Newfoundland artist’s work causes people to do a double take — is it a photo or a painting?
It was the spring of 2018 and Natalie Esther Higdon was a month away from finishing her bachelor of science in psychology when she had an epiphany. Rather than become a therapist, the Memorial University graduate decided to embrace her passion for paint and become an artist.
Four years later, she’s hosting her first art gallery exhibition in downtown St. John’s, N.L. This milestone comes a lot sooner than she expected.
“I didn’t think I would have this opportunity so fast. I was kind of thinking of a champagne birthday — my 28th — that I wanted to have the ball rolling by then,” says Higdon, 25, from her St. John’s home.
Titled Looking Down, the exhibition is taking place at the artist-run centre Eastern Edge in its rOGUE Gallery and features six portraits of her friends, plus a short film she made to give context to the paintings. It began Oct. 28 and concludes on Dec. 10.
Double take paintings
When looking at the artwork Higdon has on display in her living room, it’s obvious there’s a lightness to the way she paints. She describes her work as visual realism rather than photorealism.
“I don’t want people to think it’s a photo, but I want them to double-take where they first think it’s a photo,” explains Higdon, who often sells her work at the St. John’s Farmers’ Market.
“That’s kind of my favourite thing, when I see someone at the market and they kind of do a look and say, ‘Nice photo’ and then they see ‘Oh, it’s not a photo.’ I don’t want people thinking it’s photorealism.” For her, it’s just realistic enough but people do notice the brush work in her oil paintings.
She pointed to one of the paintings she had on display of a woman crying, titled “Léa,” saying the tears and facial redness were more accentuated than they were in reality, so the painting is more surreal.
“I like those little elements, but I don’t need it to look like a photo.”
For Higdon, surrealism isn’t about adding wildly magical elements to her paintings but capturing someone’s character, which could mean changing the colour of something in the painting. “If I noticed someone’s eyes or tears, I want those to pop out more. So, it’s not whimsical but a little bit surreal.”
Like many artists, Higdon takes commissions and estimates a piece can take about two months to finish, in part because a canvas can have six to seven thin layers of paint and each layer takes weeks to dry.
Higdon almost didn’t make it to her artistic career. As a child she was often painting and recalled going to her kindergarten career day as an artist. But as she got older, she says she wasn’t sure how to go about making a career of it and settled on a “stable” career path with a psychology degree.
“I knew I wanted to do something with humans and behaviour, but I thought I wanted to be a therapist and analyze them,” she said. “But what I really realized in my last month of school was that I wanted to capture them. So instead of observing and analyzing people, I realized that the whole time I wanted to be
This realization had her going to a local arts store and spending almost $1,000 on supplies. Around the time she decided to pursue her artistic career, a friend who was studying photography in Toronto encouraged her to finish her degree and come live in her spare bedroom. So Hidgon graduated in May of 2018 and in August moved to Toronto. She spent time visiting the local galleries and got a job at an art supply store where she was able to learn more about art and make connections.
As a result, Higdon says she is completely self-taught, using online resources like YouTube tutorials and Reddit to figure out techniques.
She was in Toronto for two years but when the pandemic struck, she decided to move back home to St. John’s, which she says turned out to be great for her career.
“You can’t just study art, you have to practise it and make your own routines and you just have to really want it.”