Sharidyn Barnes has been drawing since her junior year of high school, using mainly pen and charcoal. She went from majoring in painting as an undergrad straight into getting an MFA in painting at SCAD, the Savannah campus in Georgia. It’s a rigorous academic experience and admittedly, she’ll be happy when it’s over. But for now, she’s pushing out thought-provoking pieces quarter by quarter and pushing her own abilities in the process. She’s also pushing people to think beyond the surface, to look deeper not just at her work but at themselves.
“There’s a conversation in just having these pieces that are unapologetic and look very straight forward at the audience when you look at them.”
Big head acrylic painting by Sharidyn Barnes
Sharidyn Barnes shared with me some of the intention behind her work. She’s created several pieces she refers to as “big heads” – large canvas acrylic and oil paintings and pen drawings of …well, human heads. Pictured below she stands proudly next to one of these big head oil paintings of a friend, whose head faces away from you in profile. There is playful color woven into the brown skin figure. There is character underlying the way he looks away at something the onlooker becomes curious to see. There’s a start to a conversation. “They’re all pretty much expressive and have a lot of emotion behind them. But I think it’s also a reflection of the generation we live in now that’s pretty much unafraid to be themselves; unlike past generations that have been more quiet or [not] as outspoken as we are. But we’re okay with who we are. We’re not afraid to be that. That’s what a lot of my paintings are about.” She points out that not only is the content of the piece significant, but the sheer size of the canvas is meaningful. “It’s about being in these spaces that didn’t really allow us to have people of color or Black people in them. I think these heads are just me showing you can have these people, these people are beautiful and there’s no reason to not think so.”
Big head oil painting by Sharidyn Barnes
She uses a lot of repetition in her work. One of her techniques involves repetitious mark making. “That’s a big thing for me, making a mark over and over again. I think it’s evident in my old artwork and any paintings. I guess blending is what I like to do. I’m not into sculpture or 3D or digital, but you never know what could happen.” Her mediums of choice are acrylic, oil and pen on canvas or paper. Looking over the span of her work, she uses skin tones for the paintings yet not for the drawings. I was curious about whether this was another intentional move or something that just kind of happened. “A lot of my color choices are mostly medium based. With the acrylic ones, two of the big heads are acrylic, they’re brighter in color because you’re able to play with the acrylic more. Sometimes it doesn’t dry true to color, it dries matte. With the oil paintings, I’m thinking about the traditional sense of artwork and how you look at the old master paintings, and traditionally with the medium of oil it doesn’t really include anyone Black. I think that realism is an important part of what I create in making these figurative pieces. But with the pen drawings, they’re not true to color and they can feel interesting because they’re more process based. [Since they’re not] true to color people don’t really approach them in the same way.”
For Sharidyn, the choice has come about through the experience of others’ reactions. People seem to come with their own preconceived notions about art. “With the big head drawings, I think people approach them in a more commercialized way. With the pen drawings, they’re approached in this way of process and labor; people think less about the content and more about how did I have the time to create these drawings because it’s in ballpoint pen. I think it’s just interesting in that way with how there’s different reactions.” People have presented her with their own preferences, liking one medium over another. But she believes they all serve a purpose.
“Moving forward in getting my MFA, you’ll see less acrylic big heads and me mostly sticking to the pen drawings and the oil paintings. Like the Superman I did, it was more figurative, more full-bodied. You’ll see much more of that.” She refers to a recent work she created with four pieces: two ballpoint, one acrylic, and one oil. She was inspired from a Barkley L. Hendricks piece entitled “Icon for My Man Superman (Superman never saved any black people — Bobby Seale)”.
Barkley L. Hendricks inspired acrylic painting by Sharidyn Barnes
You may notice the man pictured here is the same man at the top of this article, just in a different medium and only as a head. “I just rearranged it to this idealized image of what I thought Superman would be if he existed in 2019… And I think it turned out well. I think it’s something I explore as I continue to go on – how young Black people’s attitudes have shifted throughout the time period of what it used to be to what it is now. Showing who we are as people. I did the same person three times, the same person has a big head painting and a pen drawing. I’ve been [creating] people multiple times to try to see what would happen if I created this person that the world feels can only be one thing when really Black people have multiple sides to them. My medium and usage [expresses] the idea of how many different ways we’re portrayed.”
