Self-taught artist and part-time algebra and AP calculus teacher, Jhina Alvarado paints a scene in bloom with dreamlike floral details, subdued tones, and evocative portraiture that tells a story. We turn the pages and give ourselves to these moments. We experience her elegant compositions and creative interpretations that speak a soulful language the heart understands. Down the winding path we push forward, the lush green takes us to an oasis expressed in whispers. Through Jhina’s affluent painterly command, her brushwork follows and we ruminate over the contemporary, surrealist elements of her vision – connecting the layers of a generous spirit and an inner beauty that rarely fades.
Characterized in varying expressions as contrasting grayscale impose soft, nuanced shades that compliment – we search for a hidden meaning in every painting – longing to discover the wonders of the artistic mind. Elements of fragility unfurl but things are not always as they seem; notes of uncertainty lurk nearby. Earthy shadows bloom in sepia and thoughts of hope spring visceral as her protagonists invite us to take a closer look. Each figure, innocent and reflective, emphasizes her deeply thoughtful approach.
Embark upon the journey with us as Jhina Alvarado shares further insight on her vintage-inspired musings, balancing the scales of life and art, her emotional portrait sensibilities, and so much more.
About the Artist //
Jhina (Hee-na) Alvarado is a self-taught artist who is represented by galleries across the United States. Her work has been featured in various international and national magazines, blogs, and art technique books. She currently works part-time as an algebra and pre-calculus teacher at the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts and paints full-time in her home studio in San Francisco while raising twins with her husband and dog, Albert.
Exclusive Interview With Jhina Alvarado
Thank you for taking time to give us the opportunity to speak with you and dive further into your creative mind. To kick start our conversation, would you share what you have in store for 2023? Anything special on the horizon?
I don’t have anything special planned yet for the year other than some exciting commissions I can’t talk about yet and a few group shows, but what I can tell you is that I am working on new paintings that I am super excited about. It’s taken me a year of experimenting, reflection, and self-doubt to be in a place where I am right now in my art and I am pretty excited about the new work I have planned.
Speaking on experimenting and reflection, I read that you are a self-taught artist… I’d love to talk about this journey. If you could take us back in time – was there a particular moment that you realized your path would be the one you’re on now? When did you know definitively that you were meant to be an artist, and what changes did you make to solidify your art career?
I have always been creative and had painted here and there throughout my life but never really thought about pursuing art as a career. It wasn’t until around 2006, when I took a random encaustic wax class, not knowing really what I was getting into, that I started to think about art daily and creating it on a regular basis. I started playing around with encaustics, made some nice pieces that sold, but I was still feeling somewhat unfulfilled.
Around 2009, I decided I needed to challenge myself. I had never painted the figure before, having been intimidated by the whole idea of it. I decided that I would force myself to only work figuratively, and while it was a struggle at first, I have only done figurative work since. It was during this time that I became really inspired by vintage photographs and started using them as inspiration. My paintings started getting a lot of attention and I started to realize that I could possibly make a career as an artist. I cut down my hours as a teacher and started working part-time so that I could spend more time painting.
Talking to other artists, sharing work with them, and sharing experiences so I don’t feel isolated and alone is pretty grounding.
Working part-time as an algebra and AP calculus teacher – how do you find time to balance and prioritize work-life, family-life, raising twins, and time to paint in your home studio (among other creative endeavors)? What keeps you grounded and motivated to press forward through highs and lows?
I have to say that I am not very good at balancing my life. I tend to want to spend every free moment painting and have to constantly remind myself that my family needs me and I should also have some self-care. I also don’t have much of a social life for the same reason. I try to limit my painting to just weekdays, but sometimes I spend 2-3 hours in the morning on a weekend before we start our day as a family.
I’m lucky in that, during the week, I am done teaching by 1pm and can spend time painting in my studio until my children come home from after-school care but I do get flack sometimes for it.
It’s not easy to pursue art as a career since some people view painting as a hobby versus an actual job, so when they find out that my kids spend time after school at an after-care facility instead of with me, well, let’s just say I have had some negative comments about how I should wait to pursue my painting career until after my children are grown. I feel like mothers have a harder time with this and are expected to give up more for their children but I think when people shift their perspective of painting as a job versus a hobby, then it makes sense that I am working until 5pm in the studio.
As for being grounded and motivated, I have always been pretty motivated. I think it has to do with being a Capricorn, if you believe in that stuff. Once I decide on something, I am pretty driven to accomplish that goal. I used to tell people I was a Nike ad because my motto was “Just Do it”. I have also been called a machine because I tend to get singularly focused.
It’s not always easy and as an artist, I do tend to have those moments where I feel like everything I paint is shit, and sometimes, admittedly, it is… but I have always been able to push past those feelings and continue. I think what is helpful for me is having other female artist friends who understand these feelings and are great at talking me “off the ledge”. Talking to other artists, sharing work with them, and sharing experiences so I don’t feel isolated and alone is pretty grounding.
