A painting of Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. The painter used large, evocative brushstrokes to create a portrait that is both painterly and immediately recognizable as Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Love Letter to Eel Costello

Eel Costello, RGB, 2020. Courtesy the artist.

Painter Eel Costello (hir/eel/they) gravitates toward a palette of Jolly Rancher colors which, when applied to otherwise photo-realistic portraits, should (and often do) worry me. As a cautious, color-way-inside-the-lines type decision maker, I find myself clutching my proverbial pearls as they spread a new pigment exactly where I didn’t expect it to go. And yet, Eel blends and reigns in hir selections so quickly I forget what I was worried about.

Eel has been posting time lapses of hir paintings in progress on Instagram during the pandemic, most notably a portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, which was completed within a few days of Ginsburg’s death. Eel’s portraits begin with the most technicolor of outlines. Progressive silhouettes of bright violet, blue, and yellow refine and give way, quickly, to skin tones that soon dominate the canvas—usually just taped to hir wall—with uncanny resemblance. Just as I feel I’m beginning to stare at RBG, the indents of her cheek bones taking shape before me under those dark-rimmed frames, there it is again: more color. Blues and reds applied to eyes and lips so thickly I wince. What are they doing?

But Eel knows exactly. Hir application isn’t haphazard; they are unafraid to dare—repeatedly, colorfully, on the canvas until it looks just right. In fact, their command of color is exactly what allows hir to create such impressive depth and form. Now as I swipe from one time lapse to the next on hir feed, I don’t just see a portrait of someone (be it RBG or otherwise), I feel a presence. And I think it’s all that color, all those feelings, that make hir paintings most realistic of all.

Eel Costello, RGB, 2020. Courtesy the artist.