Artist Talk with Robin Speijer

Robin Speijr (b.1997) is a Dutch artist whose work draws from the textures and colors found in fabrics. Through the act of painting, she frees them from the constraints of being a material object. Her work has been featured in museums & galleries within The Netherlands, & can currently be seen at Museum MORE (Gorssel) & Gallery With Tsjalling (Groningen). As Robin is currently moving between studios, we met through a video call & talked about her beginnings in the arts, her inspirations, and the blurry lines between abstraction and realism.

By Carolina Castilho

Hi, Robin! Could you briefly introduce yourself and tell us how you got started as an artist?

Well, I’m Robin, I graduated in 2019 from HKU, but I’ve been making things since I was really young. In elementary school I was already saying that I wanted to be an artist when I grew up, but at that age I didn’t truly know what that meant. It’s an interesting question, even when studying at an art academy people struggle with answering that: When do you call yourself an artist? Throughout high school I realized that apart from biology, art was what I enjoyed most of all. I was either going to study art or biology, which of course ended up being art. I realize now that the reason why I like biology so much is because I enjoy looking very closely at how things are put together. This connects strongly with my current art practice.

Right now, I’m working with fabrics and translating them into a painting. I usually look for fabrics that I find interesting because of the colours, the texture or the pattern. I then look for an interesting composition within the folds that I can then paint. A lot of people immediately assume this means I want to replicate real life, that I’m a realist or even a hyperrealist. That’s not what I would call my works, I don’t want to create a copy of what already exists. I find it fascinating how light interacts with the fabric, how soft the textures look. I really love that you can depict those elements in a painting, because in the end a painting is just pigment and filler. You know? It’s flat, there’s nothing there, it’s not actually soft or warm, but it looks like it is. And I really like creating that illusion.

Within the painting, I also want to remove it further from what it would look like in real life. I often exaggerate details, or I change the colours. And I think that’s the magic of painting, really. You can depict whatever you want within that flat surface.

Plus Surplus, 2020
Oil on linen, 140 x 105 cm
Red Photohelianth, 2019
Oil on linen, 180 x 135 cm

I can see a fabric and think that it would make a great painting, but that’s because I think ahead to what I want to change when I paint it. I want it to attract people’s attention, but also make them wonder what exactly they’re looking at. This edge between realistic and abstract is the main fascination in my practice. Clothes and other fabrics are basically everywhere, it’s not a foreign material to anyone. However, because of the changes I make when painting, people tend not to recognize it as the original material. They have many different associations and shapes they see within my work, things I couldn’t even think of. It’s kind of like when you look at clouds and they change shapes constantly. You know it’s a cloud, but it can look like a lot of other things.

It’s so interesting that you’re saying that, because I definitely see how your work falls in this middle space between figurative and abstract, or even minimalist. You can recognize what it is, but because the dimensions are so different it allows you to discover different aspects to it.

Yeah, exactly! I think that’s interesting, because it’s so different from when you take a photo, for example. I am really happy that my work is seen that way by other people as well, because I always thought that the act of zooming in made it take on such a different form. For example, this fabric that I’m wearing right now is a shirt, but as soon as you zoom in on it you can’t tell if it’s a shirt or a scarf or a blanket, it doesn’t matter anymore. The whole purpose is taken away. And I think that’s what my work is always balancing on, whether that is abstract, figurative, or even something else.

I have been part of two exhibitions that focus on realism, that aimed to broaden the sense of what realism is. When you talk about realism a lot of people immediately think of hyperrealism and strictly figurative works, but it can be so much more than that! In both of the exhibitions the participating artists were asked “Would you categorize your work as realism? And if so, why?” Both times I wrote that I don’t like labelling my work as such, because as soon as you label it one thing, then all other labels are suddenly crossed out.

If you say “my work is figurative”, then people immediately assume it can’t be abstract, or vice versa. But why can’t it be both? I mean, I think that’s quite a fun area to play with.

The Dragonslayer Sings, 2020
Oil on cotton, 80 x 60cm
He said they were like Ricecrackers, 2020
160 x 120 cm, Oil on linen

And how would you describe your creative process?

I would say my process is quite organized. In my studio I always have my brushes lined up from big to small, everything’s very orderly and needs to be put in a certain place before I start. I then need to find a fabric that I think would be interesting to paint. Usually, I have a bunch of them that pile up, because it takes a little while before I get to a point where I say “Okay, now I want to actually paint that fabric”. They need to soak for a while in my mind first, and some don’t make it through that stage. But anyways, if I choose to paint them it’s usually not right away.

Once I’m at that stage I will take the fabric and throw it on the ground, and shape it a lot of times. Meanwhile I am constantly taking pictures of the compositions that are formed, which results in like hundreds of pictures of just the same fabric. Afterwards, I’ll take a week or so to go through all those pictures and make a selection that becomes smaller and smaller and smaller. Kind of like you’re distilling water, you’re taking out the good bits every time. But at the beginning you have looked at it for so long that you can’t immediately see what is good and what isn’t, so that process takes a while. Sometimes I will also cut out just a bit of one picture, it doesn’t have to be the entire frame.

Once I’ve done that, I need to think about what canvas size is suitable, but usually I can decide on that pretty quickly. Then I manually sketch a linework based on the chosen picture on the canvas, using watercolour pencils. This sketch doesn’t have to be precise, because fabrics are quite forgiving when it comes to creating a realistic illusion of depth and softness. Then, I mix all my paints before I do anything. I need an overview of all the colors I will be using to make sure they work well together, and also make sure I have enough to make the entire painting with. So, I will have this palette with huge blobs of paint, organized very neatly from light shade to dark shade and divided in oranges, in greens… You know, very precise.

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