These Hyperrealistic Portraits Are Actually Made from Yarn

Alexxa Gotthardt
Apr 26, 2018 9:36PM

Cayce Zavaglia, Matt, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.

Artist Cayce Zavaglia is a master of illusion. From afar, her portraits look like hyperrealistic paintings. Get up close, however, and you’ll discover they’re actually constructed from yarn—thousands of tiny knotted, layered strands of it.

Zavaglia never expected to take up embroidery. In fact, she shied away from it during art school, where “fiber was kind of like the art world’s ‘f-word,’” she told Artsy. While working on both her BFA and MFA, she focused on figurative painting, looking to the great portraitists who came before her, like Lucian Freud and Elizabeth Peyton.

But a year after graduating from Washington University’s MFA program, she found herself mired in creative block. “I really felt a need for change, but wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do,” she told Artsy over the phone from her studio in St. Louis.

Cayce Zavaglia, Hudson, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.

Cayce Zavaglia, Verso of Hudson, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.


A summer of experimentation ensued, but it wasn’t particularly fruitful. She jettisoned one idea after another. The only image that stuck in her mind was that of a small embroidery kit her mother had given her as a child. From it, she’d produced one of her first artworks: a convincing landscape dotted with sheep. “There was something about the making of that piece that inspired what I like to call ‘media magic,’” she recalled. “That feeling of pride you have, especially as a kid, in making something.”

An idea began to tug at her: What if she sewed a portrait? She ran the thought by her husband, who was not a fan (as Zavaglia recalls, he called the prospect “disgusting”). She decided to move forward anyway and, very slowly, her creative block dissipated.

That was 16 years ago. Since then, Zavaglia has used yarn to imitate paint, a process that has continued to challenge her both technically and conceptually. Her most recent works feature in a new solo show, “Southerly,” opening at Lyons Wier Gallery in New York on May 3rd.

At first, Zavaglia was preoccupied with learning what the material could do and how she could use it. Her biggest challenge was to replicate a nuanced range of colors with a limited palette of wool. The fiber she was using—called crewel—only offered about 15 different skin tones, according to the artist. Gone were the days when she could produce just the right hue by mixing fluctuating amounts of pink, brown, and white paint.

Through trial and error, she developed a technique inspired by Impressionism and Pointillism. By placing white and brown threads next to each other, for instance, they’d mingle to look like beige. “From a distance, it creates the illusion of a color that doesn’t exist,” she explained of the process.

With each portrait she made, Zavaglia became more adept at transforming yarn to resemble paint. Her compositions became hyper-detailed as she taught herself how to depict even the thinnest strands of hair, or the most subtle blush of a cheek.

Progress shot of Cayce Zavaglia, Sandra, in the artist's studio, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.

It wasn’t until several years ago that Zavaglia felt as if she’d perfected this process. Around the same time, the medium of embroidery presented her with another new, unexpected challenge. “I started recognizing the images on the back of my compositions as a legitimate part of my practice,” she said.

As Zavaglia stitches the faces of her sitters, a chaotic image emerges on the back of her canvas. It’s a mess of knotted, protruding threads, but a face can still be deciphered within the woolen pandemonium. She became fascinated with these compositions: mottled, imperfect alter-egos of the polished portraits she created on the front.

“The back feels more like the psychological side of the portrait,” she explained. “We all have two sides. An exterior that we use to face the world, and an interior, which we might not let anyone see—because it’s knotted and messy and tangled.”

These days, she shows both sides of her embroidered portraits in exhibitions and on her website. And she’s also returned to painting. “We all have two sides,” Zavaglia admitted. “So that’s something we can all relate to.”

Alexxa Gotthardt