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Courtney Murphy

Artist Interview with Skidmore Contemporary Art

Skidmore Contemporary Art: If you could choose a different medium to work in, what would it be and why?

Courtney Murphy: I’d love to work in sculpture, either clay or stone carving. Working in 3D isn’t natural to my hands at all but I love the tactile aspect and it forces me to think in three dimensions instead of two. Every time I have a break between pieces or feel like I need a mental stretch I make something with clay or do a relief print.

SCA: How would you describe your creative process?

CM: My process starts with an idea of shapes. Before I take photos or create my references, I decide on the general body language and shapes of the figure and drapery. Sometimes I have an idea I go with right away and other pieces require sketches and planning to narrow down the composition before I begin. For each painting I take 200-300 reference photos and then digitally combine multiple images and paint on top of them until I’ve built my reference image.

Because my background is in drawing I start every painting achromatically by painting the entire composition in a cool black and warm white. This allows me to focus entirely on form, modeling and value contrast before considering color. When the painting is dry, I then progressively add color in thin oil glazes until the painting is fully saturated and resolved chromatically.

SCA: Has social media impacted your work in any way? If yes, how? If not, why do you think that is?

CM: Social media has not directly influenced the content of my work but it has been a great source of motivation and inspiration. I love being able to connect with my audience so easily, receive feedback and learn why certain pieces speak to people so successfully and others might not. Additionally, it has allowed for inspiration at a moment’s notice. I am able to see all of the new work happening all across the world and stay current with gallery and museum openings.

SCA: What is your most memorable museum experience? Can you briefly describe it?

CM: In 2006 I attended an exhibition at the Met titled “Americans in Paris.” Many beautiful pieces were included, but one painting stopped me in my tracks. I turned a corner and caught a glimpse of “The Daughters of Edward Boit” by John Singer Sargent. It was three rooms down the hallway, but it seemed to glow. I stood in front taking it all in—the composition was so balanced, yet so empty in spaces and the positions of the four girls were all equally engaging and so natural, as if Sargent just came upon them in the room. So much of the background is black “space” and it had so much depth. I still think about this painting all the time. 

SCA: What is something unexpected that has impacted/influenced your artistic style?

CM: There is a film-still by Robert Longo, “Sound Distance of a Good Man,” and it is a simple image of a man looking up into the bright sun while standing in front of a statue of a lion. I found this image at a time when I was struggling in my work and I wasn’t confident in my voice or the imagery I wanted to create. This image, for reasons I can’t explain, spoke to me so strongly and made me aware of the many intrinsic elements in art and has allowed me more confidence and trust in my eye.

SCA: If you weren't an artist, what would you be doing?

CM: I would be a golfer. I love to golf and I used to balance golf and art as my two passions until art became my sole focus. I played competitively in high school and throughout college.

SCA: What city/town/geographical location has provided the most inspiration for you?

CM: Pont Aven in Brittany, France. I studied in this small town at a time when I wasn’t sure how art would play a part in my life. The town had a history in the arts as the home of Paul Cezanne and because of this history, the entire town embraced the arts and the process of creating and it was contagious. It was there where I was able to connect with the purest elements of art and fell in love with the process of painting.

SCA: Were you professionally trained as an artist? Tell us about that experience. 

CM: I have been very fortunate to have studied under many spectacular artists. When I was 13 I began studying with a young artist named Jeremey Lipking, who had just started teaching at a local studio. I took charcoal drawing classes from him 4 days a week for 3 years. With the portfolio I built in these classes, I went on to major in Art at UC Davis where I took courses under a diverse group of California artists, one of which was Wayne Thiebaud. I then completed an MFA program at the New York Academy of Art where I studied oil painting under the guidance of artists such as Peter Drake, Will Cotton, Vince Desiderio and Eric Fischl.

SCA: If you could sit at a dinner table with 3 famous artists, who would they be? Why?

CM: I would love to have a conversation with Artemisia Gentileschi, she was such a powerhouse personality and strong voice for women. She was the original example of Girl Power and an unlikely woman somehow making her way in a “man’s world” before there was support for such a feat. I’d also love to sit down with Rosa Bonheur. I have walked past her painting “The Horse Fair” at the Met a hundred times and I’m always in awe of the way she captured the energy and movement of a such a quick moment. The incredible commitment and ambition it took to create that piece is admirable and I’d love to hear about her challenges, pitfalls and motivations to keep going. Lastly, Leonardo da Vinci, because he was such a brilliant mind. While his paintings are stunning, I’d love to learn more about his invention ideas and the creations he had yet to add to his notebooks.

SCA: What challenges do you face as an artist that people might not expect?

CM: It's scary unveiling one’s soul, blood, sweat and tears and then inviting feedback. We create in solitude and self-edit, and as confident as I’ve become, it is still incredibly vulnerable when revealing one’s work.

