Dimensional Drawings: Nikki Painter Constructs Tiny, Self-Contained Worlds

Dimensional Drawings: Nikki Painter Constructs Tiny, Self-Contained Worlds

“Worldbuilding” is a term you typically hear bandied about during sci-fi conventions—not art exhibitions. Nikki Painter’s dimensional drawings, however, are shining examples of just that: tiny construction projects, entirely self-contained, and governed by a foreign set of rules.

Q+Art is a regular column from NOT REAL ART featuring contemporary artists from all over the world.

Painter uses foam core to build her tiny worlds, though she places equal emphasis on the creative powers of destruction. “My work envisions a world that is constantly constructed and then broken down,” she writes in her artist statement. “Construction and destruction may happen simultaneously, and sometimes natural forms take over and are the ‘winners’ of the unfolding drama. Each drawing or painting represents a different season or moment within the world.”

Painter’s visual style is deeply rooted within the ‘80s aesthetic: vibrant colors, bold prints, and rudimentary digital designs. “These things shaped my inner bank of imagery, and they are evident in the world I build within my work,” she notes. “I use non-realistic spatial perspective, intricate patterns, and layers of media to create a sense of intensity, mystery, and controlled chaos.”

In Today’s Q+Art Interview…

Nikki Painter discusses her growing interest in gardens, coming up with her own standards for success, and celebrating small accomplishments.

Nikki Painter's colorful three-dimensional work

Which books, art-related or otherwise, belong on every artist’s shelf?

Nikki Painter: I recently started rereading The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, and I can’t recommend it enough for anyone who feels blocked or in any kind of creative rut. I have my fingers crossed that it will help me move forward with some side projects I’ve been thinking about for a while. The first time I read it (in 2006 or 2007), it was a catalyst for life changes I undertook in order to become a full-time artist. I'm excited to see the creative magic it empowers me to work this time around.

What are you trying to express with your art?

NP: I started making dimensional drawings in 2013, when some of my installation-related ideas were not feasible to build in my garage workspace. Worldbuilding is one of my foundational interests, and each dimensional drawing is essentially a miniature installation, representing a location within my imagined world.

Recently I’ve turned my focus to the natural world, and I’ve been working on a series of garden drawings, inspired by plants and incorporating my interests in color and pattern to express different times of day, seasons, and moods within each work.

I am less interested in narrative; instead, I am creating spaces imbued with a certain kind of energy (which varies from piece to piece), and then inviting viewers in to experience that.

What do you wish you learned in art school but weren’t taught?

NP: I wish there had been more discussions about the business side of being an artist. There was the attitude that if any of us wanted to sell our work, we would figure it out along the way ourselves. It would have been great if an interest in the commercial side of things was framed as normal; instead, it felt like this was left out of the classroom, where our focus was how to make meaningful and important work. Selling your work and making thoughtful work do not have to be mutually exclusive, but that was how it felt during school.

Some schools may be doing more to address business knowledge now, and to be fair, I didn’t ask these questions of my professors. It felt like it would be crossing a line to ask because conversations about money seem taboo in so many fine art environments.

I am glad for the wealth of resources now available online—an internet search of any topic results in multiple websites and sometimes even free workshops I’ve used to educate myself.

Nikki Painter's colorful three-dimensional work
‘Climb (Dream)’
Nikki Painter's colorful three-dimensional work
‘Climb (Dream)’ (installation view)

What is the best advice you’ve ever received? What’s the worst?

NP: I will focus on the best advice, because it’s really important. This is paraphrased and came from a variety of sources, including school: you have to come up with your own standards for success.

Being an artist doesn’t have a set career path to begin with, but if you’re holding yourself up to art world goals like showing at the Whitney, or winning a Guggenheim Fellowship because that’s what you’ve heard you “should” do … are those really your goals, or are they someone else’s? If you’re constantly feeling bad that you don’t have Julie Mehretu’s career, you are not being present with and celebrating the successes that you are experiencing.

What's your biggest barrier to being an artist?

NP: Not a barrier to being an artist, but a barrier to being a more successful artist for me is my discomfort with networking. I am constantly setting goals for myself about trying to go to more openings and chatting with a certain number of people. I’ve also set goals for posting a certain number of times on social media and interacting with others' posts and … I am constantly not meeting these goals. I have this weird fear (that I am working on) about “bothering people.” I do write a newsletter, and I like that because newsletter subscribers do want to hear from me; otherwise, I constantly hesitate to email people because my assumption is that everyone is busy, and I don’t want to add to their list of things to do.

We live in this time period where it’s expected that we go on the internet and yell about what we’re doing, thinking, and feeling every day of the week. This just does not feel comfortable to me at all.

What does generosity mean to you as an artist?

NP: Generosity is offering a resource that you have, without expectation for reciprocation.

I have benefitted from so many artist friends’ generosity, especially in the form of being offered opportunities to show my work. I think about this often and hope I will be able to give something similar back to these friends, even though this is not what generosity requires.

There has been an increased focus on generosity in artist communities over the past couple of years, with so many of us spending more time online. It’s exciting to see platforms like this one and many others that have sprung up and continue to generously provide opportunities for more artists to share their work.

