I first came across Julie Celina’s artwork on Instagram. One of her paintings of an Indian woman caught my eye – a woman in a bright yellow sari, surrounded by overgrown greenery and an incredible real sadness in her eyes. It remains my favourite painting of Julie’s, but over time as I have followed her work, I find myself captivated by many of her portraits of women around the world. They all evoke a powerful beauty and showcase the vibrant variety of women around the world, no matter what corner of the planet they come from.
In this interview, I chat with Julie about the inspiration behind her paintings, how she chooses her subjects and how travel inspires her work.
When did you start painting? Have you studied art?
I never studied art, but art has always been a part of my life. I am currently studying anthropology at the university. Around 2013 I began drawing a lot of portraits with graphite pencils, I developed a real interest in portraying different people. For many years I practised drawing very realistic black and white drawings, I loved spending hours and hours perfecting all the little shadows and details. Almost everyone in my family has some sort of creative hobby, my mom has painted very big abstract acrylic paintings ever since I was born.
On an uneventful day in August 2015, I asked my mom if I could borrow her paint. Even though it had been years since I had worked with colours and never tried acrylics before I dove in head first when my mom gave me permission to paint over one of her old discarded paintings. This was the day I began painting, and I haven’t looked back since. On my mom’s canvas, I wanted to paint a portrait, but because I wasn’t used to working with colours I was afraid that I would not be able to mix the right skin tones. Therefore, I chose to paint the entire portrait in unrealistic colours. Having a lot of knowledge about shadows helped me to paint the right values when I started using colours. As long as you are painting the right values, a portrait can still look realistic no matter what colours you are using. This portrait I painted on my mom’s canvas became the first painting in my series ‘United Colours of Women’.
When did you start to celebrate cultures of the world through your artwork?
When I began studying social anthropology I learned about culture, how it defines us, limits us, gives us belonging and how important it is. Some cultures are more celebrated and valued than others, but I believe all cultures to be equally important because no matter who you are you can always learn something from someone else no matter where they are from. Call me an idealist, but this is what I believe, and that is why I began celebrating cultures and telling stories through my art when I began studying anthropology.
How do you find the inspiration and subjects for your paintings? What in particular inspires you about a person to want to paint them?
This is actually a really difficult question because I like to diversify my subjects. But generally, I love painting people with a good story or agenda. If the reference has some good contrasts and the person has some twinkling eyes they are usually more interesting for me to paint. I love painting people from other cultures more than from my own because painting their portrait motivates me to learn more about them, so I will often find an anthropological article about the people where my subject lives. I especially love painting people from India and Ethiopia. India because I have been there, I know a lot about Indian culture and people are generally really colourful and beautiful. Ethiopia because to me it is this mystical faraway land with the most beautiful tribes who decorate themselves so beautifully with plants, body paint and stretch earrings. As of now, I can’t go to Ethiopia because I take some medication that prevents me from getting the vaccine for yellow fever. It saddens me that Ethiopia might stay a mystical wonderland to me, filled with perfect painting subjects that I might never meet.
How have your own travels influenced your work, and has there been any trips which have particularly inspired you to create art based on a place?
I am always inspired to make art when I come home from travelling. Generally, when I have been somewhere very different from where I live I am more inspired to paint the people from that place. Ever since I got back from travelling for three months in India I have been inspired to paint and learn more about people from India. I also found the people I met in Palestine very inspiring, and now one of them is my reference for the sixth painting of ‘United Colours of Women’. I feel more connected to the paintings I make of people I have met in real life on my travels. It is easier for me to imagine how I want to represent a person I have met before because I have some stories to connect the person with.
Where did the idea for the ‘United Colours of Women’ project come from? What do you hope to show people through this project?
As mentioned, the first painting of ‘United Colours of Women’ was also my very first painting. After finishing this painting I knew I wanted to make another one. After having finished my second and third painting in the series I started studying social anthropology, which made me realise how important culture is. I decided to make a series of ten paintings of colourful women like the first three paintings I made, and this series should celebrate all women and be a symbolic exclamation mark on how beautiful, strong and important every woman in the world is no matter where she is from, what colour her skin is, or how much money she has. In the beginning I painted people in unrealistic colours, because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to mix the right ones, but even though this is not an issue for me anymore, I like the symbolism in not having to care about finding the correct skin colour, just like there shouldn’t be a more correct skin colour in the real world either.
What is the process of creating one of your ‘United Colours of Women’ portraits? Talk us through your thoughts and actions from the idea to the end product.
For this series it is important for me not to paint two women from the same country, I want to represent people from all over the world. When I have found a woman to paint I draw a grid on my canvas with my grandfather’s old ruler and sketch out the face. I always start painting the mouth, and then the eyes and nose, I want to let the important elements in the face decide what colour the rest should be. Then I paint the hair/headscarf and neck. Lastly, I paint the background, this is the hardest part because the colour of the background can change the entire painting, it always takes me three to five tries before I find the right colour for the background. The names of my paintings are different adjectives in the native language of the portrayed women, which I think represents them best. If I know the person I painted I let them help me figure out the name of the painting. After I finish a painting my sister and I will photograph it in different locations around the city. We like to go into nature or construction sites because these are places of constant transformation, so no one will ever be able to recreate these images at any other point in time. I also think it is very interesting to display paintings in complete opposite surroundings from a gallery.
Are there any destinations in the world you would love to travel to and make art from?
Yes! This list is very long, but the number one place I long to go to and make art from is Bhutan. Bhutan is a small kingdom in the Himalayas sandwiched between the big China and India. This small country is so inspiring to me. I am very impressed with how much Bhutan cares about the environment and their people. It is more important to Bhutan that their people are happy than wealthy, and they have promised to remain CO2 neutral at all times by not producing more carbon dioxide than their nature can absorb. I have heard so many amazing stories about Bhutan, and I really want to experience this unique country myself.
What’s next for you? What would you like to paint next? Where are you travelling to this year?
I still have to finish the series ‘United Colours of Women’ I need three more paintings, the next woman in the series is going to be a very nice Finnish girl I met in Morocco. I have many plans for future series, but I haven’t decided anything yet. I have thought about making a series of paintings about the Rohingya people, who are currently fleeing from Myanmar because the state won’t recognize them as a people, and are attacking them and destroying their villages.
I don’t have any big travel plans this year. I already went to Morocco in January and I will go to Budapest with my friend in July. I am saving up to study a semester abroad in Nepal in six months, and I hope to go to Bhutan and back to India afterwards.
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Annapurna Mellor is a travel photographer, writer and co-founder of Roam Magazine. She fell in love with Asia shortly after graduating and has since spent extensive periods travelling and photographing in India, Nepal, Myanmar and many more. She shoots regularly for brands and publications and her work can be found in National Geographic Traveller Magazine, Lonely Planet, Suitcase and The Guardian. When not on the road, she is based in Manchester, UK.