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.”