Royal Society of Portrait Painters: Q&A with Nathalie Nahai

Nathalie Nahai, Light in the well of Shadows
Nathalie Nahai, Light in the well of Shadows

The Royal Society of Portrait Painters (RP) Annual Exhibition 2024 is now open, showcasing an exceptional array of contemporary portraiture. Featuring some of the finest painted and drawn portraits selected from national and international submissions, the exhibition runs until Saturday 18 May.

We had the pleasure of speaking with Nathalie Nahai, a multifaceted artist, author, musician and expert in psychology, persuasive technology, and human behaviour. In the Q&A, Nahai reveals how she first discovered the Royal Society of Portrait Painters and the inspiration behind her stunning portrait, titled, "Light in the Well of Shadows." She delves into complex themes drawn from her expertise, showcasing a meticulous creative process. Nathalie also offers insights into the future impact of AI on the art world, highlighting the importance of human connection and providing valuable advice for artists on navigating the era of increasing automation.


Q&A with Nathalie Nahai: 

You are exhibiting one exquisite oil on canvas in this year's exhibition, 'Light in the Well of Shadows'. Could you share some insights about this cryptic portrait? 

This piece of work is called 'Light in the Well of Shadows' and the principle message is about the importance of what it means to have even a single point of hope when life is dark, painful or hopeless. It came from a shamanic journey I experienced, in which there was a lot of turbulence and turmoil and I could hear people running around in distress… it was chaos, and it brought to mind some of the suffering that a lot of people are experiencing right now in the world, and throughout humanity’s history. What I really wanted to capture in this painting was a sense of possibility - that if we can anchor ourselves in beauty or some life line, however small, it can give us what we need to be able to move through whatever we’re going through to surrender into the process of life. 

This painting is of my beloved friend Blanche, and she is a light to me. An extraordinary artist and musician, she brought me back into relationship with my own music at a time in which it felt distant and estranged, and so she was the perfect person to sit for this work. It may sound strange to say, but I’m in love with this painting, since the process in creating it was just so joyful - I’ve sung to it, danced with it, and listened to Blanche’s transporting music while working on… It’s been with me for a long while and it’s very special to me.

It is your first time exhibiting with the RP at Mall Galleries. How did you discover the Royal Society of Portrait Painters & why did you want to be part of this show? 

In Barcelona where I live, there is a huge community of artists, musicians, creatives and poets many of whom I met initially through my time studying at Barcelona Academy of Art. It feels really synchronous that Jordi Diaz Alama (director of the BAA) is also showing one of his beautiful paintings here in this exhibition, and it’s an honour to be included.

I’m also lucky to have a vibrant connection to the art community there and quite a few of my friends have presented at the RSPP, so I was keen to participate - especially as it is one of the most prestigious exhibitions for portraiture in the world! I just thought, let’s see what happens, I’ll go for it and you know, if you don’t try you will never find out. So many of the beautiful works here are more traditional portraits, and since my work is a lot more symbolic I wasn’t sure if it would be the right fit - but I am so happy that it’s here amongst all of these amazing works. It is very moving to be included.

Nathalie Nahai, 'Light in the well of shadows' 50x67cm [Sold] 

Can you tell us how being a psychology expert informs your art practice? 

My work is in behavioural science, psychology and human behaviour as it pertains to the online environment. And it's one lens through which to understand our motivations, why we behave the way we do, how our behaviours get influenced and shaped, and it's kind of quite a cerebral, analytical perspective. The kind of impulse that arises to create, for me, feels a lot more somatic, it's much more imaginal, it doesn't necessarily have language attached to it. 

But there is content which is - it's not even content - impulses which are emotional and in this instance, journey-based. So I have a shamanic practice (non-psychedelic, I might add, not that that’s particularly important!) that informs the art that I make, and that's something which is kind of perhaps in a more animist domain, quite far from the more western scientific psychological approach. 

In your work, you extensively discuss reclaiming human connection in an age of AI automation. As an artist yourself? what do you think will be the long term impact of AI on the art world & how should artists navigate this new reality? 

What’s really important about the process of art is the interiority of it, the journey that each person goes on in order to create something that didn’t exist before - I am sure that for different artists it is a different impulse or provocation. One of the things that I am concerned about with AI, is that it potentially creates an output with very little intention, individual input, very little time. You go directly from the prompt or the thought to the "product", if you like, and it productises what is one of the few forms that requires experience, journey and time. I think (and this is something that comes up in some of the Art Salons that we have), as everything speeds up, I think we are going to need more time, whether it’s through the arts or through connection with nature, or gathering, or being with one another, or being with oneself. We’re going to need more time to slow down, because without the possibility for reflection, for feeling into what the choices we are making will have in terms of impact into the long-time future, without that - and art does that, it gives us the time to reflect and contemplate and imagine into being in worlds that don’t yet exist - if we don’t have the time for that, then we are going to end up in some really difficult places. 

And so the process of art is becoming more important in my opinion. 

Then there is the flip side where you can talk about how a lot of the AI generated content at the moment is working from human based data. All of the paintings in this exhibition, for example, if you put them in as training data, you can get something out at the end that is based on human endeavours, human creativity, human imagination. When you get to the point where AI is referencing more AI generated images than human generated images, you are going to end up in a really trippy space - we’re going to get such derivate content that we’ll end up with weird distortions, which will go back into the human psyche, and who knows how that will shape our inner experiences and the cultures we create.

'With AI [...] you go directly from the prompt or the thought to the product and it productises what is one of the few forms that require experience, journey and time'.
– Nathalie Nahai

So, my personal feeling as an artist is that we really need to anchor both into interior processes, and to be present with others so that we can actually have time away from technology to orient ourselves, to explore and understand what it means to be human. What values do we want to lean into, to uphold? What kind of ancestors do we want to be to those who come after us? Who are the stewards of our culture? What cultural artefacts do we want to gift to those that we leave behind? Whatever we do, it has to be rooted in and oriented towards the flourishing of life. 

This is the most important thing I believe, above all - so how do we create art that is in service to the flourishing of life? 

And if we can do that, then at least we can contribute in our own small ways, through our art, to a more thriving future for all.




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Explore the Royal Society of Portrait Painters Annual Exhibition 2024 available online now 

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