Sheryl Luxenburg is a Canadian hyperrealist artist based in Ottawa who uses watermedia, airbrush, and brush to capture ultra-realistic subject matter, ranging from window reflections and junk yards to figure paintings. Her artwork is so hard to distinguish from reality—especially when viewed online—that many may unwittingly scroll over her work thinking it’s a photograph.
Since childhood Luxenburg demonstrated a predisposition towards painting which was encouraged by her grandfather David, a passionate nonprofessional artist who painted in the cubist style and who taught her how to mix the correct values and colors of pigments from scratch. In her twenties, Luxenburg attained two graduate degrees in clinical psychology. Despite a fulltime job as a licensed psychotherapist, she always continued to paint and attended artist residency programs at The Banff School of Fine Arts in Alberta, Canada. She also had the good fortune to be mentored by the first-generation photorealist Tom Blackwell—renowned for his motorcycle paintings—at Keene State College in New Hampshire, in the US. Blackwell’s methods for capturing flattened depictions of three-dimensional space reinforced Luxenburg’s signature style.
Luxenburg describes the decades she worked as a licensed psychotherapist specializing in trauma and abuse as “highly rewarding.” Her vast knowledge concerning the turbulent human psyche has undoubtedly influenced her artwork. Most of Luxenburg’s work revolves around people or objects that experience some type of distress, such as confusion, dread, conflict, anger, or numbness. Emotions related to feeling overwhelmed, useless, or abandoned also play prominent roles within her compositions. She describes her figures interacting with water as an expression of a fatigued emotional state and her wrecked car series symbolizes the inevitable progression of physical deterioration.
Diagnosed with the autoimmune disorder Systemic Lupus two decades ago and confronted by debilitating symptoms like chronic stiffness and joint pain that drained her energy, she felt forced to retire as a psychotherapist and decided to paint fulltime. After surviving four heart attacks, Luxenburg is determined to be as prolific as time and health allow her. She states, “I live to paint. It has saved my life and given me an outlet to express my emotions. I struggle with feeling trapped in my body… this limits my life, so the subject matter in my work projects this angst. The wrecked cars are a metaphor for my compromised body. Through my subject matter, I am actually portraying myself.”
The four wrecked car paintings shown above will be featured in David Wagner’s museum tour called Luster, which begins in March of 2018 and will travel for two and a half years across the US. This is a wonderful opportunity to see her work in person.
The Shadow of a Former Self series clearly shows Luxenburg’s attraction to painting the weathering and decay of discarded manmade objects, in which she expertly captures rusted metal and shattered glass while nature flourishes all around it. She says, “I believe all beauty is inherently flawed and that the true essence of an object lies in its ability to engage the viewer in spite of what it may represent in the physical realm. When an object is in an active process of decomposition, all pretense is stripped away leaving it vulnerable and honest.”
Luxenburg’s intention with this series is to create a visual dialogue between the past and present which both echo and contribute to appreciating the cycle of life—something very much on her mind since being confronted by her own physical obstacles. She greatly identifies with her hero, Frida Kahlo, who continued painting despite facing devastating health struggles and who coincidentally died the same year Luxenburg was born. When faced by anxiety, Luxenburg says, “I just keep thinking of Frida Kahlo and cling tight to her.”
Luxenburg’s technical skills are undeniably impressive, yet to her it’s especially important that the viewer identifies with her subject matter and finds the soul in her artwork, through which she seeks to show her essence, her spirit, her stormy trajectory.
Naturally, I was curious to learn more about Luxenburg’s painting method. She generously shares some progress shots of current studio work posted below, entitled The High Road, which she says will need around another two months until finished. She usually works on a full series of paintings simultaneously, as many as her studio space will allow to tack onto the walls.
When Luxenburg became allergic to oil paint, she started using watercolors but after a flood in her basement ruined many pieces she added acrylics and various acrylic mediums to her arsenal, using them in exactly the same technique and style as watercolors. In the painting sequence shown above, she first masks the human form and airbrushes the background a solid black, then draws in the details using watercolor pencil. The underpainting is done using Unbleached Titanium, after which the piece gets built up slowly, modulating form and adding subtle detailing using minimal color. She loves glazing, using transparent layers to tone down and build up values and colors.
Most notably, Luxenburg works on her paintings upside-down which helps her to focus on capturing abstract shapes and values without being hindered by the recognizable contents of the subject matter. Unlike most other artists, Luxenburg leaves the detailing of eyes and lips till last, reveling in those defining finishing touches that make the eyes sparkle and the lips flush, magically breathing radiant life into the painted face.
Despite a long and successful career in the arts, Luxenburg’s path has been tainted by controversy. At the time when Luxenburg was at the top of her game, winning awards, achieving signature status in various prominent art societies, and often contributing prize and sales earnings to charities, she was suffering from the debilitating effects of Lupus that left her incapable of leaving the house and perform photoshoots. While working on a series of portraits of homeless people, she found herself in need of fresh reference material so she purchased two photographs online at Shutterstock, believing she now had the legal rights to reproduce them by hand. Combining these two photos, she created a watercolor painting entitled Impermanence which won the 2008 gold medal in the American Watercolor Society’s 141st International Exhibition.
