Dynamic Palette Knife Portraits Beautifully Balance Order with Chaos

Palette Knife Oil Painting by Françoise Nielly

Artist Françoise Nielly creates dynamic portraits that find order in chaos. Using vibrant oil pigment and a variety of palette knives, she depicts her subjects' eyes, noses, and lips among angled strokes and layers of neon paint. At first glance, the paintings read more abstract than figurative. But thanks to Nielly's masterful handling of the palette knife, we can easily see the features emerge through the mounds of scraped-on texture—ultimately bringing their humanity into focus.

Palette knife painting was not how Nielly began her artistic career. “I’d started brush painting for a few months,” she said in a video, “and I had influences, but when I took up knife painting I was free of influence.” Without references, she was able to express the human face in her own style and offer a fresh take on the centuries-old tradition of portrait painting.

Nielly didn’t have to look far for ideas on how to “redo” the face. She grew up with a father who was an architect, and his approach to structures made a lasting impact on the French creative. Her father had taught Nielly about straight lines—something that the palette knife is adept at creating. “A face has an architecture and perspective of its own,” she explains. “A nose has really complicated architecture. Knife painting allowed me to make cuts to truly structure the face.”

Artist Françoise Nielly creates dynamic palette knife oil paintings that use vivid color and texture to bring portraiture to life.

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Françoise Nielly: Website | Facebook | Behance

My Modern Met granted permission to feature photos by Françoise Nielly.  

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Sara Barnes

Sara Barnes is a Staff Editor at My Modern Met and Manager of My Modern Met Store. As an illustrator and writer living in Seattle, she chronicles illustration, embroidery, and beyond through her blog Brown Paper Bag and Instagram @brwnpaperbag. She wrote a book about embroidery artist Sarah K. Benning titled 'Embroidered Life' that was published by Chronicle Books in 2019. Sara is a graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art. She earned her BFA in Illustration in 2008 and MFA in Illustration Practice in 2013.

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