In the studio with Sarah Stieber

I first saw Sarah Stieber’s work while scrolling down on Instagram, looking for paintings of couples for my Valentine’s day post. Alongside realistic, and I’m sorry to say, mundane paintings, her art stood out like neon night in a dark room. Her models were shaded with intense blue and green tones contrasted with deep red and pink ones. But these non-realistic colours led to a very human and intimate portrait. This was her self-defined technique, electric realism, I later learnt.

Marriage, oil on canvas, Sarah Stieber
Marriage, oil on canvas, Sarah Stieber

“When I was studying in Venice, Italy, 11 years ago, I shined coloured lights and that’s how I started experimenting… I realized that if you shine a red light then the shadow is sort of the opposite colour, so when I look at you now one side of your face looks a little bit more green because the other side looks a little bit more red. (…) I came up with that term, electric realism, to describe how I want my art to feel… Technically I want it to feel almost synthetic and ultravibrant and electric but still have those realistic qualities and then conceptually it’s meant to feel like it’s a hyper-expressive version of reality.”

So, you see, when I read that she’s coming all the way from California to London for a residency, I had to meet her.

I met Sarah in a cosy coffee shop near Peckham station. She was exactly as I expected her to be. Wearing the sparkliest dress I had ever seen, honest, friendly and so open that I immediately felt like I knew her. What I didn’t expect is to meet a business mastermind. A woman who creates her own opportunities and draws her own paths by thinking outside the box. She always wanted to come paint in London and whenever she met people from here she would just mention it. She met a British couple with a house here, a girl whose mum owns an art gallery in London… and next thing, she was here on a residency.

Painting by Sarah Stieber
Painting by Sarah Stieber

“Always be open to opportunities and don’t be afraid to talk to everybody and ask a lot of questions. When I first moved back to San Diego, I didn’t know anyone in the arts and I wanted to build an art career in a place that’s not like London, there isn’t a big arts scene over there. It’s really just about being creative and pursuing every opportunity that I could… I didn’t wait for a gallery, I approached a coffee shop, booked a band, I served wine and I got 100 people to come… I could have spent hours and hours applying for an art residency but instead I just made my own here.”

Britain is not very famous about its weather, so I really wondered how this grey, rainy sky would affect an artist who uses really intense colours and lives in sunny California.

“I find this weather really dreamy, everything looks so milky and subdued, like a Monet painting. I’m really inspired by it. When I lived in Boston and studied abroad in Venice the weather was more like here in London, kind of grey…but I was still obsessed with the bright colours. So while this weather gives me a greater perspective, I don’t see my use of bright colors changing too much while I’m painting here.”

Paintings by Sarah Stieber
Paintings by Sarah Stieber

Another thing that made me love Sarah’s paintings is her way of depicting women. It’s so common that female portraits are of pretty but subdued women, looking away melancholically. These women are nothing like that. They’re all strong, confident, rocking their high heels and shiny clothes. Real women who can be actual role models.

Painting by Sarah Stieber
Painting by Sarah Stieber

“…since Trump became president of the United States, our collective consciousness has become much more aware of what an issue sexism and misogyny is in the country, and in the world, still, while before I think we were a little bit blind to it in California, we thought it was all good. So I felt like the veil was sort of lifted… and my work didn’t just happen to portray strong women it was about strong women. So my last couple of series “Rainbow Ribbon Magic” was inspired by the Women’s March, and the “Superpower” series and the one coming next are all about women who inspire me and are pursuing their passions.

My new series is a response to this issue I’m seeing so much in contemporary art, so many portraits of women in art and in media, have no head, it’s just the women’s body.

I keep it seeing it and it’s so troubling to me and I can’t unsee how often it’s just about the women’s body, whereas if you look for portraits of men they are heads, and with women it just happens that there’s no heads, it’s all about their body. It’s so problematic for society and visual language is so important for how we as a culture perceive women.

These headless bodies that Sarah talked about reminded me of Magritte’s painting Rape. It shows a woman whose face is made of her breasts and vagina, a literal sexualisation and objectification.

I can’t wait to see Sarah’s next paintings! Here are a few of her latest paintings.

  • "Policy Director", Sarah Stieber, series "Face It", 48" x 48", Acrylic on Canvas
  • "In My Power" by Sarah Stieber, 36" x 36"
  • "Females Are Strong As Hell" by Sarah Stieber, 30" x 40"
  • "Look At Me" by Sarah Stiber, 36" x 36", Acrylic on canvas
  • "Goddess on a Good Day" by Sarah Stieber, 54" x 42", acrylic on canvas

Sarah’s tip for artists:

“Don’t be afraid to kill your babies. If you paint a beautiful eye and you’re precious about it, it’s probably going to be a terrible painting. You need to see the painting as a whole and you cannot be afraid to paint over it and paint over it, so you got it right. Keeping in mind too that if you’re starting out, something that is so precious to you, in ten years you won’t even like it…”

“When I first started I remember what a revelation it was to take your work so seriously. For example I was doing photoshoots. I would go to stores and find fabrics and I would find a model and arrange the whole thing that would cost money and resources and time. I think it’s great to make the images in your head a reality and just keep following your creativity. …Make something that feels true and unique, and keep pushing yourself creatively to do the work to really get the reference images…”

Sarah on tools…

Novacolor paint is really great because they sell factory directs so the prices are really reasonable. It’s formulated for mural painters so it’s really fluid which is great because so much of the paint for artists that you buy try to be like oil paint so they’re really thick.

How to keep your paint wet:
Sara uses an airtight container that she lines with thick paper towels. She sprays it with water to get it really wet. On top of that she applies the paint. When you’re done painting, spray again, cover with cling film and close it in an airtight container. It will keep wet for months. To use it again, take off the cling film, spray it again, and start painting.

Sarah's website
Sarah's Instagram

Where to see Sarah’s work if you live in London: Catharine Miller gallery

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