Through Mystical Mixed-Media Narratives, Artist Rithika Merchant Explores Intrinsic Connection
“I’m drawn to works that are rich in symbolism and also have a strong element of storytelling,” says Rithika Merchant. “I love seeing the artist’s hand in the work—I have a huge appreciation for small details and works that draw from a multitude of references—literary, mythical, and visual.”
The Mumbai-born artist manifests these same qualities in her practice, creating works that expertly translate concepts and themes through her own idiosyncratic allusions. Beginning with hours of study, research, and reading on an eclectic array of topics, Merchant tends to hone in on an image that she sketches onto sheets of paper, sometimes folded into generous rectangles or triangles. She then paints in gouache and subtle, muted washes of watercolor, layering translucent pigments atop inked renderings of landscapes, mythical hybrid creatures, and patterns of foliage.
While Merchant’s influences are broad—they range from the specific like 17th-century botanical drawings, Kalamkari prints, Mughal paintings, and Kalighat folk art to the general like religious iconography and narrative tapestries—they emerge as a distinct visual lexicon. The artist often gravitates toward symbols that transcend cultural or geographical boundaries, choosing to incorporate human anatomy, celestial objects, and botanical elements. Although universal, these images are married to language in Merchant’s mind and in service of an individual narrative. “I also have a notebook in which I make lots of written notes and diagrams, but I almost never make sketches or studies of things. I sketch more with words than images,” the artist shares.
Evoking the spiritual side of Hilma af Klint and the strange characters of Leonora Carrington, the resulting works are cartographic and chart-like, mapping surreal renderings of feathered wings, cycloptic figures, or a troupe of dancing creatures onto a plane intersected with creases and enclosed by a thin frame. Texture pervades each of the works through mixed mediums, collaged details, and patterns comprised of minuscule dots and lines.
Whether collaged or drawn on paper, each piece illuminates the intrinsic connections between the mind, body, and Earth. “I think there is something powerful in taking whatever scraps you can find and putting them together to create something meaningful,” she says.
Merchant is currently in a residence in Saint-Louis, Senegal, and will release her first monograph titled The Eye, The Sky, The Altar next month. For a glimpse into her studio and process, visit her Instagram.
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In Graham Franciose’s ‘Morning Coffee Paintings,’ Dreamlike Watercolor Works Capture the Day’s Unmediated Emotion
Many days, artist and illustrator Graham Franciose sits down with watercolor, gouache, and a small sheet of cotton paper to paint a whimsical scene or surreal moment. A skateboarder carries a tree in a backpack, an anxious figure peeks through a colorful monster mask, and an oversized lion snarls at an approaching man. “I like to do these first thing in the morning when I am still not fully awake and start with a blank slate and no preconceived idea,” he tells Colossal.
Dreamlike in style and subject matter, the works are part of an ongoing series simply titled Morning Coffee Paintings. Since Franciose began the ritualistic project in 2019, he’s created about 450 pieces, which reflect a range of moods through mysterious scenarios and quiet, contemplative figures. “I put my phone on the tripod and start the timelapse camera and just start drawing. I’ve noticed that by filming them it keeps me from second-guessing myself or spending too much time deliberating about choices like color or composition and forces me to just trust myself and my practice,” he shares.
An exercise in experimentation and releasing perfectionism, the paintings are also a visual diary of the artist’s practice and unfiltered emotional states. “Sometimes recurring themes, symbols, or concepts will come up in different ways, and they do evolve and change over time,” he says.
Franciose is currently based in Seattle where he runs Get Nice. Gallery. There are still a few of July’s original paintings available on the series’ site, and you can shop prints at Sebastian Foster, Austin Art Garage, and Bloom. If you’re in New Hampshire, you can see some of his pieces in the Enormous Tiny Art #33 at Nahcotta Gallery early next year. Otherwise, follow him on Instagram for updates on new paintings.
