Emma Kohlmann on nudes, prehistoric influences and an obsession with scanning

A new book published by Anthology Editions traverses the artist’s watercolour works. Find out how an “incredibly analogue” process and the eye of Elana Schlenker helped it come to life.

4 April 2024

On paper, Emma Kohlmann’s journey as an artist reads as pretty untraditional. She didn’t study art, but history and theory, and rather than moving to a big city to pursue her career, she instead moved from her home of the Bronx, and grew as an artist in a countryside town. Both of these aspects are now key to her work; the prehistoric influence to her trademark flowing figures, and the evident freedom with which her practice flourished, not held back by the financial and spatial constraints of inner-city life.

While Emma may not have majored in art, it’s always been a central thread through her life, carrying sketchbooks on her person since childhood, and going to museums with her parents. One of the reasons she’s always been drawn to watercolour is that it’s so transportable – something you take and use anywhere. “I used to always carry a small palette with me wherever I went,” says Emma. “I also used to make goals for myself, like cutting down a stack of paper and seeing how many drawings I could make in a day.” When it came to her final thesis at college, Emma completed it in two parts; a written paper on “the body and abjection, the murkiness between beauty and ugliness and how it manifests itself within art-making whilst referencing contemporary artists”, and a series of artworks based on it.


Emma Kohlmann: Watercolours (Copyright © Emma Kohlmann, 2024)

Made with sumi ink, the abstracted bodily forms Emma created then still resonate with her work today. “I was hoping to emote without the literal sense of describing feelings like, the weight of figures, or an image of a hand grasping, or a ghostly face hinting at a smile. This is still what I strive to achieve today as an artist,” she says. “I believe I am drawn to the figure because of the prehistoric biological context of humanity. I think about who I am as an artist in the present, but I feel like I am someone who speaks from the past.” It’s true, Emma’s pieces have something of an earthy, historic feel to them, their shape and form reminiscent of early cave paintings – but their charm, and the modern sensibilities conveyed through expression and body language bring them into the present day. Alongside her historic influence, Emma’s love of exploring the human form is also inspired by more contemporary subject matter including the Irving Penn photobook, Earthly Bodies 1949-1950, a series of contorted nudes, often abstract and headless.

These sumi ink pieces, or the “rougher, more crude ones” as Emma refers to them, are the ones that populate the start of Emma’s new book, Watercolours. Featuring a vast array of Emma’s works, the book is chronological, which works well to show Emma’s journey from the initial black ink drawings to incorporating colour. Slate blue was the first colour Emma implemented, and this resulted in her spending many years “in blue” experimenting solely with the hue before figuring out how else she could adapt and expand her palette. Though, this dedication to one colour still shines through. Emma’s pieces rarely feature more than one or two colours, something reflected in the design of the book which is laid out monochromatically, with insert pages matching the colour of the adjacent piece.


Emma Kohlmann: Watercolours (Copyright © Emma Kohlmann, 2024)

The book is designed by Studio Elana Schlenker, a collaboration Emma valued. “Elana has such a brilliant mind, she really understood my practice and work,” says Emma. “I really loved her reinterpretation of that world in print form. Her idea to make the fore-edge was something I never expected, but it really made me rethink how I see books.”

Though work on the book actually began many years before it was even conceived. Emma’s always had a passion for scanning her own work, making use of the public art library in her town and its oversized scanner – it’s a way for her to spend time with what she’s made and to work out where she might go next. “It became a ritual to visit this library and scan my drawings, and look through the stacks. It made me realise what I wanted to add or change about the next batch of drawings,” she says. Though, when it came to making a book (which took three years!) it meant trawling through over 1000 works on paper, with a helping hand from Anthology editors Jesse Pollock and Mark Iosifescu. This “incredibly analogue” approach is one that’s paid off, resulting in a stunning book that’s been carefully and lovingly compiled, allowing Emma’s vast back catalogue to shine, in all its naked glory.

GalleryEmma Kohlmann: Watercolours (Copyright © Emma Kohlmann, 2024)

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Emma Kohlmann: Watercolours (Copyright © Emma Kohlmann, 2024)

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About the Author

Olivia Hingley

Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English Literature and History, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.

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