However, the photographer working for Shutterstock spotted the widely published painting and started slandering Luxenburg. This snowballed into a frenzy of online discussions and accusations happening on innumerable blogs, websites, and chat rooms, sowing doubts on Luxenburg’s work ethics. The American Watercolor Society was inundated by phone calls, letters, and emails, and after long deliberation decided to rescind the award on the grounds that Luxenburg’s entry violated their eligibility requirements contained in the prospectus, which stated that “The accompanying artwork is an original; not a copy or likeness of another’s work, i.e. painting, drawing, or photograph.” Luxenburg was devastated—she had indeed neglected, even if unintentionally, to follow the competition guidelines by using stock photography as her reference material. Luxenburg returned her gold medal, the $4000 award, and was barred from entering any future AWS exhibitions.
During our video interview I tentatively touched upon this story, wanting to give Luxenburg a chance to talk about this dark episode in her life. Luxenburg was still visibly shaken by this experience, but insisted the entire situation had been blown out of proportion. She hadn’t meant any harm, and explained that copyright issues or plagiarism had never crossed her mind. She recalled that trying to put this embarrassing incident behind her proved rather more difficult than she expected as the story received worldwide publicity in newspapers and online forums. To make matters worse, she became the recipient of hate mail which included death threats—needless to say, this extreme level of aggression directed at her was hugely out of proportion to what the situation warranted.
Moreover, the legitimacy of her artwork was questioned and rumors spread about the possibility of the use of giclée prints with some degree of painting enhancement—something she forcefully denies doing, adding, “All my paintings are painted by me!” Not surprisingly, many accomplished hyperrealists are suspected of using prints—and indeed, some of them have been exposed of doing so—which is the reason why so many artists working in this style share their work-in-progress publicly.
We also discussed how, at the time, the relative novelty of internet communication, the freedom to publicly criticize anonymously, perhaps professional jealousy, and an overall entrenched misogyny may have played a role in this matter. To be sure, I’ve seen big name artists—all male—commit bigger faux pas without as much as a fraction of the backlash Luxenburg went through and without any longtime consequences to their social or professional status. Clearly our society holds women to a much higher standard and reacts more irrationally and aggressively, and much less forgivingly, when we slip-up. Luxenburg paid dearly for her mistake. I think it’s time to allow her to move onward and upward, don’t you?
Currently, Luxenburg is working on a brand-new series entitled In the Shower Part Two, three paintings of which, entitled Blindsided, Beginning, and Forrest from Trees, are published here for the first time. This impressive new body of work, which Luxenburg describes as “dramatic and in-your-face,” is based on personal loss. The water element seems to symbolize tears and cleansing, the washing away of pain caused by bereavements. Luxenburg has recently lost her father, stepfather, as well as four friends who passed away. “Everything happens at the same time,” Luxenburg says, adding wistfully, “My grieving needs to be more successful.”
The models in these flawless portraits are daughters of Luxenburg’s friends, young women she likes, trusts, and knows well enough to capture their personalities. Luxenburg—intimately called ‘Aunty Sher’ by them—exclusively uses her own reference photographs for all of her work and scrupulously asks for written permission to paint their likeness. Once the reference images have been selected, Luxenburg starts by blowing them up and transfers the line drawings by working in a grid, one section at the time. She only uses the airbrush to blacken the backgrounds, the rest is painted by brush.
Luxenburg says, “I draw and paint upside-down, I’m a super left-brain person, very organized. I have trouble accessing my right brain, so working upside-down is the best way for me.” Being highly organized also means she has a recipe for her color palettes and a recipe for her painting procedure. “The hardest part of the creative process is designing the series,” says Luxenburg, “My series are like a book, each painting is a different chapter. Once the compositions are done, I paint like a robot, working on as many as six pieces simultaneously.”
The most important element, according to Luxenburg, is the soul of her artwork. To her, it’s not only an affirmative way to deal with loss and the harshness of life but also a way to validate her emotions and honor herself in a very personal way. She describes her models as the vessels who carry her emotions. All of Luxenburg’s series portray her moods and psychological phases relating to different periods in her life. She relentlessly strives to create sophisticated paintings that have many narrative layers to them—to be her own visual autobiographer.
Luxenburg’s work is exquisite and her skills are remarkable—all of her pieces are captivating and mesmerizing. At age sixty-three, she paints as often and as many hours as possible, passionate about her craft. Recently an important collector acquired a substantial number of her paintings and there are many more exciting projects on her horizon. Luxenburg also uses her know-how in psychology to privately mentor other artists, helping them to find their niche and develop their own personal styles. Her artistic endeavors and optimistic dynamism will unquestionably lead to many more superb paintings that will continue to wow lovers of hyperrealist art around the world.