Brooklyn-based artist Maria Kreyn’s figurative paintings frequently earn comparisons to the Old Masters—and rightfully so, made as they are with depth, symbolism, and centuries-old techniques. And yet, her work has a female viewpoint that feels wholly of the moment. Here, from her Williamsburg studio, Kreyn shares her thoughts on beauty, discussing everything from her creative process to why there’s humor to be found in red lipstick.
Your paintings are classically beautiful. How does beauty factor into the aesthetic of your work?
I feel like I need to find one sentence that will package this. Can I read you a quote?
Just for fun. This is from Maria Popova’s new book, Figuring. “Beauty magnetizes curiosity and wonder, beckoning us to discover, in the literal sense, to uncover and unconceal what lies beneath the surface of the human label. What we recognize as beauty may be a language for encoding truth, a mimetic mechanism for transmitting it, as native to the universe as mathematics, the one perceived by the optical eye, the other by the mind’s eye.” How fucking good is that? How good is that quote? That’s how I relate to it, actually—it’s a portal to understanding something beneath the surface about what’s essential about being alive.
Beauty is actually a complex and deep thing.
When you started painting, was that your driving force?
I think so. I’ve always been an aesthete, but I think beauty has always been this access point into something essential about our nature.
Well, humans like looking at pretty things. It's hard-wired into us.
For sure. And there are various gradients of this. I think there are things that are just pretty, and then there are things that are, well—beauty is actually a very rare word, right? I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I’ve been doing a project recently where I’ve been photographing women, and it’s hard to create beauty without the cheesiness of, for example, sexiness. Sexiness is really easy. But to create an impression or gesture at a human form that’s actually deeply beautiful without necessarily being superficially attractive is actually hard to do, because so much of our advertising is geared to just creating really, really superficial attraction. Beauty is actually a complex and deep thing. A face can be beautiful in the same way that a mathematical formula can be beautiful. There’s an elegance to it that’s deeper than its surface.
So how do you find beauty in others?
People who are authentically themselves without being sociopaths or psychopaths are great. I love seeing artists and musicians who are fully self-expressed. I mean, the problem with being fully self-expressed is that if you are a sociopath, that’s part of your full self-expression, so that’s problematic. But I think people who, in general, contribute to the overall catalyzing of our collective imagination are people whom I would consider to be really beautiful.
When you were growing up, did you feel beautiful?
Yes and no. I mean, it went in and out of focus. I think I’ve really only recently genuinely come to feel that.
When you're very young, it's so external, and then as you get older, that kind of confidence tends to come from within.
Yeah. And also being comfortable in your own skin and being clear in your mission and feeling like you’re on a path of self-development emotionally and intellectually that you can be proud of without being hung up on, and in the deepest sense of being able to love yourself. Because looking hot will never make you feel great. Like, that’s fun for a day, but ultimately, it’s not really going to be sustainable. I think you really have to deeply value yourself to feel beautiful.
When you're painting, what is the process like for you?
It might not necessarily come easily, but it definitely is a flow state. For me, it’s some of the happiest times of my life, when I actually get into that state, where time takes on a different signature, and my thought patterns take on a different cadence, and I feel like I dissolve into this ocean of this world that I’m slowly creating. For me, making work is almost an antidote to the frenetic cadence of most of our life.
How does your artistic background come into play at a more practical, day-to-day sense?
I am an aesthete. I actually love to look great. I don’t really do it that frequently. I like trying to just work with what you have rather than creating an unnatural look. All of the women in my paintings are very direct and natural-looking. Every time I paint or photograph a model, I ask them to take all their makeup off, actually, so that I can see who they are.
When you ask women to remove their makeup, have you had any surprising responses?
No. I think everyone trusts me to do what I intend to do. It’s not that I don’t like makeup. I actually think that it’s a beautiful enhancement for some things. I mean, the world divides into two: people who love red lipstick and people who would never do that. I’m in the “I love red lipstick” category these days. [Ed. note: try Smashbox Always On Liquid Lipstick in Bawse for a red lip color like Kreyn’s.]
You really have to deeply value yourself to feel beautiful.
Why do you love it?
To me, there’s a lot of humor in that sort of thing. If it’s not being taken seriously, then it’s really fun. If you take it seriously, it becomes this horrible chore.
Shifting a little bit: how do you take care of your skin?
I wash it and occasionally put moisturizer or oil on it. I use Pangea products because my friend makes them and because they’re entirely organic. I’m kind of a health nut, so I try not to put anything that’s chemical on my skin.
Do you ever get facials?
Never done that. But do you know what’s funny? My mom has done nothing to her skin her whole life, and she actually has great skin. From her, I just got the sense that nature knows what it’s doing.
If you could wave a magic wand and encourage people to approach beauty in a different way, what would you hope people did?
Meditate. I think that the personal peace and the peace of mind that comes from that is absolutely essential to experiencing the beauty of life and experiencing your own inner beauty—which ultimately, I think, will reflect directly to your outside.
Photographed in Brooklyn, New York by Ford. Interview conducted and condensed by Annie Tomlin.