For a recent collaboration, illustrator Eli Neugeboren and still-life photographer Christine Blackburne teamed up to create a series of portraits from an unlikely — and finicky — material: nail polish. The idea to use the beauty product as paint came from years of shooting nail polish blobs for beauty editorials and cosmetic companies: “I knew for a while that I wanted to do some sort of painting with nail polish, but I can’t really draw much more than stick figures myself,” Christine told the Cut. After meeting Eli at a group show last year, the two decided to collaborate on a series of portraits — inspired by Jackson Pollock, John Singer Sargent, and street paintings by Greenpoint-based artist Paul Richard — made by dripping nail polish onto acetate and photographing them while still wet. The New York–based artists spoke to the Cut about the inspiration for the series and the challenges of painting with nail polish.
Where did you get the idea to paint portraits out of nail polish?
Christine: It came from a bunch of different things. I shoot a lot of nail polish blobs and squiggles in my daily life for magazines and different cosmetic companies. My original concept was that I wanted to take this beauty product that we usually apply to our own bodies and turn that on its head — so you see the beauty product making a beautiful person. From seeing other artists work with ink as a medium, I envisioned these as very free-flowing — I wanted there to be a sense of movement in them. I’ve always really enjoyed this very gestural type of drawing.
Eli: Christine sent me images of Paul Richard’s work, which is this kind of drip-paint street art, and there was also a natural connection to Jackson Pollock and that kind of thing. I was thinking of it as more of a kinetic experience and less of a labored, painterly thing — really trying to get at a gesture with something that’s not usually used to get a gestural mark.
How is painting with nail polish different from other materials that you’ve used?
Eli: It’s very close to painting with heavy enamel — like something you’d use to paint the fence outside your house. It’s very viscous and thick; it has such a heavy, soupy feel to it. Because of the way Christine shoots, I wanted to capture the real luscious, sensual feeling of the nail polish, so I wanted to make sure it wasn’t brushy. It’s different in that sense, because I was dripping everything. It’s very different from working in oils or something like that, where you’re really pushing the paints together on the palette and then pushing the paints together on the canvas, and really mashing it up. With dripping, you have to get over the natural impulse to want to control everything and make it perfect. To me the experience was much more like a gesture drawing, but using a liquid to do it.
So you shoot the portraits while the polish is still wet?
Christine: Yeah. With nail polish there’s usually a certain amount of time before they start to separate. It depends on the kind of nail polish — some of them will separate immediately, but we didn’t use those ones, obviously. But all of them were still wet as we were shooting them, because after a while they sort of get tacky, and no longer have that really reflexive, luscious quality.
Eli: Think about, like, soup. They get a skin on them after a little while and they start to shrink and get wrinkly — it just changes the texture completely.
What kind of nail polish works best for your purposes?
Christine: Gel polish tends to work a little better because it’s much thicker, but unfortunately it’s also way more expensive. We also tried to work with some more sparkles, but that tends to separate really quickly.
Eli: Yeah, the flat, opaque colors tend to work the best.
Do you plan to do more work with nail polish?
Christine: Definitely. Nail polish is so much fun to work with. The colors are amazing — it’s more than I could possibly imagine in the rainbow. This was also the first time I’ve worked in collaboration with an artist. Before the shoot, I wondered if I was just going to feel like I was taking a picture of someone else’s art, but I actually ended up doing a lot more with the lighting that I had originally thought.
Eli: It really was a true collaboration in that sense. There was a lot of dialogue, and it was really an exciting process.