The Art of Kadir Nelson

Masterful Figure Paintings from One of Today’s Top Artists

I can and have spent hours studying the work of Kadir Nelson. He makes it easy. His figure paintings combine history, expressionism, power, and technical ability. Like many contemporary artists today, he has a background in illustration–blending commercial, cultural, and personal interests in all the pieces that leave his studio.

Trouble Man by Kadir Nelson, oil on canvas, 48" x 48".
Trouble Man by Kadir Nelson, oil on canvas, 48″ x 48″.

His imagery of the Negro Leagues for Major League Baseball and accompanying stamps for the United States Postal Service honoring the “Father of Black Baseball” Rube Foster brought him recognition early in his career. He has depicted dozens of historic, political, and pop culture icons. He has illustrated and authored children’s books as well as created iconic covers for The New Yorker.

USPS stamps created by Kadir Nelson.
USPS stamps created by Kadir Nelson.
Eustace Negro by Kadir Nelson, 2014, oil on panel, 18" x 24".
Eustace Negro by Kadir Nelson, 2014, oil on panel, 18″ x 24″. Featured on the cover of The New Yorker.

In an interview with Ed Gordon for Bounce TV, Nelson points out that documenting history and putting paint and brush to African American narratives that bring the past to the present is a powerful motivating force for him. He jokes that he has to “nail the likeness” when he does historical figures as well as pop icons because he will hear about it otherwise. But beyond that he creates work that is meaningful to him—trusting that his own connection to his subject will allow his narratives to be just as meaningful to his viewers.

RED BONE by Kadir Nelson, 2014, oil on panel, 18" x 24".
Red Bone by Kadir Nelson, 2014, oil on panel, 18″ x 24″.
Clean Cotton by Kadir Nelson, 2011, oil on canvas, 36" x 36". Featured in Nelson's book, Heart and Soul.
Clean Cotton by Kadir Nelson, 2011, oil on canvas, 36″ x 36″. Featured in Nelson’s book, Heart and Soul.
Black Gothic by Kadir Nelson.
Black Gothic by Kadir Nelson.

As we all continue on our own journeys as artists, it is good to look to the art that inspires us and ask why? Because that answer proves to us what matters to us as human beings and also as artists. For more resources to help you along the way, consider Nancy Reyner’s guide on how to Create Perfect Paintings: An Artist’s Guide to Visual Thinking. You’ll find how to draw viewers to your work and sustain their attention so that they have a meaningful experience with the art. A tall order and Create Perfect Paintings may allow you to deliver all that and more. Enjoy!

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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

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