Whether it’s gossamer thin or rippled in waves of color, nothing quite compares to the virtuosity of oil paint. Old and modern masters alike have toiled to understand its unique alchemy—and it’s this pursuit that drives Dallas-based artist and sculptural oil painter Melissa Ellis, who pushes her medium’s potential by hand-sculpting embellishments out of oil using palette knives. On her canvas, thick layers of paint take on a sculptural quality, molded into organic and often surreal forms. “It’s so luxurious, malleable and limitless. I just fell in love with it right away,” she says.
Her techniques took root as experiments incorporating additional oil textures into conventional paintings. Now, using palette knives of various shapes and sizes, she builds and contours paint directly on the canvas, improvising the compositions set against a colorful backdrop. “It’s about manipulating it just the right way,” she notes. Geometric pieces like her “Starburst” series require precise, practiced strokes to achieve distinct petals. In more amorphous paintings, Ellis molds each bulbous droplet like clay.
Technique also informs the artist’s approach to color: she keeps her palette knives pristine to preserve purity or leaves smears while changing hues to create delicate striations. The colors themselves shift in mood, from candy-bright neon to monochrome, creating multidimensional, buoyant works writhing with life. “I like to play with color, motion, pattern and depth,” she explains. “Oftentimes, my work is sort of an optical illusion. You feel like you’re falling into it, or it’s moving toward you.”
Though abstract, the animated vitality of her paintings often pulls from the artist’s experiences in nature—from scuba diving along the Belize Barrier Reef, to hiking the rocky trails of North Texas. “I always stop and look at the tiny shape of things—the little bug or the beautiful petal that’s just perfect,” Ellis says. Nature’s small wonders filter through her paintings, at times resembling a flower’s interior or a cluster of coral.
Represented by Greyhound Gallery in Amarillo, the artist brings these forms to life in her studio and gallery at ALG Collective, where she works with a close-knit group of female artists. In the heart of the Dallas Design District, this space is an ode to her medium, always dutifully stacked with at least 1,000 tubes of oil paint representing mercurial possibilities. “After 19 years of painting, I’m still finding new ways to play,” says Ellis.