Learning femininity through painting classes

Learning femininity through painting classes

I’ve been attending informal painting classes at the university for about twelve weeks now. It’s been a great opportunity to relax and get to know some of the women living on campus, many of whom are expat wives. Oh yes. I think this may be my career goal.

We gather two evenings a week in a barren, bright-lit lounge in the professors’ apartments on campus, and pull out acrylic paints. We started with a still life, as below – apple, pear, mandarins, drapy scarf-thing – although I began a few lessons after the other women, and the fruit was all beginning to turn brown and squishy. Super! I’m thinking. A picture of squishy fruit.

Still life with squishy fruit

We’re taught by a local Kazakh art student, Gaziza*, who keeps having me add and change colors, define highlights and shadows.

Dogs bark in the hallway as a professor takes his pets out for a walk; his wife Lisa* starts calling to them teasingly, brush in hand, as she dabs more paint onto her still life. Mine is pallid; hers is intense in greens and yellows and reds, paint thick and stubbed, background deep and dark. She puts the colors of the pear in the lines on the banana, the mandarin on the apple, a manyfold reflection, just how the teacher wants it.

Across from us, *Sarah is working on a delicate version of the same fruit, a thin highlight of white on a pear, round shine to her perfect mandarins and delicate yellows and pinks on the apple, the rest of the campus blank and finely sketched in pencil lines. It’s a beauty.

After this we move to copying some other artists’ picture, for practice. Lisa sketches a naked Adonis surrounded by cherubs, and Sarah a psychedelic buffalo.


I choose to imitate Woman at Table by Karfiol, a pensive picture in oils. The original is here:

Woman at Table, by Karfiol


I splash some color and on the canvas and tell the teacher I’m done:

Painting classes

“No you’re not!” She says, and has me layer paint on the canvas, over and over, deepening the shadows and bringing out the forms…. Yeah, ok, maybe she’s right.

Imitation of Karfiol's Woman at Table

Femininity Training

But Gaziza’s not only trying to make us painters. She also wants to make us beautifully-dressed Kazakhstani women, which she tries to achieve by subtly complimenting our color choices — and our makeup choices. She primps her carefully curled hair, a gauzy scarf wrapped around her neck. She wears Uggs, and short skirts, and sends us meaningful looks. “Why don’t you do your hair?” She complains to Lisa, who has just woken up from a nap.

“I’m an American woman,” Lisa replies. “We don’t have to be beautiful.”

Kazakh girls know how to do fashion.

The next week, Lisa and I both dress up for Gaziza. She looks us over when we walk in wearing skirts, careful make-up, and newly cut hair.

“And, you should wear heels!” Gaziza smiles.


Ih the corner, our Romanian friend Anna* is quietly working on a portrait of a Romanian peasant, sleeved in voluminous, delicate embroidery, a necklace of gold coins, and hands grasping some national fabric to the side. They joke about Lisa’s husband, who finds all our paintings beautiful, and Anna’s husband, who told Lisa directly that her painting was terrible.

Anna laughs. “He says my first painting is the best. He says it every time he looks at this one – he doesn’t really like it!”

Finally, Gaziza has us working on our own designs. Above you can see my current project, of a tourist standing beside some sacred stones in west Africa. As we work on this project, we’re joined by more students – Becca, an assertive ten-year-old who details a Pokemon character, and Louise, a British who carefully outlines a still-life in brown and green.

Gaziza wanders over to point out where I should add more color to the trees, more shadows to the stones, how to make my aunt look “less sunburnt.” (If she’d seen white tourists in Africa, she would know the pink is entirely appropriate).

“I think I’m done!” I keep saying.

“No you’re not… see, you need more form there,” she keeps telling me.

And she’s usually right.

Janjanbureh by CE


  1. as always you manage to make people actually look like themselves 🙂
    (I’m so jealous…)

    And don’t people pay lots of money to have a portrait painted?? maybe you and your friend should hit up your subjects for commission money?! (oh yeah…I suppose you have to agree on the commission price and the portrait details BEFORE you start the painting…)

  2. Nettie

    That one of aunt Jan looks really good! I definitely was like, is that aunt Jo? Even before you mentioned that it was an aunt…you’ve really got the family form down there, lol

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