Surfaced by Melissa Cooke

Thick paint drips down her face in a color close the skin’s; it covers and reveals hair and flesh wherever gravity takes it.


Melissa Cooke’s series “Surfaced” analyzes obscured faces – faces covered in liquids and warped by Xerox machines in ways that make you wonder where the real skin actually begins and ends. But these aren’t photographs, so none of it is really real anyways – they’re graphite drawings that capture every follicle and wrinkle, every tug and pull of skin, and they immerse you in a world that plays with texture and perception in bold closeup ways, gathering intensity from details.


Trickle, graphite on paper, 24 " x 24 "

Trickle, graphite on paper, 24 ” x 24 “


Paint and hair don’t function harmoniously the way paint and skin do. Hair isn’t manageable and flat – it pokes through the liquid that’s attempting to cover it, refusing to be masked or hidden. In “Surfaced,” this is the role of the eyelashes and eyebrows, lines of rebellion against the paint, breaking through the color the same way the lines in the skin do.

They become something different because the paint gives them an alias, a form of cover, but the most substantive parts can’t be completely obscured. The paint dips into the flesh’s crevices, filling and amplifying the lines that have come from years of smiling and crying.


Crested, graphite on paper, 50 " x 50 "

Crested, graphite on paper, 50 ” x 50 “


According to Melissa’s description of the series, “Surfaced” works to examine the relationship between photography, painting and drawing in portraiture. She used her own face as a canvas, painting and pouring liquids onto herself as she took photographs. Then, she used those photos to create her graphite drawings.

“The photo shoot references the practice of drawing and painting; then the final graphite drawing references photography,” she said,  “The boundaries between the mediums are broken down and the processes are interwoven.”

She purposefully focused on zoomed in sections of her face, obscuring the notion of the portrait and concentrating on humanness in general as opposed to one specific human:

“The cropping pushes the face to the surface of the paper, making the figure more ambiguous.  Flesh becomes abstracted: obliterated by paint on the skin,  distorted by the eye of the camera lens, or smeared by the glass of a Xerox machine.”


Xerox #5, graphite on paper, 50 " x 38 "

Xerox #5, graphite on paper, 50 ” x 38 “


Washed Out, graphite on paper, 50 " x 50 "

Washed Out, graphite on paper, 50 ” x 50 “


Melissa Cooke, 30, is an artist originally from Wisconsin specializing in these kind of intricate graphite drawings that examine the relationships between photography, performance, and drawing in portraiture.

She makes her drawings by dusting thin layers of graphite onto paper with a dry brush, and then editing the soft graphite against the smooth paper by erasing in details and textures.  She doesn’t use pencils at all, so more than anything it’s an art of subtraction instead of addition, likening it to sculpture in a way, as Melissa carefully chips away the spots of color that shouldn’t be there.


Xerox #1, graphite on paper, 50 " x 38 "

Xerox #1, graphite on paper, 50 ” x 38 “


See more from “Surfaced” and her other series of graphite drawings on Melissa’s website.