Last spring, a painter received an email from a pop star. It was Katy Perry, writing to buy a portrait from the artist Will Cotton. She wanted to know if he had any works for sale—and for how much.
But Cotton, who had been tearing out magazine pictures of Perry for months, had another idea. He wanted her to be in a painting instead. What followed was an almost yearlong collaboration between the two artists. He painted her nude in a cotton candy cloud for the cover of her hit album Teenage Dream, served as artistic director for her music video “ California Gurls,” and this weekend, will open a new show of her portraits at the Matthew Kohn Gallery in Los Angeles.
Gallery: Will Cotton’s New Works
Will Cotton is known for painting beautiful women and desserts, dropping his muses into vast edible landscapes of taffy forests, cotton candy clouds, and gingerbread houses. Cotton bakes all of his confections, and creates props in his studio to paint. He is a master baker, and last year opened a bakery at the Partners & Spade gallery in New York. His new body of work continues to portray women and food, but the fantasies now are more specific. Beneath the croquembouche and rock candy tiaras, these are real women. This show, Cotton says, “is like a portrait gallery. These people all have certain stories.”
The most recognizable face in the show is Perry, who’s the subject of two portraits. But when Perry initially asked him to paint her portrait for her album cover, Cotton hesitated. For over a decade, Cotton’s been painting candy landscapes to establish, he says, his “own iconography” and hadn’t, until recently, wanted to paint celebrities who might compete with his art. (Early in his career, Cotton experimented with pop imagery by painting advertising icons, which he notes, “were stronger than anything I was doing.”) But now he needed a woman to inhabit the candy clouds he was dreaming up.
And Perry fit the bill: “She was over-the-top, sugary, as sweet as can be,” he says. “She was exactly the character I wanted to paint.” Not only do they live in candy worlds, but Cotton’s women are enviable for another reason, too: they have great style. “When I look at portraiture, one thing I see is the sitter’s personality,” Cotton says.
“But the other is the clothes.” In order to make these women both individual and at home in a confectioner’s landscape, Cotton had to make their garb. “I could not imagine people in these situations wearing street clothes,” he says. “From the time I started painting the Candy Landscapes, I wanted to make the whole thing myself. I had to build this world, so for me it was a total exploration into fashion.”
Shortly after he signed on to work with Perry, Cotton brought a cupcake foil over to the house of his friend, fashion designer Cynthia Rowley. He used her daughter’s Barbie doll to illustrate the life-sized cupcake dress he wanted. Rowley was finished the same day Perry sat for Cotton in his studio—and hand-sewed the dress onto his subject.
Cotton was then enlisted to the set of Perry’s music video, “California Gurls,” where a team of people brought his cotton candy clouds and taffy forests to life. (The singer’s famous whipped-cream cone bra, he says, was all her idea.) Working on the set of Perry’s video provided him inspiration as well. He has since painted several large-scale paintings based on stills from the shoot, which gave him new ideas about color and composition.
Cotton works with symbols that are universally recognizable. Everyone has memories of swirled lollipops, bulging gumdrops, and melting ice cream. For this reason, he says, he doesn’t paint pictures of obscure Japanese or European candies. Glancing to a tower of croquembouche he painted onto a woman’s head, he laughs: “I hope that doesn’t read as a bunch of donut holes!”
In order to develop characters in his new work, Cotton looked closely at European portraiture. His sweeping landscapes are influenced by 18th-century Rococo painters such as Jean-Honoré Fragonard and François Boucher, and earlier paintings, such as Cotton Candy Venus, read like pin-up versions of The Birth of Venus—an edible celebration of the female form. “You don’t look at [ The Birth of Venus] and think: I wonder what she had for breakfast,” Cotton says. “But then when you walk into the portrait galleries, you think: ‘Whoa! Who is this person?’ This show was about posing those questions.”
• View More Paintings by Will Cotton• Art Beast: The Best of Art, Photography, and DesignIn addition to making his characters more specific, Cotton also experimented with issues of class structure, an evident force in European portraiture. “We have these other kinds of social structures now, like celebrity, who establish new hierarchies,” he explains. “Katy has a status,” he says, pointing to a painting of Perry wielding a candy-cane scepter. “She’s Queen Katy of Candy Land.” Working with his candy queen has skyrocketed his appeal, with people around the world now recognizing his work. Cotton hopes to collaborate with Perry in the future, and they have discussed the possibility of him designing the sets for her upcoming tour.
“The goal of art-making in general is communication,” he says. “I don’t think we’re taught to expect to have a large audience. And now, in some small way, I do.” Now the ultimate sign of an artist’s popularity isn’t a high auction price. Cotton laughs: “I have a lot of new Facebook friends!”
Isabel Wilkinson is an assistant editor at The Daily Beast.