Francoise Nielly

Artist Francoise Nielly is a portrait painter who uses a knife instead of a paint brush. Francoise Nielly’s artworks are vibrant, vivid and striking portraits of very famous people. Even though Nielly’s technique is to use a knife to make her paintings, the faces are still very intricate and detailed.

Francoise Nielly painting 'Untitled 648' palette knife technique
Untitled 648. Oil on canvas
Francoise Nielly artist research untitled 741
Untitled 741. Oil on canvas
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Who is Francoise Nielly?

Francoise Nielly is a French artist who was born in Marseille in 1960. Her father was an architect so she has been drawing since she was a child and her artworks can sell for over £10,000! She often paints faces of celebrities and some of her favourite artists are Jean-Michel Basquiat, Hans Hartung, Giovanni Boldini, Lucian Freud, Paul Klee, Willem de Kooning, Philipe Pasqua, Jenny Saville, Damien Hirst and Maurizio Cattelan.

Artist research Francoise Nielly Untitled painting 938
Untitled 938. Oil on canvas
Francoise Nielly closeup Untitled 938 painting close up textures colours
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How does Francoise Nielly paint?

Francoise Nielly uses a palette knife to paint her portraits with. This technique means the famous faces have a range of textures and marks on them, almost looking like parts have been cut away to reveal other colours below.

When you look at Francoise Nielly’s portrait paintings, the first thing we see is the vibrant use of colour. We also notice the composition, or layout, of her paintings; the faces Nielly paints are a huge scale (size) and the artist often uses a close-up angle to paint from. The large, colourful and confident use of her palette knife make her paintings very dynamic, energetic and active.

Click here if you want my art lessons explaining how to draw portraits!

Artist Francoise Nielly painting in her studio
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I have shared a list of portrait artists here – enjoy!

David Bowie painting Francoise Nielly artist research
David Bowie. Oil on canvas.

How would you describe the marks you can see on Francoise Nielly’s paintings? Do you think she uses fast, quick motions with her knife or works slowly? Why? Can you see where the edge of the palette knife has been put on the canvas?

Francoise Nielly Soléne portrait painting art lesson
Soléne. Oil on canvas.
Francoise Nielly Soléne portrait painting detail - art lesson
Soléne [detail]. Oil on canvas.

Why do you think Francoise Nielly uses such bright and bold colours in her paintings of famous celebrities?

In her paintings, Francoise Nielly builds her portraits with layers and layers of oil paint (a bit like building a cake!) As you look closer, you can start to see how all of the layers of paint have been slashed and scraped, allowing the colours below to show through. In her paintings of famous faces, Nielly makes use of contrasting (complementary) colours. When colours opposite each other on the colour wheel are placed next to each other, the brightness intensifies and makes a strong contrast. Neilly uses fluorescent paints which glow in the dark, as well as using oil paints also helps to achieve a rich, intense finish.

Have a look at the portrait painting above, Nielly has made use of both warm and cool colours to enhance the highlights and shadows of the face. This means the facial features have an element of realism, even though her painting is expressive. As well as using cool colours for shadows, and warm colours for highlights, Nielly mixes a range of tones. This means her ‘dark’ areas on the faces are usually just as colourful as the light parts – clever!

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What materials do you need to create artwork like Francoise Nielly?

Here are the materials I recommend for you to make artworks like Francoise Nielly. Using oil paints for this type of work will give you rich colours and a textured finish on your work. Choose palette knives with a range of different edges to create different effects in your work. I recommend thinning out your oil paints with a quality linseed oil.

Watch the interview with Francoise Nielly for more information about her work. Can you see what else she paints onto (as well as canvas)? What does Nielly say she is inspired by?

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What do you think of Francois Nielly’s artwork? How could you describe it? Let me know in the comments! If you have found any of these resources useful please share this site on your networks / socials – thanks! 🙂


DOWNLOAD this page below, for free, as an Artist Research handout to use in your lesson. It includes all of the facts and images, and has questions for students to answer.

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