76 Alexandra Tyng

"Painting is all about light; it's all based on your perception of color and light."

Alexandra Tyng is an award-winning, contemporary realist painter from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, although she frequently paints in Maine. She is mostly self-taught, studying the works of old masters and their materials on her own. Her work focuses on family life, although it's recently taken a turn toward the surreal. Her landscapes often take aerial views, becoming portraits of a location - these are based off her photos which she took while riding chartered planes and helicopters. Alex also teaches painting and portraiture in Philly and in workshops in Maine. She has been featured in many art magazines, such as Fine Art Connoisseur, American Art Collector, The Artist’s MagazineInternational Artist, and P&S (Poets and Artists). Her awards include first, second, and 4th place prizes from the Portrait Society of America, the Curators's Choice Award from the US National Parks competition, and as a finalist in many other shows and competitions. She has also founded a charity, 'Portraits For the Arts' which raises money to give to art education programs.

'Canvas Eye View' a self portrait

Alexandra is the daughter of Louis Kahn and Anne Tyng, two celebrated architects who taught for decades at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn). Alexandra's portrait of her father hangs at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC:

Alex's portrait of her mother hangs somewhere at UPenn (If someone knows which building, please write a comment below):

 Alex grew up in Philadelphia where her parents often took her to museums, galleries, and book stores. They also spent each summer in Maine. Alex's parents recognized her drawing talent and sent her to art classes. Louis also gave her a set of oil paints at age ten. According to this interview with Stephen May (Newington-Cropsey), her first attempt was to paint The Beatles in striped bathing suits, but she didn't like the result and threw it away.

'Peaked Shadow' (Indian Island)

Alexandra studied art history and psychology at Harvard and at UPenn. It was during her studies that she decided to become a painter. She notes the moment when she saw 'The Daughters of Edward Boit' by Sargent at the MFA in Boston (May, Newington & Cropsey):

"[There is] lot of darkness that makes you feel like you can walk into it. I knew I wanted to be able to paint air like that. That became a goal."

Other artists that inspire her include Cecilia Beaux, John Singleton Copley, Thomas Eakins, Vermeer, George Bellows, Hopper, Andrew Wyeth, and Judith Leyster. She has the same habit as Wyeth in leaving bits of inspiration (photos and sketches) on the floor of her studio while she considers her compositions.

'Limbo' 2019

Alexandra faced the problem how to make it as an artist, following graduate school, as she discusses in this interview with Elana Hagler (Painting Perceptions, 2014):

"For me it was a matter of figuring out how to bring the practicalities of earning a living together with the conviction inside me that told me I was put on Earth to be an artist and I couldn’t really do anything else quite as significant with my life. My parents [the architects Anne Tyng and Louis Kahn] were not much good at making money, so they really couldn’t advise me on the practical aspects of being an artist, but they also couldn’t support me financially. I always knew I would be an artist, but after college, reality hit. I had no clue how to make money to live on. Every time I was broke, my friends would say, “why don’t you get a real job?” I’m sure all artists have heard that at some point from well-meaning people. I had different ideas of how I could earn money on the side doing this or that, until finally I realized my art was of much more value than anything else I could do. Now I see that there are thousands of ways artists can make a living, you just have to figure out what suits you the best."

'Event Horizon'

In the same interview, she talks about her figurative paintings:

"My figurative work is the most personal of all my work. It’s where I allow myself to explore ideas that interest me and really get deeply into them. The scenes come out of my imagination and, because they did not actually happen, the events and people are not bound by time. Sometimes in a single painting I’ll put two figures that are really one person at two different ages, or several figures that lived a hundred years apart. I like it to look as if it were actually happening, or could have happened, so it’s important to me to get the perspective and lighting and viewpoint consistent. It’s all in the service of the concept."

