Artist Spotlight: Helena Margrét Jónsdóttir

Icelandic painter Helena Margrét Jónsdóttir describes her work as “digital abstract paired with realism.” A pairing that sounds absurd at first, but it emphasizes a digital reality that has become a larger part of our everyday lives.

This theme is apparent in the pictures themselves as well as in the process behind them. In the paintings, she contrasts the digital with the act of oil painting which gives the work a depth that it would otherwise lack on a screen.

Jónsdóttir’s paintings are crisp and clean yet full of intricate details. In her work, she deals with the ghosts of oil painting’s past and a feeling of longing and yearning for something, a dream world where bodies act out of control, getting in the way of themselves.

We spoke to Jónsdóttir about when she started painting, her creative process, style, and the vision she attributes to her paintings:

Tell us a little about yourself and why you started painting

I’m a painter based in Reykjavík. I got my matriculation exam at The Reykjavík School of Visual Arts and then went to study fine art in The Royal Academy of Arts in The Hague but transferred midway to the Icelandic University of Arts where I completed my bachelor degree in 2019.

I started drawing and painting a lot as a kid – I drew Simpsons characters on demand for my classmates in the 4th grade. I sketched and painted my surroundings, both what I saw on TV or online as well as the physical world, which helped develop my technique until I slowly developed my style as I got older.


Above: Stjörnuhrap álverk



What is your process from getting an idea to it becoming a picture on canvas?

I do my sketching in Photoshop, where it’s easy for me to mix photographs and drawings and have complete control of the composition. I can stretch things out, change the colors, edit out the parts I don’t like and add freely. I often start with a simple idea, and then it develops in the program. Photoshop controls the outcome of the painting since I am bound to the tools the program has to offer.

Then when I’m satisfied with the final sketch, I project it on to a wall to get a sense of how big I feel it should be, since working on a screen makes you lose the sense of size. Finally, I project on the canvas and paint it, which is the longest part of the process.

I’m intrigued by the contrast of the spontaneous and flat photoshop drawings compared with the intricate details of the realism. And the contrast between the fast pace of Photoshop vs. the slow process of transferring the sketch onto the canvas with oil paint also fascinates me. In the artwork, you can feel both the spontaneity as well as the amount of work and hours it took to paint it.


Above: Raunveruleiki á



Your style is unique. How did it develop?

I recently realized that the new ideas I thought I was having were just recycled old ones, all the way back from before I started my fine art studies in 2014. I started experimenting with black and white line drawing in Photoshop as a teenager and then pairing them together with realism, which is basically what I am doing now, just on a more developed scale. I abandoned it for a while for other experiments and more realism but returned to it again during my final project at university.


Above: Can’t get trapped in your own web



Your paintings are somewhere in between a dream world and realism, what is the intended effect?

I like the word dreamworld. I think the paintings reflect a sort of longing and mundanity, a state that often leads to daydreaming. I would describe them as digital abstract paired with realism, which is also very familiar, the visual language of screens as well as different details and textures from the physical world, the mixture of 2D and 3D which we look at back and forth every day.


Above: Waiting for the other shoe to drop



Digital abstract paired with realism is an intriguing pairing, can you tell me a little more about the meaning/message you are trying to convey through your work?

The works I’ve focused on lately all convey a certain longing or yearning. Reaching for something and stretching your arm out but eventually getting in your own way. Most of the figures are trying to eat or drink or enjoy something nice – but failing.

I use familiar objects paired with the digital visual language, which is becoming a larger part of most people’s daily life as we spend more and more time looking at screens. The result is a world you are familiar with as a viewer, and you recognize from your day-to-day life but abstracted and distorted.

I paint a lot of ghosts as well. It started when I painted a reflective and surprised ghost from the pharmacy. Since then I’ve painted different manifestations of them, such as logos on bottles and cans, a pixelated ghost on a screen, or the ghost itself trying to put on lotion. I saw them as representations of myself, but recently I’ve started to see them as representations of the digital that meets the oil painting tradition. They are invisible and untouchable and mysterious, just like the digital, but at the same time the tradition of oil painting is like a ghost that haunts new oil works, you can never quite escape them as a painter.

There are a lot of references to older paintings in my artworks: the hand poses, the food, and different kinds of reflections. I see them as ghosts as well.


Above: Artist Helena Margrét Jónsdóttir wit the painting Raunveruleiki á striga




What projects are you currently working on?

I’m currently working on my first solo exhibition at Hverfisgallerí, which opens in January. I’ll also be taking part in the Untitled Art Fair in Miami this December, which due to the current situation, will be online.

Find Helena’s work online or follow her on Instagram.


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Eva Lín Vilhjálmsdóttir

Eva Lín Vilhjálmsdóttir is an MA philosophy student and a freelance art journalist. Currently based in Reykjavík, Iceland.