishing nursing school and starting his new career, she plans to pull back on the graphic design business—still going with select clients—and get deeper into painting. “It’s evolved into not about the project, but about developing a new career. I don’t know where it’s going to go, but it always seems to come back to people, to their faces, to just capturing something about them. I love photography, but painting…just goes somewhere else.”

Nadine should be painting people full time; her portraits shine with life, wit, and soul. Those whom she has painted have all had the option to buy at a serious discount, one subject even traded some large-scale sculpture for theirs. But truly, she has a gift; seeing her portraits, I see humanity and love jumping off the canvas, in ways photography could never duplicate. As Nadine puts it so well, “My portraits are real. They endure, they give pleasure, they bring tears, they capture essence, they are a record of a place in time. I like to think I am creating a personal art history that no one else has.”

Nadine laughs. “Plus, when I get famous they will be a good investment!”

Visit Nadine’s website at, Facebook at, Twitter at portraitgirl.

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