Barbara Issahary
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Painting slowly: The Story of Helen

When I first started painting, I worked for several months on each painting, only completing about two works a year. I painted from life with the model coming twice a week, to my studio, which was all I could afford. My compositions had fairly large areas of negative space, which I continued to develop when the model wasn’t in the studio.

Working slowly imbibes my paintings with depth and integrity. For me it is more about familiarizing myself with the subject, than the actual painting process itself. Studies have shown how we use cognitive controls in our brain to filter out irrelevant information: for instance, when standing before a spectacular panorama, our brain might filter out visual pollution like telephone poles and billboards. It has been my experience that despite studying the same model in the same pose for several months, I would suddenly become aware of a nook or twist in her body which my brain had simply filtered it out.

At that time my studio was located at home, so my young daughters became accustomed to models roaming around the apartment in their bathrobes, or making coffee in the kitchen.  To this day, my daughters remember being astonished by a model (who was a dancer) doing cartwheels in our lounge, they had never seen an adult man do such a thing.


Helen oil on canvas 120x100cm 1997 Private collection

  • The Story of Helen

I have worked with both male and female models but instinctively gravitated towards working with women, it felt more natural and my paintings turned out better.  The relationship between painter and model is very unusual: in our busy lives, when do we get to spend quality time with one person? 

On this painting I worked with a model called Helen and over time we became close friends.  She even introduced me to her mother, begging me not mention how we met, as her mother did not approve of nude modelling.

While we were working together, Helen was writing her first theater play; this she managed to write and produce even before I had completed my painting, I remember feeling very envious!

Most of the paintings in this series have been sold and “Helen” was bought by an interior designer who renovated my apartment.

In 1998, I sold a second painting to the musician and art collector David Bowie, but that is story for another day.

Sleeping 1 oil on canvas 120×120 cm 1998 (David Bowie Collection )

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You can read more about why I became a painter on my About page.

Question: Do you have an interesting story about painting from life?  


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