Nikki Painter's colorful three-dimensional work
Nikki Painter's colorful three-dimensional work
‘Climb (Night)’

What does success mean to you as an artist?

NP: Success to me encompasses a few things:

  • Longevity and variety​​—I want to have a long-running career, one that includes multiple evolutions in what I’m making.
  • *Excitement—we all know the feeling of slogging in the studio to crank out some work. That feeling is sometimes a sign to me that I need to change what I’m doing or how I’m doing it (going back to the importance of variety). I feel successful when I feel excited about what I'm making.
  • Shows and sales—it is important to me to show and sell my work regularly. I want my expenses accrued by making work to balance with my income.
  • Giving back—giving back to other artists and to my community at large (like food banks and other helping organizations) is easier to do when I feel successful, but giving back also makes me feel successful.

What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?

NP: Ha, so many moments of so many jobs come to mind for this.

Foremost was the time I worked the graveyard shift as a security guard during undergrad. The job itself would not have been so bad had it not been for a couple of things: the ungodly cold temperature of the lobby where we were supposed to spend the majority of our time, and the part of the shift when we had to walk most of the building including floors that housed a morgue, an animal testing laboratory, and a storage room with all kinds of ghastly … organs? Creatures? It was never clear what they all were, but they were stored inside of jars in rows and rows of metal shelves.

I only lasted at this job for two weeks before I found a different job that did not include 2 a.m. rendezvous with mystery jars.

If you had to pick one, would you rather be a historically significant or commercially successful artist? Why?

NP: I would like to be historically significant, but I doubt the likelihood of that, especially knowing my own personal weakness in the area of networking. All I can do is continue to make the work that I want to make, and take advantage of opportunities to get it out into the world.

I feel more in charge of my own financial success, especially if I consider this to be breaking even when it comes to sales versus expenditures. If I shift the goalposts to being profitable … that seems harder, but I think it’s achievable. I feel more capable of affecting my commercial success than I do my historical significance.


Have you ever turned down an opportunity? Why?

NP: I have turned down opportunities for a number of reasons. One type of opportunity I have turned down (“avoided” is more accurate than “turned down”) multiple times has been the opportunity to have studio visits. I have a home studio, and while I love my studio for its main purpose—its accessibility fosters my ability to regularly make work—actually inviting anyone I don’t know well into my home has never felt comfortable to me. I don’t do a lot of entertaining either, so it’s not that I don’t specifically want people in my studio, it’s more that I don’t want strangers in my house.

I have had one studio visit, and I really enjoyed it, but … I’m grateful when people (curators, gallerists, etc.) are happy to consider digital images of my work.

What are you working on that you’re excited about right now?

NP: Since I narrowed my focus to gardens, I am working to have ten Night Garden drawings completed and framed. I am also continuing a series of tiny Garden works that I offer for purchase in my online shop. I enjoy thinking about different color combinations and how those might reflect different times of day or seasons, particularly in the very small Garden works—these afford me the greatest sense of play in the studio, and I’m constantly coming up with new ideas for them. Recently I was considering how I might make a batch that references winter but are not achromatic and that do not rely on the color blue. I am excited about what is taking shape.


What do you do to maintain your mental health?

NP: I have dealt with depression off and on, and my most effective way of combating it has usually been to get productive in the studio. A few other things I use for self care include:

  • Checking in with family and friends
  • Regular exercise
  • Establishing a routine (this includes celebrating the completion of small tasks, which can be anything, including something like emptying the dishwasher)
  • Focusing my thoughts toward gratitude, either through journaling or a few minutes of concentration/meditation

How does your geographical location affect your work and/or success?

NP: I don’t think a lot about geographical location as affecting my success. Right now my goals are oriented towards showing my work in different areas of the United States and internationally, so I see my abilities to research and apply for opportunities as more important to my success than my physical location.

This is also a major plus resulting from the last couple of years: there are more opportunities online to exhibit work. There are now opportunities for virtual shows, but more physical spaces have also seen the importance of offering exhibition information and calls online. These are good things, because they mean more options for artists.

Please share with us a real-life art-world horror story.

NP: I have had work returned from more than one show with damaged frames. In the worst case, it looked like pieces had been placed inside of shipping boxes unwrapped, and some of them didn't even have sheets of bubble wrap between them. Fortunately, the space was very apologetic and prompt in filing claims with the shipping companies, but that feeling of pulling damaged frame after frame out of boxes and then having to wait to find out if I’d receive insurance money to fix or replace them … ugh, that was a really bad feeling.

Nikki Painter

Nikki Painter: Website | Instagram | Purchase Work

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist.

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Morgan  Laurens 

Morgan Laurens (she/her/hers) is NOT REAL ART’s editor in chief. Morgan is an arts writer from the Midwest who enjoys saying “excuse me” when no actual pardon is needed. She specializes in grant writing and narrative-based storytelling for mission-driven artists and arts organizations. With a background in printmaking, pop culture, and classic literature, Morgan believes a girl’s best friend is the pile of books on her bedside table.