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Artist Hilde Atalanta Finds Beauty in the ‘In Between’

By Charles Purdy

While Hilde Atalanta takes on projects of all kinds and works in a variety of styles and media, a primary focus is on making portraits—through which she explores themes related to identity, in particular gender identity, body positivity, and sexuality. Working in pencil, ink, watercolor, and acrylic paint, she creates art that reflects the diversity she sees around her.

[Editorial note: Before scrolling, please be aware that some of the artwork featured below the middle of this page includes illustrations of nude figures.]

Atalanta says that she likes to create portaits of androgynous figures—these are from a 2017 series titled They Are Beautiful, rendered in graphite, watercolor, gouache, and black ink.

Atalanta’s aim is to create images in which she can recognize herself, her friends, and the real people she sees every day.  She says, “Mainstream art tends to show a certain type of person—and I know that in my own artwork, when I first started, I somewhat automatically portrayed that beauty ideal…. But I wish society would be more inclusive and understanding of our differences—would celebrate our differences. In my artwork, my goal is to reflect the diversity that is already a part of our world but that tends to get lost when we try to portray something beautiful.”

A love of detail is apparent in the illustrator’s work, as is a fascination with androgyny. “I love to make realistic portraits,” Atalanta explains. “I like to lose myself in details, and I’m very interested in painting faces and expressions…most of the characters I paint are quite androgynous—I mainly use female models, but then I play with their gender. I really like that they feel a bit ‘in between,’ because that feels very interesting to me. When I look into the world, the people that are a bit ‘in between’ fascinate me.” 

REDISCOVERING A CHILDHOOD PASSION

Atalanta is a self-taught artist, and before she started drawing two years ago, she had not seriously applied herself to visual art since childhood.

Her first course of study was classical piano; however, after graduating from a conservatory in Rotterdam, she decided that the constraints of classical music were too rigid. Next, she studied psychology in Amsterdam and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in clinical psychology. She was interested in working in sexology or couples therapy but decided she didn’t want to invest more time in pursuing an advanced degree.

At that point, about two years ago, she decided to take six months off—to pause and figure out what direction she wanted to go in. But after one month, she realized that unstructured time off was not for her either. She felt lost. So she asked herself, “What am I missing in my life right now?”

And the answer was creative expression. Atalanta explains, “The creative side of me had gotten a bit lost during my studies. When I was a kid, I loved drawing and painting, doing little plays with my friends, and all that fun stuff.” So she decided to spend an afternoon painting and drawing, and she shared the results on Facebook. The response was so positive, and she had enjoyed herself so much, that she decided to keep going—and two years later, she hasn’t stopped.

Last December, in collaboration with Instagram, Atalanta created created a series of portraits of people who are making a difference in their communities. Atalanta says, “The topics were gender, women’s rights, and health, and there were five people I got to portray to go along with the stories…. It was an amazing commission because I got all the creative freedom I could wish for, it was a very diverse group, and I really loved each community member for what they had done.” (Read more about this series on Out.com.)

A PROVOCATIVE BUT PLAYFUL SERIES

Atalanta works just about every day, in a central Amsterdam co-working studio space she shares with five other creative people, including journalists and a graphic designer.  But her work, she says, doesn’t really feel like work: “I’m happy when I wake up in the morning and think, ‘What am I going to do today—OK, it’s this and this and this… and I can’t wait!’ I’m so intrinsically motivated that I know I’m doing the right thing.”

Atalanta explored her love of the “in between” with a recent commission for an article about the erasure of bisexuality, in the Eugene Weekly. She has made those images available on Adobe Stock, where she has been offering illustrations for a couple of months. She says, “I feel happy that my work is being recognized and that is has a possibility to reach more people.”

A self-initiated project that she embarked on early in her illustration career has become an internationally renowned online sensation and now takes up a fair portion of her creative time. It’s called The Vulva Gallery, and it was inspired by Atalanta’s learning about a rise in cosmetic labiaplasty surgeries.

She explains, “I was really shocked when I heard about this, and I thought there must be something missing in terms of education and showing diversity, so I started an account where I painted one vulva a day, showing that diversity in a very simple way.”

The simplicity of the images is intentional—Atalanta means for the series to be playful, colorful, and easy to translate to one’s own body: “What I notice with a lot of feminist art or queer art is that it’s political and often very heavy—which is logical because it’s a heavy and serious theme,” she says. “But when I follow an account, I want to be inspired, and I think you can be political and still be critical without being negative. That’s what my aim with all my work is: to inspire a feeling of possibility instead of a feeling of criticism.”

(You can learn more about The Vulva Gallery via its dedicated Instagram page. Please note that the gallery’s title describes the images therein. Click with discretion.)

GROWING AS AN ILLUSTRATOR

The success of The Vulva Gallery was a bit surprising to Atalanta. “I’m from the Netherlands, and we are, I think, quite relaxed about a lot of things here, but I know that it’s not the same in every part of the world,” she says. “So when I started the account I wasn’t sure if things were going to work…. But soon some international publications got a hold of it, and it really started to grow.”

While The Vulva Gallery has earned Atalanta more attention, the series has, in turn, informed her work. Through the project, she found that she wanted to focus more on issues of diversity, not only in terms of human anatomy but also in terms of gender identity and sexuality. As that project grows into an interactive community, she’s adding a storytelling element to the vulva portraits she creates.

Some images from Atalanta’s series You’re Welcome Club are available via Adobe Stock, and the series has led to portrait commissions. Atalanta says, “It’s really nice because with commissions, it’s not just ‘Oh, paint me a portrait’; there’s always a story behind it…it feels very special to be able to do this.”

A newer self-initiated project, You're Welcome Club, features lighthearted nude figures—of all shapes, sizes, and types—and focuses on diversity, body positivity, and inclusivity; those works have led to some editorial and portrait commissions, and she also sells images from that series (among other illustrations) as an Adobe Stock premium contributor.

Looking into the near future, Atalanta would like to explore making larger-scale paintings while developing her technical skills and growing as an artist. But a primary goal remains creating images that celebrate our human differences. She explains, “I want people to be able to recognize themselves in my work and to feel included. I want people to look at my work and say, ‘Hey, that’s me’ or ‘That's my sister,’ and feel that what they are is normal and beautiful.”

See more of Hilde Atalanta’s work on her portfolio site and on Adobe Stock.