Sharidyn spoke about how people can have certain emotional reactions to or mindsets about the medium itself. When it comes to oil paintings, the typical experience is that oil paintings are refined, or pristine. Even though she is using the same person as her subject, the medium she creates him in affects the perception people have of that artwork. In a way, it’s shifting the impression people have towards the person in the work. So how did she come to this notion of pushing into the way people react simply by changing the medium? I described the whole thing as a social experiment. “When I was thinking about oil painting, all I could think about was old master paintings. They’re made for rich, wealthy people and political gain. When I see them, I think this is for a specific purpose, to say whatever you want to say whether its religious or whatever that person had chosen to be about.”
“You can make acrylic realistic but it’s not always done in that way. When I see acrylic paintings, you don’t have that deep history behind it. It’s not the same reaction. I think people think that way when they approach my paintings.” She came to the idea simply through her attempts at strengthening her own skills, drawing or painting the same person repeatedly. “I ended up feeling like people reacted to the paintings differently and I wanted to explore that and see what conversation that would start. I got it from the way Black people are portrayed in the media, how many times you would see the same person and how the news will change the story to fit whatever is necessary to them. I viewed the medium as the same idea, how I could make this person into two or three different paintings and people completely think something different about it.”“The reality of art is that all mediums should be seen as equal and it doesn’t seem like they are.”
Whatever meaning people take away from the work is really a reflection of them. The context of who a person is and the way they think all come together to form their perspective of things. Whatever past experiences have shaped unconscious biases. Whatever has happened to shape and mold their world is shown, if only in a small fraction, through their interpretation of the artwork.
Big head pen drawing by Sharidyn Barnes
Although portraits consisting of heads dominates her work, Sharidyn is not limiting herself to the human face and its intricacies. She hopes to move into more full-body work, head to toe figures. Oil painting has been the biggest challenge for her thus far. She explained to me the importance of learning color theory and avoiding mistakes with oil painting. She described color theory as foundational. As a complete beginner to the painting world, this was yet another educational nugget for me, so I asked Sharidyn to share some of her reference materials that have helped her.
The notable books she uses are “Figure Drawing: Design and Invention” by Michael Hampton, “Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter” by James Gurney, and plenty of George Bridgeman books. She also has tapped into YouTube. Her go-to has been Proko. When I thought about it, for me, it made sense to be able to watch someone do something and try to emulate it before making it your own. But how could reading help improve something so tactile in nature? “It can be difficult. It does take a lot of discipline to understand. It’s not something that it’s easy to get. A lot of people like seeing these amazing artists doing these figurative works and don’t realize how much time and effort it takes to become good at that. It takes a lot of disciple, a lot of repetition to figurative work.”
So what’s on the horizon for this up and coming artist? She has her eyes set on graduating. In very practical terms, she laid out her desire to do exceedingly well with her thesis show (and paper). The thesis show is where art students demonstrate how much they were able to master over the two and a half years of arduous formal training. After graduating, she hopes to land a residency and live out life as a full-time artist showcasing her work in galleries. Sharidyn left me with this advice to share with other student artists and other creatives out there:
“I would say study. Try to find an artist that you like and watch their interviews, watch what they have to say. Try to incorporate that into your own artwork. I know about being on IG, it’s always just a popularity contest but you can sell your work and not have that many followers, and you can sell it for thousands and thousands of dollars. Or, you can have a lot of followers and you find that you’re struggling. Don’t believe the lie that says if you do X Y Z you’re gonna make this amount of money because it’s not necessarily true. If you really wanted to figure out how to do something, try to ask a person or DM a person or artist you admire and ask them how they do X Y Z. If they don’t get back to you, try studying, reading a book. Be very disciplined in what you’re doing. It’s the only way that you’re gonna get to where you get to. I know social media can have people (artists) make what’s popular because it’s popular…and not really [take the time to make what they want to make]. Make what you want to make and study that.”