'The Message' 2018

"The Jungian idea of the archetype makes sense to me, probably because I was exposed to it from an early age. (My mother was one of the founding members of the Jung Center in Philadelphia.) The idea that symbols are remarkably consistent across cultures, even in the past when cultures were more separate, intrigues me because it makes me wonder if all human beings have in us some genetic memory of the Big Bang. My father used to say that “matter is spent light,” If you think about it, all living things came out of the same matter that was created at the beginning of the Universe, so it’s possible that we all share a way of finding connections and patterns, and assigning meaning to forms."


"I incorporate a lot of symbols into my paintings, but I don’t like to tell the viewer how a painting must be interpreted. It’s no fun to spell everything out for the viewer. I try to create a whole environment in which symbols are part of the setting and interaction between people, so that there are many layers of meaning, many possibilities of meaning, and I’m leaving the painting open to interpretation. I believe there’s always an aspect of visual art that is unseen. You can’t predict that, or control it, but you can try to put your non-visual thoughts and emotions into the painting when you’re working on it, and hope that some of that is communicated to the viewer."

'Triumph of Light'

"My painting process is primarily direct, though in the studio I apply more layers, I incorporate some glazing and scumbling, and I can make the choice of whether to paint wet-into-wet or wet over dry. The basis for all my paintings is working from nature. Whether I’m painting a portrait head in a studio setup or working outdoors, I’m trying to put down exactly what I observe. In preparation for large studio work, I take reference photos, so I work from both the oil studies and photos. I use the photos to design the composition and decide on the exact proportions and size of the canvas. If it’s a complex figurative composition I do a lot of graphite and charcoal sketches first. Then I print out photos for the background and figures, and I plan exactly where everything is going to go by moving figures around. I prefer to cut and paste rather than work it all out in Photoshop because then it looks too finished and I feel as though I’m just copying a photo. The painting is more in my head than in any of the reference material. When I’m working in the studio, I paint from the computer monitor, the oil sketches, and as many as 20 or 30 photo references strewn around the easel."

Alexandra practices plein-air painting outside as a form of constant practice to observe color and light. "Plein-air painting has become my source of ideas, and a way of keeping my brushstrokes fresh and my color sense accurate."

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'Art & Legacy'

Alexandra Tyng has been so kind as to answer some questions for this blog. Here follows our interview:

1. I was born in Philadelphia in 1978, but we moved away when I was four. I’ve only visited on a couple short occasions, and I’ve always thought of Philly as a lost and mysterious homeland. I’m curious what I missed, and I’d love to have you describe it. 

"Philadelphia has had its ups and downs, but it’s basically a very livable city with a variety of residential neighborhoods, cultural institutions, and lots of history. There are several well-known art schools in the city, and artists tend to stay after school to teach, work, and live out their lives, so we have a lively artist community here, and some good galleries."

'From Start to Finish: Brief Window'

From Tyng's Instagram:

"The composition of this painting came to me all at once, and though I worked out the details gradually, the basic structure remained the same. My husband and I were trying to find the location of my grandparents' house on the Eastern Shore of MD. The house had burned down years ago, and he wished he could see it just for a second. His wish gave me the idea for this painting. I started with a drawing, then a photo map of collage showing the placement of all the elements. The following two images show the painting as it progressed. I paint on primed linen toned with a warm neutral similar in color to raw linen."

'The Wish'

2. Much of your figurative work focuses on family and portraits, which are up close and personal. Your landscapes, in contrast, are mostly aerial views from so far away. I’m curious what message you’re telling in placing these contrasting viewpoints together in your art. 

"All my work is about connections and relationships, whether I’m painting people or buildings or geological features, or combinations of these. And there’s another level of connection: the paintings themselves are parts of a continuum of which portraits and aerial landscapes represent the extremes. I often paint the same place from a hierarchy of perspectives. So it’s all part of one viewpoint, really. It’s a multi-layered, multi-scale viewpoint.

