GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Artist Nick Ensing is going back in time to remedy a lack of representation: He’s using Renaissance-era painting techniques to portray Black individuals in spaces that were, at the time, overwhelmingly inhabited by white people.

Now, “Beautiful, the Portrait of Jalynn,” is being displayed at DeVos Place Convention Center for ArtPrize 2023.

“What I’ve always wanted to do was represent Black people in terms of fine artwork,” Ensing, who grew up in Grand Rapids but is now based in Georgia, said.

He told News 8 that when he visited museums, he would not see many Black people portrayed in positions of wealth, importance and beauty throughout history.

“I’m a firm believer that art subconsciously impacts our everyday way of thinking, the way that we see and view people,” Ensing said. “I just always wonder how we would operate differently in terms of the racial relationships that we have … had we seen Black people represented in the same aspects as white people from the Renaissance period, from even like the Baroque, Rococo period.”

So Ensing decided to help change that.

“As a white artist, I’m always striving to come from a place of appreciation versus appropriation,” Ensing explained. “From my standpoint, I always want to see Black people … in the same positions as I’ve always seen white people.”

“Beautiful, the Portrait of Jalynn” is a Renaissance-era portrait, painted using the techniques of the time, of a Black woman. Ensing’s real-life friend was his muse.

She is portrayed as beautiful, important, wealthy and worthy of esteem, the artist explained. He used materials like gold leaf and lapis lazuli, a blue pigment that was historically very expensive, to underscore her wealth.

"Beautiful, the Portrait of Jalynn" is displayed at DeVos Place Convention Center. (Courtesy Nick Ensing)
“Beautiful, the Portrait of Jalynn” is displayed at DeVos Place Convention Center. (Courtesy Nick Ensing)

Instead of using modern methods for oil painting, Ensing created “Beautiful, the Portrait of Jalynn” using Renaissance-era techniques. Rather than simply painting in whatever colors they wished, Renaissance painters would save money on expensive pigments by creating a monochromatic base painting. Then, Ensing explained, they would mix pigment with oil to create a  “translucent glaze” and apply it in very thin layers. The process took a lot of patience, according to Ensing.

“Every time that you want to intensify the color, you have to add an extra layer on top,” he said. “And you always have to wait for it to dry.”

A single layer might take somewhere between two and six days to dry, depending on the type of pigment and oil used, Ensing explained. And he told News 8 that some areas of “Beautiful, the Portrait of Jalynn” have as many as 40 “microscopic” layers.

“It was such an experimental process,” he said, noting that he also went through several wooden boards before he found the right texture.

Ensing said the project in its entirety took years: He had the idea for “Beautiful, the Portrait of Jalynn” in October 2019, began painting in earnest in February 2020 and finished the piece in March of this year.

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The Renaissance-era methods helped him create “more three-dimensional depth” than a modern portrait might have, he said.

“The way that the light refracts off of the painting itself with the glaze painting … is that the light is going to bounce off of the original base layer that you see and then reflect back,” Ensing explained.

The artist told News 8 that digital scans don’t do the painting justice.

“It’s kind of darker than what it is in person. You don’t see as much color tonality (in scans),” he explained. “It’s truly a piece that you need to see in person.”

When people see his piece, Ensing hopes they feel transported back in time.

“I want you to know that this person is important. This person has a right to be in this space,” Ensing said.