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Featured on the Cover of The Foundation Magazine

Feature Article in The Foundation Magazine sponsored by The Qatar Foundation

Article Published in FACT Magazine Feb. 2012

Article in Qatar Tribune Newspaper

Article in The Peninsula Newspaper

Juxtapoz Website

Jesse Payne's Grotesque Heads were featured on Juxtapoz's website in Nov. 2011.

VCUQatar Professor renders Leonardo da Vinci’s grotesque heads

Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar Art & Design Foundation Assistant Professor Jesse Payne’s carefully rendered and imagined graphite drawings of Leonardo da Vinci’s grotesque heads have been published in the online version of Juxtapoz, a leading monthly contemporary and underground art and culture magazine.

Jesse Payne rendering a Grotesque Head
The drawings were previously published in American Artist: Drawing edition, (Summer 2009) in an article entitled “Fleshing Out Leonardo’s Grotesque Heads” by Bob Bahr.

Jesse Payne developed a fascination with Leonardo da Vinci’s grotesque heads, a series of caricature drawings of disfigured people, and decided to render these busts but with a slight difference from the Renaissance master’s.

“In most cases Leonardo’s drawings were small, no more than two inches in height, but my drawings are all rendered life size, that is, the heads in my drawings are the same size as ours,” says Payne who began working on the project in 2008 using da Vinci’s images as a starting point to complete his final images. He completed the project in 2010.

No one knows what da Vinci’s intentions were for the grotesque heads or whether they were drawn from life, from imagination, or both. Nevertheless, these pieces were immediately popular and often copied, even while da Vinci was still alive. Some art historians speculate that it was da Vinci’s intention that developing artists copy his grotesque heads and at some point in his life, the master did at least 100 of them.

A comparison of Jesse Payne’s Grotesque Head entitled ‘The Condition’ on the right with Leonardo da Vinci’s original on the left
Payne’s interpretations expand beyond da Vinci’s sketches. Da Vinci’s grotesque heads are mostly done in pen and brown ink while Payne’s drawings were made using various graphite pencils, materials that more easily allow variations in value and erasure.

Payne however retained da Vinci’s basic rules for the heads’ presentation – the people are seen from the top of the head to the middle of the sternum or a line just below the shoulder, and no backgrounds are suggested.

Jesse Payne pairs his Grotesque Heads The Patient (left) and The Biter (right) on a page to reflect how da Vinci or the copyists, from as far back as 1506, could have placed them
The people depicted in da Vinci’s sketches are almost never facing the viewer, a point that Payne considers important. It fits with some opinions that da Vinci secretly observed the models, instead of engaging with them face-to-face. Payne also believes that viewers would have a much tougher time approaching the drawings if the figures were looking straight ahead, suggesting eye contact.

He preserved this aspect of da Vinci’s drawings, in part because he wanted viewers to feel comfortable taking a close look at his drawings. “I made my drawings life-size to help achieve a life-like quality to the work and to engage the viewer more so in terms of interacting with the work.

Jesse Payne’s complete Grotesque Heads as a ‘Grotesque Last Supper’
Furthermore, I took it upon myself to embellish these heads with various skin conditions to make them more grotesque, pushing the level of deformities, the blisters and psoriasis to the point that they might seem transferable, to the point where you don’t want the subject to turn his or head and look at you or breathe on you. But I want people to come closer to see the detail I put in there.”

“Leonardo’s heads are some of the most copied drawings of all time, so perhaps in some cases I am doing copies of copies,” says Payne whose elaborately detailed drawings clearly suggest he’s doing a bit more than copying. Where da Vinci suggested bad skin, Payne depicted a particular dermatological condition in great detail. While da Vinci showed the basics of a garment, Payne illustrated the texture of the fabric.

“Leonardo’s self-portrait – shown next to my rendition – is believed to be his only surviving self-portrait and perhaps the only one he ever made. It is very faint and I strived to keep that quality in my final drawing,” says Payne. This attention to detail is partly a result of Payne’s apprenticeship, while working on the project, to Odd Nerdrum, the noted Norwegian figurative artist who he considers the greatest technical painter of our time.

Da Vinci’s self-portrait (left) - shown next to Jesse Payne’s rendition (right) - is believed to be the Renaissance master’s only surviving self-portrait
“I came back from my apprenticeship a much better artist and improved all the grotesque heads I had already done,” he recollects adding he spent five more hours on a section of a shirt in one of the drawings.

Payne’s grotesque heads can be presented in three different ways: by themselves (one hung in a gallery by itself); in pairs (as show in the attached image Couple #2.); and as a complete “Grotesque Last Supper” (as show in the attached image). They can all be viewed at his website www.jessepayne.com

Jesse Payne graduated with an MFA in Painting from Northern Illinois University in 2003. Previous to that, he received his BFA in Painting/Drawing in 2001 from Indiana State University.