"My figure paintings are more towards the center of the continuum, where people are interacting among themselves and with the environment in a particular way that communicates meaning. I most enjoy painting people I know—or people I get to know through portrait commissions—because I’m not just reacting to people’s external appearances, I’m also aware of their personalities, their general auras, their interests and passions and quirks—all the good stuff that originates from within and comes through in their expressions and body language. When I paint my family members and friends I see them as themselves, and also as characters in an allegorical drama. The drama takes place in a constructed space that is partly imagined and partly based on real places. To paint this space I have to understand how to paint nature and built structures. I have to be familiar with how light and distance affect color, and I need a knowledge of perspective so I can place figures in a space and create a convincing, realistic scene. There is also the ever-present question of how to communicate meaning by using symbolism that is both personal (up close) and universal (far away). So I would say these multi-figure paintings evolved from the synthesizing of figure and ground, and the two extremes of scale and distance."

'Point of Turning'

3. You mentioned in an interview that you frequently add symbols or symbolic items into your work. Could you give a couple examples? 

"I just want to be clear that the symbolism is intrinsic to each work. When I add details it’s not like I’m adding a dollop of this and a pinch of that. Every detail is in service to the idea, and each one makes a slightly different point to support the whole. In these paintings I’m striking a balance between simplicity and complexity. My thought process is a very conscious melding of two approaches. 

"First: I only put in what is necessary, to say what I want to say. If something doesn’t support the idea, or it’s repetitive, I take it out. This approach comes from studying Andrew Wyeth’s working methods. As Wyeth composed a painting he made many sketches and studies, gradually moving things around, paring them down, and eliminating extraneous elements until he was left with only what was necessary to convey what he wanted to say.  

"Second: This is where “adding” comes in. In the process of composing a painting I add details with symbolic references to support the theme in unique ways while remaining subordinate to the whole. Since I was an art history major in college I have been drawn to 17th century Dutch paintings, especially genre scenes by such artists as Vermeer, Judith Leyster, Franz Hals and Jan Steen. Steen painted large, complex multi-figure scenes of domestic life—some examples are:

'As the Old Sing, So Pipe the Young', ca. 1668-70


'Marriage Contract', ca. 1668

—that on first glance appear to be contemporary family scenes, but that can be read on a deeper level as allegories with moral messages. The eye-catching drama between the figures pulls the viewer into the painting, then the plethora of detail resolves into “clues” that help the viewer decipher the message.  

"Here are two examples of how I use symbolism. In both examples, I start with a personal story, and then figure out how to best express it visually. At the same time I’m also asking myself “What is this really about?” I keep digging deeper until I get to a level on which the story begins to sound less about me in particular and more about human nature and human relationships.

'Scavengers' 2019

Alexandra shares this example of symbolism from her interview with Michael Pearce (TRACT Magazine, 2019):

“Scavengers is my visual description of how it feels to have one’s privacy invaded. The idea first came into my mind after a recent biography of my father was published. In it were intimate details of his personal life that were inevitably going to come out, but as well-written as the book was, my family found it hard to go through the experience of having our private life revealed to the public. Still harder was the experience of reading reviews of the book and people’s thoughtless comments. The characters in the painting are my siblings and I. As I planned the work I asked my sister and brother to describe their strongest emotion around the experience. My sister felt an impulse to protect her parents, my brother was afraid the book would provoke arguments and bad feelings, and I was nervous about how the personal information I had shared with the author would be written about and interpreted. I incorporated our responses into the composition.  

"There is an obvious nod to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, one of my favorite films. All the birds are species of gulls found in Maine. I chose seagulls in particular to represent the invaders because they can be aggressive, because they are sea birds and I wanted a simple background with ocean, and because I wanted the invasion to be unexpected, “out of a clear blue sky.” My brother is a birder, so I asked him under what circumstances he would be comfortable wielding a broom against a seagull to fend it off. He answered, “I would if a great black-backed gull were attacking me.” So I used some black-backed gulls where I wanted the most aggressive action. My goal was a combination of horror and humor. 

