“And painted portraits have a life of their own that comes from deep in the soul of the painter and where the machine can’t go.” – Vincent Van Gogh

The human form is the conduit through which we experience life and the instrument through which we express our emotions. In a general sense, art captures moments in time — and it captures people.

In this Art Discovery virtual series, artists Kim Ballard, Priscilla Nelson, Judith Dickinson, and Robin Damore detail how they create accurate and inspiring portrayals of figures; both in realistic and abstracted forms, why artists choose to portray certain images, and what motivates them to capture certain moments on canvas.

The most successful figurative and portrait artists are so because they’ve mastered not just deftness of hand with a brush, but also being able to connect with their subjects.  And it’s that connection that brings their work to life and has the power to evoke emotion in the viewer. 

Kim Ballard has been creating figures and portrait paintings full-time for nearly 20 years, developing an approach driven by the feelings and emotions individuals naturally portray. 

“Figures are able to express emotion like nothing else can. Body language says so much — whether a person’s hand is up or open — each little gesture communicates so much visually,” Kim said. “So, when I take on a subject, it’s because of an emotional feeling. My number one objective is to transfer that feeling onto canvas and show that to the audience and have them feel that.”

For Priscilla Nelson, known for her underwater paintings, it’s also about capturing movement, mood, and moments not just in a person’s body language, but also their clothing. 

“In my works, I prefer for the viewer to tell the story of that moment,” Priscilla said. “I’ve always been fascinated by how you get a group of people in the same moment and same time frame and they all come away with a totally different perspective and meaning. I try to do that with my paintings.”

While their approaches may differ, these artists can all agree on one thing: establishing the right value pattern in painting figures and portraits is one of the most important things they can do. As an artist from the young age of 8, Judith Dickinson has come to understand the importance of values in portraying people. 

“People get so hung up in color, but it’s values that capture the likeness and your values are going to create the realism,” Judith said. “You could paint it the most absurd colors, but it will still look like the person.”

That sentiment is also echoed by Robin Damore. After dabbling in different processes of drawing faces, she realized she needed to change her approach, with a significant focus on values. 

“For me, it’s important to be able to first create a value painting and once it’s dry, go back in and put glazes over the top to create skin tones,” she said. “I prefer to teach a method focused on values and drawing without having to worry about color. Once you move into color, it becomes more complicated.”

Watch the full Art Discovery below to hear some of the stories behind these artists’ works, some of the lessons they’ve learned, and some words of wisdom they can provide. For more on each of the featured artists, check out:

Kim Ballard:


Priscilla Nelson:


Judith Dickinson:


Robin Damore: