Seattle-based artist Gabrielle Bakker, in residence at Lux Art Institute, paints classical characters in contemporary settings


Gabrielle Bakker’s paintings are stories where divergent worlds collide. Her characters include Minotaurs, geishas, mythological figures and surfers, executed meticulously in style and technique.

Her colors, attention to detail and materials are inspired by old masters, resulting in pieces that are classical yet modern and often whimsical.

All are the result of hard work, skill and dedication.

Bakker starts with a canvas and covers it with gesso that is made with traditional ingredients that include rabbit skin glue, chalk and leaded white paint. She then paints with oil, using real gold leaf to add a deep luster to her settings.

“I use an older technique because it makes a difference how things come out,” Bakker said. “I want things to last, so I will use the best materials for the job. It’s the layers that go into something that makes it hold up.”

The Seattle-based artist is spending a month at the Lux Art Institute in Encinitas, where she will paint a scene of Icarus, Leda and Ariadne in a modern setting. Like all Bakker’s paintings, this one has a narrative she paints the scene around.

“The characters are as they exist now. They don’t know that they are mythological,” she said.

It will be part of a series of paintings where mythological characters are set in modern times. A 2014 work has Leda in shorts and a T-shirt fishing along cliffs by the ocean.

“All paintings are you (the viewer) interloping,” she said. “They are staring at you because they have to stop what they are doing to look at you.”

But Bakker added, viewers should add their own narrative.

“I don’t want to tell them what to think,” she said. “I hope they will invent their own context. That’s the difference between art and illustration. Art is open to interpretation.”

To prepare for the painting, Bakker has done a prototype in black and white to focus the light and shadow.

“The key to painting is the correct light and dark,” she said.

To make sure she’s got it right, Bakker has a small diorama with a spotlight and clay models so she can see the way the light falls on a three-dimensional figure.

Her biggest challenge for the painting, she said, is to get it done in a month. (To speed up the process, she is using acrylic gesso so it will dry faster.) Most of her pieces take years to finish because she works on about 30 at once.

“I always have different threads going,” Bakker said. “If I get stumped, I can go on to something else, then circle around and find a solution. My only rule is that I have to finish.”

For the exacting artist, sometimes finishing means throwing the whole thing out.

“A fair amount of work gets destroyed, because I have worked my way into a hole,” she said.

Her creative process starts with drawing and sketching for two to three hours every morning, studying perspective and anatomy. The sketchbooks are the seeds for her inspirations for paintings. So far, she has filled up 60 since she started when she was 15 in 1973.

Her next step is creating a prototype, which is essentially a smaller version of the painting. But once she starts on the painting, Bakker said, she often sees something she doesn’t like and starts modifying — changing an angle or a piece of clothing more than once, scraping the paint off down to the undercoat to start over.

Look closely, and you’ll notice some small detail in her paintings unfinished. That’s intentional, she said, because “a purely finished work is dead.”

Bakker’s exhibit at Lux covers a range of her work from the classically styled “Leda,” who is holding Zeus in the form of a swan, and a portrait called “Hope” and to the cubist influenced geisha collection, which includes the “Geisha Minotaur” and “Geisha and Dread.” A series of small paintings of faces called “Head Study” have a more modern, fluid look, and the surfboard makes an appearance in “Surfer Girls” and “Geisha Surfer.”

“I love surfboards. They are iconic and totemic things.”

Bakker, who received a bachelor of fine arts degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a master of fine arts degree from Yale University, said she has more ideas than time.

“I can’t do everything that I’m thinking of,” she said.

Mythology is a recurring subject because it reflects “humankind and its foibles and it’s universal,” she said. “I don’t want to paint about specific events because I don’t want to date myself.”

“You have to follow your instincts. I want it to last and I want it to be good.”

Gabrielle Bakker

When: In residence through May 5. On exhibit through June 2.

Where: Lux Art Institute, 1550 S. El Camino Real, Encinitas

Admission: $5 for adults. Free for Lux members, 18 and under, bicycle riders.

Phone: (760) 436-6611


Schimitschek is a freelance writer.