"As I developed the composition I added other details to support the theme. The “doll” in bed is an Indian king puppet. In the painting I use him to represent my father, whose last name, Kahn, means “king.” The birds are leaving him alone and coming after us. The herring gull at the bottom left is reading his biography. The laughing gulls, another species common in Maine, are gathered around a basket of clothes, holding up a bra, while I’m trying to protect the dirty laundry. My sister is trying to stop the gulls from snatching the family’s personal correspondence and our father’s ties, but the birds are too quick for her. 

"The idea expanded to include the problem we are all dealing with today: an invasion of privacy on many levels and in numerous ways, including data stealing and sharing on social media, internet and cell phones. The walls that we thought were solid have simply dissolved, leaving us vulnerable and raising our anxiety level.  It amused me and saddened me to paint the king puppet lying there peacefully; my father died in 1974 with no inkling of the myriad ways in which our lives are being invaded today.” 

'The Unseen Aspect'

"This painting is about a child discovering that she has the power to see into the future. It is based on an experience I had when I was about five or six years old at my grandparents’ house on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.  My mother and I were about to walk down to the beach. She told me to go upstairs to get something, and as I started up the steps I "saw" the second floor hallway of my grandparents' house enveloped in a sheet of flames. The fire was superimposed on the present reality so that I could see it wasn’t real in the usual sense but at the same time it looked very real. I refused to go up.

“There’s fire up there!” I told my mother. 
“Nonsense! There’s no fire.”   

"I was still afraid to go upstairs, so she agreed to go with me but she made me go first. As I walked down the upstairs hall I remember saying to her “This house is going to burn down,” though I had no idea why I thought that or where the idea came from. My mother told me that what I saw in my mind’s eye was “ridiculous.” Years later, the house did burn down, in the same year my grandmother and father died.  

"The scene on the beach is not a literal depiction of the actual event. In the process of planning this painting I started with a more literal version and gradually moved towards this imagined scene that was not tied to a specific moment in time, because, after all, the painting is about the fluidity of time. The girl has dug a hole in the sand and unearthed a transparent globe in which she sees fire. The globe could be a treasure, or a burden, or both, but how is she to know that yet? She shows it to her mother but her mother backs away, not wanting to see what is in the globe. The orangey-yellow glint in the windows of the house could be a reflection of the sun, or another reference to fire that has not yet happened. To me, the water’s edge and eroding shoreline signify impermanence and destruction, as do the approaching storm clouds.  

"When I painted this, my mother had recently died and I was in the middle of the grieving process, trying to accept the finality of separation. My mother and I had been close but we had very different ways of thinking, and I don’t think she ever accepted or even recognized that I could see things that had not yet happened—though my father did.  In this painting I am expressing the communication difficulty, and also the regret I feel at never being able to speak to her again. My grandparents had a boat similar to the one in the painting, a type of dory commonly used in Maryland. I use it in this painting to represent the boat used in Greek mythology by Charon to transport people across the River Styx to Hades, the realm of the dead. Footprints of an unknown, unseen being have walked between my mother and me, to the boat. 

"There are personal experiences, memories, myths and fairy tales—a complex web of associations-- woven into my figure paintings. But I don’t like to make everything obvious because paintings are more interesting when they have some degree of ambiguity. Titles also can suggest things rather than spell them out. When I do get asked to explain what certain paintings are about it’s usually to describe my work process. Most people seem to enjoy guessing what’s happening and projecting their own stories and associations into them."


 4. Having such famous and artistic parents, can you talk a bit about them and any lessons they taught you regarding art and the creative process? 

"My parents were both architects. There were no formal art lessons, but I learned a lot just from being around them. They developed concept sketches and then mechanical drawings and models that went through many versions before getting to the final design. They both were intensely focused on their work and would often work halfway through the night when they had a deadline. At the dinner table the conversation mostly revolved around their theories and current projects. Most of their work was commissioned, and they treated commissions as collaborations. The client contributed the program and the architect considered it not a hindrance or restriction, but a challenge to produce a disciplined and inspired building. My parents also worked together and separately on their “own” non-commissioned projects. These innovative designs were never built, but models of these projects, like the Philadelphia City Tower and my mother’s Four-Poster House, were always around in the office or our house. When I was a baby my mother made part of a tetrahedral space frame into a mobile and hung it above my crib.

