Arts + Design

Art that blurs the line between paint and photograph

Sep 6, 2013 /

Alexa Meade doesn’t paint on canvas. No, as she explains in her talk from TEDGlobal 2013, she paints on something very different — human skin.

“If I want to paint your portrait, I’m painting it on you — physically on you. That also means you’re probably going to end up with an ear full of paint because I need to paint your ear on your ear,” says Meade in this extremely fun talk, given at TEDGlobal 2013. “The mask of paint mimics what is directly below it. In this way, I am able to take a three-dimensional scene and make it look like a two-dimensional painting.”

In her talk, Meade tells us how she went from a political science major (who hadn’t picked up a paintbrush since summer camp) to a working artist with an unusual style that swirls paint and reality into a mind-bending remix. Her work, she says, began as a study of the ways in which shadows fall on the three-dimensional world, but has expanded into something so much more. “For a while, I focused on inanimate objects and created a number of still lifes,” Meade tells us. “But I found the human form such a compelling subject that I began to focus on it.”

Meade’s work reminds us of artist Liu Bolin, who shared how he paints himself into complex backgrounds at TED2013. He also stirs painting, photography and self-portraiture into a compelling cocktail. So we asked Meade about the similarities and differences in their work. “Liu Bolin paints figures that blend into the background. Essentially, his figures are hiding in plain sight in a powerful optical illusion,” says Meade. “In my art, my subjects are also hidden under a layer of paint. But rather than camouflaging my figures, I work toward the opposite optical effect. Using exaggerated brushstrokes, I highlight the surface attributes of their bodies. This self-referential mask obscures yet illuminates the underlying forms.”

So what would an Alexa Meade and Liu Bolin collaboration look like?

“I could envision starting with a scene that Liu Bolin created, and then painting an impressionist-style painting directly on top,” says Meade. “The 3-D nature of the scene would become invisible and would be compressed into a 2-D painting.” In other words, it would be very, very cool.

Watch Alexa Meade’s talk to hear more about the genesis of her style. And below, see a selection of Meade’s images as well as some that show how they were created.

Egg on Egg

This still-life is painted on top of the actual food. Copyright: Alexa Meade.


This painting of a street art scene includes a special surprise. The black and white figure is a painted person standing in front of a background. Copyright: Alexa Meade

Behind the scenes of “Risen”

This photograph of Alexa Meade photographing a scene gives a peak into her process. Copyright: Alexa Meade

Double Take

Alexa’s stunning self-portrait. Copyright: Alexa Meade.

Head Trip

A collaboration between Alexa Meade and Sheila Vand, the background of this image is actually a tub of milk with paint swirling in it. Copyright: Alexa Meade/Sheila Vand

“Head Trip” in progress

Copyright: Alexa Meade

“Hesitate/Activate” in progress

A look behind the scenes of this image. Copyright: David Branson


This beautiful profile was also created by painting a person and placing them in milk. Copyright: Alexa Meade/Sheila Vand

Aligned with Alexa

Alexa Meade joins one of her painted subjects in an image. Copyright: Alexa Meade

See much more of Alexa Meade’s work at her website »

And check out her Facebook page, where she keeps fans updated on new work »