SCA: Does creating art help you in other areas of your life?

CM: Absolutely! Creating art makes me calm and centered and gives me focus in the other areas of my life. Sometimes, between bodies of work I take a brief break to clear my head and in that time I still make time to sketch, cook, crochet... When I’m not creating, I’m thinking about what I will create next.

SCA: What advice would you give to your younger self?

CM: Stop worrying about what the end result will look like. Just keep painting! The process of creating one piece allows you to get to that next piece and that might be one that really takes you somewhere. A mentor of mine used to refer to us as “makers” instead of artists and I love that term because it lowers the pressure and expectations we often put on ourselves. Instead of having the feat of “creating art” I now just always try to keep “making things.”


Courtney Murphy’s dramatic and elegant paintings of women are rendered with exceptional technical skill. She smoothly applies her oil paint upon canvases that depict intimate snapshots of women adorned in billowing fabrics. The figures occupy the space with a kinetic energy, and the rich colors and warm, soft lighting imbue her images dramatically. The rhythmic movement within Murphy’s paintings culminates in her depiction of the figures’ textiles, which she compares to “flowing water” for the way that they “shine and move in waves over the figure.”

The unique viewpoints and the cropping used to frame Murphy’s scenes shroud the female subjects in mystery and relegate the interpretation of the scene to the viewer. Her titles, such as Suddenly and Encore, add to the mystery. Murphy explains, “My pieces all have their own story, but they have no one ending,” and in this way her art hints at a possible narrative without becoming didactic. Her works encourage a wide array of responses. While some may view her paintings as intimately elegant portraits, one art critique found a piece’s subtle sensuality to be “fetishized” and “slightly creepy.” Murphy is thrilled by the variety of interpretations of her works because they reveal that viewers are of the subtleties of her arrangement, where even the stretching motion of an ankle, or the curve of a knee evoke a strong emotional response. Murphy explains, “It is this recognition, either positive or negative, of femininity and strength that I search for [in my art].”

Murphy’s dramatic use of lighting draws upon the neoclassical style of Jean-August Dominique Ingres, while the rippling fabrics that adorn the women recall the Rococo paintings of Jean Marc Nattier. Despite these stylistic similarities, there is also a dichotomy between her style and the earlier Rococo and Neoclassical genres to which she is drawn. Murphy’s women break from the passive women of Ingres’ and Nattier’s paintings, who are subordinated to objects intended for the pleasure of a male viewer. Instead, Murphy imbues her women with agency. Her figures are not passive or objectified, but dynamic. They embrace their feminine sensuality while remaining in control of the space they inhabit. Her works reattribute power to the female and call for a feminist reflection upon the role of the female figure within art. Although influenced by past styles, Murphy’s paintings evoke a timeless quality. Murphy maintains this unique attribute through her use of cropping, clothing, and technique, which elicits both a contemporary and nostalgic feel that renders the paintings temporally ambiguous.

Murphy’s advanced formal technique, style, and meticulous attention to detail are indicative of her impressive academic background. Murphy began her formal art education at the California Art Institute where she had the opportunity to learn from the renowned realist painter Jeremy Lipking, an artist she credits with inspiring her to paint timeless classical figures within the contemporary art genre. At UC Davis, Murphy became exposed to a wide range mediums including painting, sculpture, and costume design, and although initially searching for continuity in her vast array of practices, Murphy came to the realization that, through the influence of her teacher, Dave Hollowell, all her mediums are unified by the central artistic principal of creation. While studying at the prestigious New York Academy of Art, Murphy was thrown into the saturated environment of the city for the first time. New York pushed her boundaries and exposed her to art that both inspired and motivated her practice. The school not only advanced her technical skills and broadened her understanding of oil painting, but also instilled her with the freedom of understanding that it is ok to break the rules.

In 2004, Murphy attended the Pont-Aven School of Contemporary Art in Pont-Aven, France, the small town where Paul Gauguin famously painted, drawn to the Britannic region’s rustic purity. Murphy’s experience in the town rejuvenated her practice. Working en plein air upon the cliffs, Murphy liberated herself from her constricted focus on the concept, process, and result of her works, and retaught herself to simply paint. Her 2009 artist residency in Eden Rock, St. Barths similarly had an important impact on her art. The change of scenery and the abundance of time she was able to dedicate solely to painting not only positively impacted her works, but also her artistic outlook.

In 2013 and 2014, Murphy’s works were included in Sotheby’s group exhibition “Take A Nude Home.” In 2014, Murphy’s solo exhibition “Interludes,” was the culmination of six years of artistic work. There her work converged to create a holistic narrative surrounding themes of femininity.

Ever motivated, Murphy pushes the boundaries of her painting style seeking new and innovative color choices, compositional viewpoints and scale. She is an accomplished artist whose alluring paintings and impressive artistic background continues to captivate her peers.

Kelly Bertrando
July, 2015