From Classical to Contemporary: The Portraits of Milenna Saraiva

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This week in São Paulo we meet award winning Brazilian portrait artist Milenna Saraiva, who will be taking part in our exhibition Interseções this May.

Who are you and what do you do?

That could be a very deep question! I am a human being who likes to express herself through art; I am an artist. I come from a classical education in art, but I aim for my art to be free, flowing, expressive, and still have a lot of depth. I don’t want it to be just abstract; I want to incorporate what I know with things that I am discovering as I paint.

Jeremy, 2017 | Acrylic on Canvas | 90 x 130 cm

So you have learnt the rules, and now you are breaking them.


When did you first realise you wanted to be an artist?

I was really little. My mum kept all my sketches from when I was a kid and my first sketch book at her house was from when I was three years old, I was drawing little native Americans and dinosaurs. I always knew I wanted to do that, though I ended up going into the field of dance and I was an athlete for a long time. It was a big thing in the 80’s, like stage aerobics, it was like a mixture of cheerleading and gymnastics. I used to train for eight hours a day from the age of ten until seventeen, but whenever I had a little time I would be drawing.

You went on to do a classical education in art, where did you do that?

I've got a Bachelor Degree in Fine Arts at Santa Monica College, in Los Angeles, California.  When I finished it I was chosen to be part of The Mentor Program, where university teachers chose one student from each category of art; so one from drawing, one from sculpture, painting, etc. I had a mentor who was a brilliant artist who's mentored me for a year. They gave us studio spaces inside an aeroplane hangar and our job was to go there and do what we were chosen to do. Every now and then the faculty members would come in, look at our work and give us tips. Saying stuff like “your colour is off,” “I’m going to teach you a technique,” etc. It was amazing and changed my life.

After living in America for fourteen and a half years as an artist I came back to Brazil. I had been exhibiting my work from my first year of university out there. Then I came back and went to FAAP, which is a well known school here and I did a post-grad in contemporary painting. 

Hybrid, 2016 | Acrylic on canvas | 50 x 100 cm | Private collection in CA.

Was this the beginning of your path away from more traditional painting?

Yes, I used to paint in oil doing these very tight paintings. They started developing and then one day whilst I was studying at FAAP I was in my studio and something changed. If you go to my website you can see how they evolved.

Tell us about the work you are creating now. 

Now I focus on portraiture, though I think my work is developing into some kind of abstract portraiture because that’s what gets me excited. I am trying to build or construct faces with abstract elements very freely, without lines, just paint.

What is driving you in this direction?

I think the main thought being that we are all equal. We are all the same, but made of "different colours".  Colours they evoke feelings. I guess I am trying to create a very universal body of work. In the past I painted specific people, famous, infamous people and that was fun, but now I want to paint a portrait that could be me or you; anyone.

So, it’s less about specific person and more the idea of human existence. Interesting! Tell us about your live speed painting and Art Battle Brazil

Well it’s interesting you ask because the live painting actually also pushed me into this style. Before I used to always paint inside my studio, with a lot of time, calmly. Then I was invited by these people – the Art Battle Group, which is a competition that started in Canada and it came to Brazil, I had never heard about it but they found me online and invited me to be a part of it. When they called me to ask if I wanted to participate in a live painting competition I said “No, thanks.” And they were like “why not?” I said “because I don’t paint in twenty minutes.” I had never painted a portrait in so little time, before it had taken a couple of months and they said “no, no, you don’t understand, you’ll do great. There are not many girls in the competition, we want you to come, please, it would be an honour!” They convinced me.

So I practiced to paint fast and things became really blurry. I learnt things like when you put black paint on the canvas and brush it it goes all over the place and becomes muddy, so I had to rethink the position of the colours, the order. It changed everything for me. I kept practicing, because they put you on a stage and there is an audience and the bright lights are on you, there is a clock going and people are around you looking at your process. In the end they vote on their favourite. There are two rounds, then a final round and they vote on a champion, and this happens every month. And at the end of the year they take all the champions and put them together to find the national champion. And I was national champion in 2016 and 2017. 

Wow, that is fantastic. Where do you see yourself going in the next couple of years?

O Artista 3, 2018 | Acrylic on canvas | 140 x 90 cm | R$ 7,560 

When I came back to Brazil I felt like I had to start again from zero.  In LA, I was eighteen, I had my art shown in a gallery in Beverly Hills selling my art for a lot of money, because out there they don’t look at who you are and who you know, they look at the work. Which is the most important thing! Whereas here in Brazil art has become an investment. 

The galleries here are a small circle and the main artists go from one gallery to the other. I think that’s why art battle is so important; it gives people the opportunity to compete on an equal platform. I’ve been back in São Paulo now for six years and I feel like I am only now starting to enter this art world. I am taking part in exhibitions constantly. But I feel like I am ready to leave again, not the country, but my artistic direction. I just got representation by a gallery in France, so I have to make them forty paintings and send them as soon as possible. So my goal? Probably to live here but exhibit internationally.

Milenna will be showing her latest paintings in our exhibition Interseções this May 10-16th on Rua Oscar Freire. 

To attend the private view on Thursday 10th from 5 - 10 pm please RSVP by email to