Discover How This Chicago Painter Delves Into The Surreal


Artist Jennifer Presant painting working on a watercolor painting

“I use my imagination to think up landscape combinations that would create an intriguing juxtaposition,” says Jennifer Presant of pieces like Lines of Reflection and Passing Through.

The alchemy of painting never grows old for Evanston-based artist Jennifer Presant—how oils can conjure the highest flights of imagination with startling realism. “I’m still in awe that it can create something that looks so tangible,” she shares. 

Presant’s works summon sensorial landscapes that follow the freewheeling logic of dreams. Disobeying laws of time and space, the walls of quaint homes crack open wide into far-flung lands, while vast wildernesses become confined within three-walled dioramas. Other works suggest real locales, but closer inspection reveals fanciful fusions of different places, like a confabulated memory. Rather than strict objective painting, the artist aims for something “more representative of how we experience life,” she explains. “What it’s like being present while dreaming about the future and remembering the past.”

a palette of paint with a palette knife next to it

Presant uses basic tools like brushes, linseed oil and palette knives, and mixes the paint together for different colors.

a collection of of small paintings on a wall

“The three dimensional space creates a safe distance for us to contemplate nature, our longings and ideas,” Presant explains.

a grouping of watercolor studies hangin on a wall

Messmer’s multistep process includes painting color studies before creating the final work.

a woman sitting in a chair next two two large paintings and in front of smaller ones

“My work is often based on a personal experience, such as the feeling of transition and longing for home,” she says.

This surreal style grew from her training in figurative realism at the New York Academy of Art. While mastering the techniques, “I became less interested in representing what was in front of me,” she recalls. “I felt like I didn’t capture the full narrative, mentally or emotionally. I wanted to evoke, not just illustrate.” 

Loosening the seams of reality made room for more introspective meditations on aging, human transience and, most of all, longing. “I liked the idea of manifesting these thoughts, making a mental projection become physical,” the artist explains. The immersive, human-scale experiences of video art installations provided key inspiration, particularly in her “virtual space” paintings of vast coastlines and deserts bounded by three walls. Imposing artificial dimensions onto otherwise overwhelming landscapes “creates a safe distance for us to contemplate nature, our longings and ideas,” Presant notes. 

The artist uses both traditional methods and current technology to create her paintings. Presant first sketches her ideas from imagination, merging real places of personal significance that she photographs for reference. In Photoshop, she completes the composition by layering different images, sometimes superimposing three-walled dimensions. 

From there, she paints a color study, which she scans and prints full size on paper. Using the enlarged image as a Renaissance-style cartoon template, Presant transfers the composition by coating the back of the print in oil paint, then outlining its main forms onto the canvas. Working section by section alla-prima style, the artist builds shapes and color values with layers of wet oil paint. The process proves painstaking but produces smooth, untextured surfaces, “as I don’t want the materials to interfere with the viewing,” she explains. Because with enough visual clarity, the edges of each painting seem to dissolve, allowing viewers to fully immerse themselves in quiet contemplation.