My father used to draw with me when I was very young. He would say “Would you like to draw a castle (or house or church or synagogue)?” and we drew the same type of building side by side on separate sheets of paper.  My parents were both very good at perspective, so if I had a question on how to draw something like a foreshortened leg, or a dormer window seen from an angle, I would ask them or watch how they did it. 

"Some of the most important breakthroughs in my learning process were connected to my father, but they happened after he died (when I was 20) so I cannot attribute the connections to his direct teaching or influence, so maybe they are partly due to osmosis or genetics. One was his use of color. I developed my own way of using color by observing the color of the direct light and seeing its relation on the color wheel to the colors in the indirect or ambient light and the shadow. After I had been painting this way for several years, a book of my father’s travel sketches was published. I had not seen a lot of his personal artwork before and I was struck by how, in his pastel paintings, he had separated the direct light, ambient light, and shadow into three distinct and somewhat exaggerated colors, and used in his strokes the same colors that I would have chosen. 

"Another thing I realized was that he was trying to design spaces that contained a transformative energy. He would travel to different countries, go into ancient buildings like the Pantheon, and just stand there absorbing the energy of that building while noting that particular combination of “measurable” factors that had created this “unmeasurable” quality. He wanted to be able to do this in his own unique work, and I think he succeeded, especially in his later buildings. I realized I was trying to do the same thing in my work and going about it the same way. It’s both exhilarating and agonizing to stare at an extraordinary work of art like Rosa Bonheur’s 

"The Horse Fair" 

or Sargent’s "Daughters of Edward Darley Boit", trying to internalize the energy, the mystery, the non-visual aspects of the work. For years I was longing for something I couldn’t grasp, and I felt like I was getting nowhere -- until years later I was surprised to feel it beginning to flow naturally into my work. I still feel that longing in the presence of great art, and I have so far to go. It’s humbling."

'The Letter A'

5. What do you worry about when you compose a picture? What are some common mistakes or pitfalls you try to avoid? 

"I can’t say I worry when I’m composing a painting. The thinking process that comes before that is the agonizing stage, but in an exciting way because I’m giving birth to this non-visual, mysterious thing (as described above). 

"I admit there are some things that really bug me when I look at art. One is a misplaced horizon line. There’s a trend now to paint head-and-shoulders paintings in which the person is viewed straight on, but all you see is sky, or the horizon is way below where it should be. If we paint figures we need to understand where they are in space, even if the space is very simple and only a very small part of the figure is visible."


From Tyng's Instagram:

"Last night was St. John's Eve, very close to the actual summer solstice, celebrated in many countries with bonfires and dancing. I painted this of my daughter a few years after she spent a year in Estonia, my father's country of origin. It was a happy year for her and she was feeling nostalgic. I thought of her reaching toward memories, warming her hands on the flames as they were leaning away from her. The painting refers not only to her memory of St John's Eve but also of my father's experience of being severely burned as a child in Estonia, and also to fire as a symbol of transformation."

'The Franks Playing Mozart'

From Stephen May's article (Newington & Cropsey):

"I became so drawn into the excitement of the music, and the way they were interacting, and their enjoyment of making music together that I decided I wanted to paint them in action, rather than in a more formal, posed portrait. [I used] colors and brushstrokes to capture the feeling of the music, the color of the music as I saw it, and the movement of the music in the air, and the energy in the air that connected them and connected the musical sounds. [I] tried to be purposeful in the way I put paint down, but also let the brushstrokes be visible - basically, to keep some of hte evidence of the process in the final product."

6. What advice do you have for art students? What common mistakes do you see?

"Here are my thoughts for art students: there are many possible careers in art, and they are all valuable. If you truly want to dedicate your life to making art, talk to working artists to learn the details of how art is shown and sold. Each artist’s experience is unique and it’s interesting to hear how others have survived and thrived. Chances are you may not be able to support yourself financially right away, so make sure you have a backup source of income. Some artists teach or do commissioned work; others work in an unrelated field for steady pay and benefits. It’s surprising to me how many “full-time” artists also have a full-time “day job.” Another very important thing to remember is that achieving success, however you define it, often takes longer than you think. 