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Enchanting Vignettes Illustrated by Melpomeni Chatzipanagiotou Nestle Inside Small Wood Cuts
Encircled in roughly textured bark, thin woodcuts become canvases for the whimsical landscapes and scenes illustrated by Melpomeni Chatzipanagiotou. The Greek artist uses a combination of pen, ink, gouache, and acrylic paint to draw outdoor vignettes cloaked in pattern and cosmic details. Nighttime skies are brimming with snowflakes, stars, and light trails that illuminate the natural subject matter and add a dose of fantasy to the heavily patterned works.
Chatzipanagiotou has a number of illustrations on wood and paper available on Etsy, and you can watch her at work on Instagram. Her third coloring book, Enchanting Earth, is slated for release in February, and the previous two, Circle of Life and Nature Mandalas, are currently available on Bookshop.
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Graceful Women in Shades of Blue by Hanna Lee Joshi Express a Desire for Autonomy
With long, elegant fingers and brawny limbs, the women that define Hanna Lee Joshi’s gouache and colored pencil works move through the unknown and indiscernible with strength. The Vancouver-based artist renders anonymous figures in motion, whether dancing together or gracefully gliding through water, on their search for greater autonomy and fulfillment unobscured by political, cultural, and social impositions. In comparison to her earlier series, Joshi’s most recent pieces rely more heavily on shades of blue and use more subtle gradients to contour a leg or elbow.
A reference to self-portraiture and a subversion of traditions surrounding nude figures, each of the works is “a means of reflection, a way for me to distill down the tangible and intangible experiences of my life,” she says. “In a way, they are an extension of myself, portraits of emotions, explorations of unanswerable questions, a way for me to grasp at the immensity of life.”
Joshi has a solo show slated for December at Thinkspace Projects, and “Delicate Veil of Being” is available as a limited-edition print in her shop. Explore more of her introspective works on Instagram.
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Flora and Fauna Assume Eccentric Guises in Bill Mayer’s Wryly Playful Portraits
Royal frogs, masquerading lemurs, and florals with human faces are just some of the eccentric characters in acclaimed illustrator Bill Mayer’s (previously) gouache paintings. The traditional aesthetic of European still-life, aristocratic portraiture, and romantic landscape paintings set the scene for uncanny, chimerical subjects who engage in dreamlike encounters or gaze haughtily at the viewer. Gouache, which is water-soluble and more vividly opaque than watercolor, allows the artist to mimic the incredible detail of oil paint.
Mayer continues to work on commissioned projects for recognizable publications such as The New York Times Magazine, Smithsonian, Mother Jones, and Scientific American. He often shares his varied assignments on his blog, including a collaboration earlier this year with the producers of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver to submit a painting to the Federal Duck Stamp Contest. “Duck Judges”—although disqualified from winning the stamp design for technical reasons—raised $25,000 in funds to support the conservation efforts of the National Wildlife Refuge System.
Mayer is currently working toward some group shows, and you can keep up with updates on his website, where you can also find prints available for sale in his shop. (via This Isn’t Happiness)
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Vivid Environments by Yellena James Pause Natural Processes to Capture Life in Flux
Following her series centered around the healing properties of Prussian blue, Portland-based artist Yellena James continues to imagine vibrant ecosystems brimming with fantastical life from land and sea. Her delicate organisms appear to float in washes of pastel colors and evoke coral, kelp, and daisies with an unearthly and whimsical twist.
Recently on view at Stephanie Chefas Projects, James’s Origin series works in this vein and explores the most fundamental aspects of existence. “I attempt to capture the instance of inception and freeze it as though pressing pause in the middle of a chemical reaction, and I wonder if these lifeforms are forced into existence by their own needs and desires or the needs and desires of the forces themselves,” she says. Vivid and full of patterned textures rendered in a mix of acrylic, gouache, and ink, the pieces are alluring interpretations of organisms in the midst of change.
James is currently at work on a variety of projects across painting, illustration, and ceramics, and you can follow her latest projects on her site and Instagram. She also sells prints, cards, and other goods on Etsy.
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