No, it's not digital. Really.


Chris Berens, 2007

Via the excellent art blog Erratic Phenomena, I discovered the work of Dutch painter Chris Berens. Actually, "discovered" is the wrong word; I'd glimpsed his work before, but never had a chance to discover the artist behind these warped-yet-graceful paintings, which appear so deceptively close to digital art - but aren't digital at all.


Heaven on Their Minds
Chris Berens, 2007

I find it hard to wrap my head around this without seeing his work in person (Roq la Rue, here I come!) but Berens doesn't work digitally. He uses layers of ink, bistre and varnish to create a sort of transparency stack, which he then fuses and distorts in a controlled manner. I've done a very rudimentary version of layered transfer with acrylic matte gel medium and inkjet prints, and it's mindboggling to me that someone could create such controlled work in such an incremental, organic way. However, it does explain the unique luster of Berens' work.

Interestingly, a similar organic luster was obtained by Chris Parks' effects team on Darren Aronofsky's film The Fountain, by using microscopy, prisms, and old-fashioned chemical interfaces instead of digital methods. This is why I love traditional media and think that its possibilities have not been exhausted - instead, digital imagery is giving us new ideas to take back and refract through traditional media.


The Apprentice
Chris Berens, 2008

Magically, Berens is able to approximate the way I envision a scene in my mind's eye. Only the focus of my attention is likely to be fully developed and proportional - part of a face, for example - while the rest is distorted or elided. In dreams, the result is a fluid still life, with oddly juxtaposed elements on different planes coming in and out of focus. It never even occurred to me to try to represent this distorted view in real space, but now that I see it done, it seems like a shortcut straight into the unconscious.

Berens magnifies this familiar-yet-strange feeling by drawing on familiar cultural material - the palettes originated by Dutch masters, anime-tinged children with huge eyes and tiny mouths, the use of chiaroscuro, the triptych format, poses and costumes redolent of familiar paintings by Vermeer, Rembrandt and others. But none of Berens' work feels derivative. Instead, it feels like a parallel world in which these familiar elements have rearranged themselves into potent rebuses that we have to decode (how perfectly dreamlike!)


Circle of Friends
Chris Berens, 2007

In discussing his work, the artist says,

At first, I was able to transfer only a small part of my inner world to the canvas, perhaps 5% or 10%. At the time, my technique was still too limited for what I wanted to express. Fortunately, my ability has increased, and I can now represent almost half of what I have in my head and wish to reveal. I've definitely come a long way, but I'm still far from satisfied.

Since Berens is still at the relative beginning of his career (it freaks me out when my peers do stuff this good) you can see how his style and technique have progressed from year to year on his website, from obviously patchy to seamlessly atmospheric. I'm not sure how he can get much better, but I'm sure he's an artist to watch.


The Soft Parade

Chris Berens, 2008

For more on Berens' paintings and technique, read the well-researched writeup at Erratic Phenomena.

All artworks in this post are by Chris Berens, 2007 and 2008. View larger images and the rest of his body of work at his website,

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