Studio Visit: Atlanta Artist Charly Palmer on Painting John Legend’s Portrait and What He ‘Has to’ Listen to While He Works

We spoke with the Atlanta-based artist about what he's working on now and how he stays productive in the studio.

Charly Palmer in the studio. Photo: Melissa Alexander.

In “Studio Visit,” artists invite us to peek inside their workspaces to offer insight into their process, inspirations, and obsessions.

Charly Palmer is having a busy summer. In quick succession, the Atlanta-based artist was commissioned by John Legend to paint a portrait for the cover of his highly anticipated new album, Bigger Love, and then by TIME magazine to create a new work for the cover of its “America Must Change” issue, which hit newsstands last month.

Palmer is best known for creating layered paintings of Black figures surrounded by flowers, which became a motif in his work after the death of his mother in 2008. His art—which has been collected by the likes of Maya Angelou—has also appeared on posters for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and as part of campaigns to mark the 150th anniversaries of Fisk University and Howard University. Looking ahead, Palmer and his partner, sociologist Karida Brown, are working to revive WEB Du Bois’s children’s magazine, The Brownies’ Book, for the 21st century in order to introduce children to the work of Black creatives at a young age.

In between assignments, we caught up with Palmer to talk about what he’s listening to, what he’s looking at, and how he stays focused in the studio.

What are the most indispensable items in your studio, and why? 

My speaker. I need sound—it helps speeds up my day or else it moves very slowly 

Can you share a picture of a work in progress?  

A work in progress from Palmer's studio. By the time you read this, it will probably be finished. Photo: Charly Palmer.

A work in progress from Palmer’s studio. By the time you read this, it will probably be finished. Photo: Charly Palmer.

You recently completed two high-profile projects: a cover for TIME and the cover for John Legend’s new album. Do you approach commissions differently than works you make on your own, without specific briefs attached?

Yes. With a commission you always have the client in mind; when it’s my stuff, there is no one specific in mind—just that there will be someone. There’s a slight hindrance when doing it for someone [else]. 

What is the studio task on your agenda tomorrow that you are most looking forward to?

I’m working on [portraits of] a young Lew Alcindor/Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, [Muhammad] Ali, Richard Pryor, and Colin Kaepernick that are almost done. I’m looking forward to completing them ASAP.

The cover of TIME's "America Must Change" issue on June 26. Cover art by Charly Palmer. Image courtesy of TIME.

The cover of TIME’s “America Must Change” issue on June 26. Cover art by Charly Palmer. Image courtesy of TIME.

What kind of atmosphere do you prefer when you work? Do you listen to music, podcasts, or prefer silence? 

There has to be something playing in the background. Sometimes music—with all seriousness, right now I’m starting my days listening to John Legend’s catalogue.  

Some days, it’s audiobooks, sometimes strictly educational audiobooks, and then there are days for classic books. My favorites are “whodunits.”

Charly Palmer's portrait of John Legend, which appeared on the cover of his album <i>Bigger Love</i>.

Charly Palmer’s portrait of John Legend, which appeared on the cover of his album Bigger Love.

What trait do you most admire in a work of art? What trait do you most despise?

Any art? I love how great art makes me feel—I feel love, in love, moved and truly inspired. What I hate are those people who take advantage of artists, who are motivated by the money and care nothing about the work, who will say anything to make the sale.

What snack food could your studio not function without?

For guests, snack bags, Pringles, Doritos, popcorn. For me? Bourbon. Jack Daniels is my current favorite.

Who are your favorite artists, curators, or other thinkers to follow on social media right now? 

Alfred Conteh, Basil Watson, Jules Arthur, Jerry Saltz (his criticism concerning current events is fantastic). Also, Stella Jones in New Orleans, Cosmo Whyte, Fahamu Pecou. There are so many that move and inspire me, to name them all would be impossible, so forgive me all of those who I neglected to mention.

When you feel stuck in the studio, what do you do to get un-stuck?

Never been stuck in the studio. There are so many ideas coming always, I have to produce,

What is the last exhibition you saw (virtual or otherwise) that made an impression on you?

The current exhibit at Hammonds House Museum in Atlanta, “Nu Africans” (which is currently closed, but has images online), with Maurice Evans and Grace Kisa.

If you had to put together a mood board, what would be on it right now?

The color teal, bright yellow, pale green, and assortments of flowers.

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