Calida Rawles discusses her hyper-realistic rippling paintings of bodies in water

The LA-based painter discusses her wonderful work, where African-American women and men take centre stage as they’re drenched in the blue landscape of water.

22 June 2020

Rippling and glistening like glass, the subjects which Calida Rawles paints are beautifully submerged in the most detailed of settings. Bodies are drenched in a deep blue landscape, moving through still water as they leave a bubbly trail behind. It’s photorealism at its finest, as the African-American women and men are composed with “poetic abstraction,” Calida tells It’s Nice That.

For Calida, water is a spiritually healing element. The key theme throughout her work, she turns towards this element for its heavily loaded context – “it’s historical connotations to racial exclusion and cultural fears,” she says. There’s a certain and complicated duality about water that she’s attracted to, with it being a way of addressing identity, politics, as well as “reimagining her subjects beyond cultural tropes”. In this sense, her work is often a mirror to that which surrounds her, whereby current events, “topographic maps of cities” and accounts of racially targeted violence play key parts in the making-of her work. In other parts, however, it can be more celebratory, as she aims to depict the “resilience, strength and beauty” of African American culture.

Having attended Spelman College and New York University, when Calida graduated, she decided to pursue graphic design as a career, working at a t-shirt brand called Echo Unlimited. Later, she moved to Los Angeles with her husband and stepson. “I expanded my family with three little girls and wrote a children’s book, Same Difference,” she continues. “Then, I focused back to my studio practice as a painter.”


Calida Rawles: Deep Surrender, 2020 Acrylic on canvas, 30h x 24w in, 76.20h x 60.96w cm

Calida has always been an artist. But, like many, her path to working in art full time wasn’t a linear experience. Having considered psychology or literature as her major in school, it was a fortunate event when she realised her true passion for art – her now chosen profession and something that she practices with great intention. It's led her to create spellbinding works of bodies swimming on water and her serene and detailed scenes have captured the eyes of many. As a result, Calida's paintings have been shown widely in solo exhibitions at the likes of Various Small Fires, LA; Frieze, New York; Fullerton College Art Gallery, CA and the San Francisco Arts Commission, among others.

As for her inspiration, Calida cites a number of fine artists and writers. This includes artists such as Jenny Saville, Adrian Piper and Amy Sherald, and writers like Octavia Butler, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Roxane Gay and Ta-Nehisi Coates “at the top”. Her predominant muse, though, is water. It’s widely known that water has therapeutic properties – those that have been adopted for centuries across the globe. It covers 60% of the planet, it’s metamorphic, it comprises 60% of our bodies and allows for the human form to function. It carries energy and has been the focus point of many cultures for its changing qualities – especially in religion. In Christianity, they uses water to cleanse and purify whereas in Hindu secret texts, water is symbolic in its depiction of God; and Judaism has Mikvah, a bathing ritual that sees natural water used for expelling impurity. Not only this, but water has long been thought of as medicinal. Ancient Egyptians used the element to cure ailments, and Native Americans bathed in sweat lodges to cleanse the body and mind.

For Calida, she uses it conceptually. Her artistic process as such starts with research into the subject matter – reading books, articles or conducting interviews. Once she’s mentally composed her thoughts and vision, she will begin her search for a model that “embodies the spirit of [her] concept”. As water is imperative throughout her work, she first photographs her subjects submerged in water. A normal shoot will end up with over 400 digital photographs, which later serve as a basis for her painterly interpretations. “After I review each image in search for specific elements, shapes and colours that fit my vision, I merge areas of selected photographs to create one cohesive image. This image will serve as a visual reference of rate final painting.” Moving onto sketching, to mark the layout on the canvas and, of course, painting, it’s a process that can be anything from three weeks to three months to complete.

There’s much historic symbolism found within the element of water. It’s a complex thing that not only binds many contexts and cultures, but also serves as a beguiling visual cue that artists have continued to turn to – and it’s something that we need to survive. Calida sees water as a healing element for herself and for many people. “When I go for a swim, all the issues or problems that I may have been grappling with seem lighter when I leave the water,” she concludes. “I thought maybe I could address difficult and divisive issues through the visuals of water in my work.”

GalleryCalida Rawles


Infinite from Root to Tip, 2020 Acrylic on canvas, 48h x 72w in, 121.92h x 182.88w cm


The Space in Which We Travel, 2019 Acrylic on canvas, 84h x 144w in, 213.36h x 365.76w cm


Transcend, 2018 Acrylic on canvas, 48h x 60w in, 121.92h x 152.40w cm


New Day Coming, 2020 Acrylic on canvas, 48h x 120w in, 121.92h x 304.80w cm

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Calida Rawles: Radiating My Sovereignty, 2019 Acrylic on canvas, 84h x 72w in, 213.36h x 182.88w cm

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About the Author

Ayla Angelos

Ayla is a London-based freelance writer, editor and consultant specialising in art, photography, design and culture. After joining It’s Nice That in 2017 as editorial assistant, she was interim online editor in 2022/2023 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. She has written for i-D, Dazed, AnOther, WePresent, Port, Elephant and more, and she is also the managing editor of design magazine Anima. 

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