"One possible pitfall—possibly due to the emphasis in the curriculum of each particular art school-- is to assume that concept is more important than skill, or skill is more important than concept. Actually, they are both essential. My advice would be to give them time, a lifetime, to develop. Concepts are the ideas central to our lives as artists. They can be expressed in infinite ways and it is up to us to explore what we want to say and how we choose to say it. Skills are our tools. As we become increasingly adept, then each brushstroke or tool mark will be intentional and it will enhance the whole rather than distract from it."

'Arteries at Dusk'

7. What do you think art education programs should focus more on? 

"There are a lot of programs out there, and each one is different, which is great because artists have a variety of learning styles. One of the most important things for a prospective student to do before choosing a program is to shop around and find a school that feels like a good fit.  That said, I think the most important aspects of any art education are mastering basic skills (there are a variety of approaches to fit every personality); acquiring a thorough knowledge of art history; and learning the languages of concept, allegory and symbolism. It would be great if a school had some kind of mentorship program and/or visiting artist - master class program, to expose students to different approaches and styles, and to give students the opportunity to interact with successful working artists."

'Off the Grid'

8. What reception have you received from critics regarding your work? Do you find it hard to draw focus away from more avant-garde, conceptual art? How did you resist moving in that direction? 

"There are many subsets of the art world that coexist. There will always be critics who focus on certain kinds of art because that’s where their interest lies, so I would not want to devote much energy to redirecting critics’ attention. Fortunately figurative art (also called realism) is evolving and gaining attention, and with those developments have emerged new critics who have a bunch of useful tools: a background in art history, knowledge of symbolism and how it can be used, an eye for the obvious and subtle differences that distinguish one artist’s work from another, and a vocabulary to describe this kind of art and educate potential collectors and curators. My work has received varied responses from critics. When a critic doesn’t “get” it, I allow myself a few minutes of grouchiness, then I remind myself that this is only one person’s opinion, and I shouldn’t let it discourage me, then I take the “gold” from it and get busy thinking about how I can improve my work.  When a critic does “get” it or sees more in it than I thought possible, it’s exciting for me, and it’s one more step for the advancement of figurative painting."

'Cirque II'

9. How do you see the future for realistic figurative painting? 

"I think it will always be around, but the popularity of certain styles and subjects waxes and wanes. I believe the future will be brighter if we artists do not lose sight of the ideas we want to convey and how best to convey them. We need to keep our minds active and resist slipping into corny, clever, shallow, and hackneyed expression. We also need to resist the urge to copy trends. There’s nothing worse than being one of many to jump on the bandwagon. It’s much better to be one who does unique work that is true to our inner voice."

10. When I made my list I was surprised to find so many figurative and portrait painters. I hadn't set out to do that, I just found these kinds of works most powerful and moving. I realized, in literature we take it for granted a book will be about people, but in art we don't. But, it's hard to react on an emotional level to such an extent without the drama of characters posing, looking, and acting. I worry if I've been too exclusionary or narrow in my selection process and I'm curious how you and other artists on the list feel about this. 

"I think it’s fine to narrow the focus of a list to one category of figurative (or realist) art. Otherwise your list would be too long and people would lose interest way before the 1,000th artist!"

'Back to the Lakes'

11. What do you tell someone who thinks that art doesn’t matter?

"Art is all around us. Art is not necessary for life, but it makes life richer and more worth living. Enjoy the beauty around us and within us."

'Morning View of Monhegan Village'

'North Through Camden'

'The Grandmothers'

'Vision to Hand'


'Year at Sea'

'Star at the Edge'

'Anne Griswald Tyng' the artist's mother


'Backyard Snow'

'Reflected Trees, Long Pond'