Payne has presented papers on the topics of drawing, design thinking, idea development, creativity, curriculum development and assessment at national and international art and design conferences over the past three years. He’s been assistant professor in the Art & Design Foundation Department at VCUQatar since August 2010.

Payne is also vice president for Development for the national organization FATE (Foundations in Art: Theory and Education) which is dedicated to the promotion of excellence in the development and teaching of college-level foundation courses in both studio and art history.

Strathmore Bristol Pad Cover #2

Strathmore commissioned professional artist Jesse Payne to draw the cover for their artist grade paper 400 series (smooth) bristol pad.

Strathmore Bristol Pad Cover #1

Strathmore commissioned professional artist Jesse Payne to draw the cover for their artist grade paper 400 series (smooth) bristol pad.

Artist Biography


▪ MFA in Painting, Northern Illinois University 2004
▪ BFA in Painting/Drawing, Indiana State University 2001


Jesse Payne is an American artist currently working and teaching in Doha, Qatar. Payne’s work uses rigorous craft to amplify his creative interests: what does it mean to understand an artist’s gaze, and what does it do to a culture to censor it? His subjects – whether dimensioned iterations of Leonardo’s grotesque faces, or the further obscurity of censored art – are rendered in a hyper-representationalist manner, interrogating viewers with these same questions.

Most recently, Payne’s research has explored cross-media processes, unifying the traditional modes of painting, drawing, and printmaking with newer media forms including photography and video. With this hybrid approach, the artist has worked on a variety of new bodies of work, including “Censored,” which deals directly with the artist’s current context in the Arab world: a place where only certain types of art may be displayed and celebrated, and only certain sociopolitical behaviors are permitted.

Payne’s experimentation with media has only enforced his belief in the creative values of risk and mistake. The artist extends this into his pedagogical work, teaching foundational skills and mentoring students to discover their identities as artists. He is a recipient of the Virginia Commonwealth University Distinguished Achievement in Teaching Award, and has had the fortune of also having taught at Savannah College of Art and Design, Northern Illinois University, and elsewhere. He is dedicated to the development of fine arts education, having served on the National Board of Foundation in Art: Theory & Education (FATE), and currently acting as Vice President for International Development for Integrative Teaching International, a think-tank for education professionals. He presents regularly at conferences, discussing innovation and the contemporary landscape of design, art, and foundations pedagogy.

Payne received degrees from Indiana State University (BFA) and Northern Illinois University (MFA). His work has been shown internationally, at 33 Collective Gallery (Chicago), Telfair Art Museum (Savannah, GA), the Qatar Foundation (Doha, QA), and elsewhere. More information is available on the artist’s website, jessepayne.com.


In my practice, I am energetic about working across two-dimensional mediums, from hyper-technical, high-wire graphite drawings, to thick, abstract painting that makes real use of my attraction to the organic and instinctual. Though the two work different parts of my creative brain, there is an essential similarity: the impulse to push a given process to its furthest limits.

This impulse has drawn me to a long-term project: making detailed and differently dimensional translations of classic paintings, particularly the grotesque faces of Leonardo, but also the portraits of Picasso and the women of de Kooning. I am interested in replicating the lenses of canonized artists. As my mentor Odd Nerdrum pointed out, if we encountered the imagined subjects of Leonardo’s grotesque heads as real people, we would run for our lives. I want to activate this impulse, espouse this vivid affect for the viewer. To make “real” the grotesque or contorted, to flesh out via technical acumen, says something new about the artist’s gaze, and the idea of the representation of the absurd: no longer is the subject at arms-length. Certainly, Leonardo and Picasso had different aims, but by conceptualizing this extrusion, I’m exploring this decidedly louder angle.

While those portraits are all about exploring the affect of hyper-representationalism, I’m also interested in the inverse: the power of obscurity. Living in Qatar, I’ve become very aware of the twin forces of censorship and curtailed agency of women. In thinking about this, I have been developing work that deals with manipulation and distortion in a different way: emboldening the evidence of the omission (whether it be the visibility of a woman’s face or a state-deemed inappropriate piece of art) and therefore provoking viewers to experience this generalized omission in a more specific way and to imagine what exactly has been left out.

In my new project, “Censored,” I take on photographic portraits, drawings, found video, and “controversial” work by other artists, manipulated, in order to address the power of politics of omission through blur, erasure and pixelization. In working across so many modes, I hope to create a mass unity that feels powerful and manifest, using technical ambition to bring my creative concept to its fullest iteration.

In working with manipulated artistic gaze across modes and media, I hope to say something larger about the insistent materiality of visual art. The foundational craft of art provides the bridge between the artist’s mind and that of the viewer’s. It is up to the artist and the viewer both to mediate and explore the transmission.

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