My figures have always been rendered in just two colors; raw umber and white. I love the simplicity of just using those two colors and, when I was really inspired by vintage photos, it was reminiscent of those yellowed black and white photographs.
When looking at your paintings, there’s a deep sense of calm that washes over. Everyone has a story; they speak without words. You can see the emotion in their eyes and in their smiles. Who are they and what draws you to these portrait sensibilities?
My recent paintings have all included women that I see in my community everyday. These women and girls all have an inner beauty and strength that I am trying to bring out and show through this work. They each have unique stories to tell that I am just barely touching the surface on because everyone is made up of more than one story. I love that there is still so much to learn about these women and I have enjoyed getting to know them through painting them.
…I have been fascinated with the idea of the Garden of Eden and how a place can be magically beautiful but still have an element of danger within. I feel like that speaks to a lot of things in life, especially post-Covid.
A contrasting grayscale marries your compositional elegance while patterns are wonderfully nuanced and rich in tone and vintage ambiance (like in your Wallflowers and Forgotten Memories series’). What does this color palette express for you personally? And do you have expectations for what your audience might experience?
My figures have always been rendered in just two colors; raw umber and white. I love the simplicity of just using those two colors and, when I was really inspired by vintage photos, it was reminiscent of those yellowed black and white photographs. I slowly started adding color because my work started to feel too serious and I wanted it to feel more playful. The color and pattern added a lightness to the work that I think was needed. Hopefully my audience will feel the joyfulness from the color and pattern in my Wallflowers series.
Laced with fresh blooms, the evocative nature of your portraiture hosts a diversity of flora and fauna…walk us through the painterly gardens that seem set as the backdrop of many of your works.
I have always loved flowers but had mostly kept that to buying them. During the pandemic, I started doing some gardening, much like a lot of people who had a lot of time on their hands while sheltering in place. My backyard was my own secret haven away from Covid and all that lurked around because of it.
Because of this, I have been fascinated with the idea of the Garden of Eden and how a place can be magically beautiful but still have an element of danger within. I feel like that speaks to a lot of things in life, especially post-Covid. These paintings are each subject’s Garden of Eden and just like in this garden, something sinister is lurking nearby. Sometimes it is obvious, like a snake or a raven nearby, other times it is implied or unseen.
What do you find most difficult (or effortless) regarding the temperament and fluidity of your medium? What creative restrictions, if any, do you ever feel challenged by?
I feel comfortable with my medium, for the most part, since I have been using oil paints since 2009. In the past, I had used encaustic wax as my “varnish”. After years of struggling with it, I was finally at a point where I could get a pristinely smooth surface that was like butter. This worked great when I was working with vintage photo references since the wax gave the work a softened look, almost like a long cherished memory that was fuzzy around the edges.
With my new work, I wanted a crisper feel to the work and have stopped using encaustic wax. Because of this, I have been varnishing my work using more traditional varnishes and let me tell you, it has been a huge learning curve. I still don’t have a good feel on how to varnish my work and I still struggle to get my work looking the way that I want it to look. Throw in some gold leafing and, well, let’s just say I have had some very expensive, frustrating moments in my studio.
I imagine my work evolving and becoming even more narrative. I would also like to see it make more of a social impact and have it be a commentary on what is going on in the world.
Would you take us through a brief preparation of your process? What are the key ingredients to your work? How do you shape and prepare them to preserve what you are creating and putting forth into the world of contemporary arts?
I am the worst when it comes to preparing for a painting. I don’t sketch nor do I have an ideas book. I usually don’t have anything in mind when I start. I generally start with shooting a bunch of images of a model. If one of them speaks to me because the lighting is good and the mood feels right, then I paint it even though I am not sure what will be happening in the background or what the story will be. I like to let my instinct drive the piece and usually what I think is a “crazy” idea is what ends up working best.
I’d like to say that I have a painting planned out before I start, but truth be told, most of the time, I feel like I am just winging it. Working on a couple of paintings at once helps because sometimes the ideas are slow to come. I do know that if I have a great image of a model then the rest will come. It’s nerve wracking most of the time because I am such a planner when it comes to the rest of my life but I find that when I try to plan a painting, it just doesn’t work in the end.
Similarly, of all the multifaceted layers of your creative outlet, what holds the most significance at the foundation and completion of each painting, and why?
I think the model is the most important part of each painting. If I can get a great photo where I feel like the mood is right, then rest eventually comes together. Having a relationship with the model and being able to connect with them helps in getting those feelings.
Look to foresight for a moment…how do you imagine your work evolving, and as it does, what would you hope to achieve in this evolution?
I imagine my work evolving and becoming even more narrative. I would also like to see it make more of a social impact and have it be a commentary on what is going on in the world. I think art is a great way to bring awareness to issues around us and I would like to see my work be an important contribution to this.