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Lena Dunham Watercolours “Love Me (These Aren't My Boobs)”
Lena Dunham, “Love Me (These Aren't My Boobs)” (2019)Courtesy Christopher Kane

Lena Dunham on five things that inspired her intimate paintings

With her watercolours on display in London, we speak to the writer about her artistic influences and how she finds beauty in the banal

I’m sitting cross-legged in bed when I get a late-night call from Lena Dunham. It’s the middle of the day in LA and the writer’s sunny effervescence is contagious. “These are my two favourite topics,” she says gleefully. “Watercolours and Chris!”

By Chris, Dunham is referring to the Scottish designer, Christopher Kane, whose Mayfair store in London is exhibiting a series of her watercolour paintings. The pair formed a close friendship after the designer dressed her for the 2019 Met Ball – “We had such an amazing connection and just laughed so much,” she recalls – and asked if he could display her paintings after she sent them to him in the summer. The artworks depict Dunham’s closest female friends in the moments between dressing, a playful exploration of the female form in stages of intimate transition. Writing in the show’s press release, Dunham said: “Often only in the act of dressing does the wearer allow the performed identity to slip away and the reality of their internal life to be seen.” 

After learning the meaning behind the 10-part series, aptly titled Watercolours, I’m reminded of a poignant sentence from Dunham’s Love Island essay, published in the Guardian in July. “This is nothing if not a show of quiet human moments”, the actor wrote, “where the real drama is in what they don’t say as they wash their bronzer off for bed and change into their night-time thongs.” Dunham’s paintings portray this vulnerability, rendering her friends as quiet and reflective, preparing for the changeover of night and day.

Differing in colour and feel, each painting has its own unique identity and subject. One work, humorously titled “Bridge Over Modernist Sofa”, is an explosion of straight-edged colours. While “KK at Equinox With A Disdainful Woman Watching” is a simple black and white line portrait of a naked gym selfie. Another piece is an autumnal-toned self-portrait which sees a topless Dunham – the painting is titled “Love Me (These Aren’t My Boobs)” – brushing her teeth with a Colgate-branded toothbrush. 

Although a hobby on the side of her writing and acting career, Dunham loves to paint and always has multiple projects on the horizon, including one inspired by her favourite British TV show. “I do paintings of Love Island contestants and influencers,” she tells me. “I already did Molly-Mae – with her iconic bun, obviously. I really like taking something that people consider to be low brow and then rethinking in a way that’s – for lack of a better word – higher brow.”

In honour of Watercolours’ final week in the store, and before Dunham starts work on her next art project – which she reveals will be “large scale nudes, just to work with bodies and shadows” – I ask her about the inspirations behind the series, her blossoming friendship with Christopher Kane, and how she finds beauty in the banal.


Lena Dunham: I guess (mundanity is found in) the moments we don’t have our phone: putting on our socks, doing our make-up, waking up from a nap. There are these moments that are few and far between now, where you’re not immersed and engaged with other people. 

I guess it could be mundane to be scrolling through your Instagram, but I have a bit of an aversion to painting a cellphone – there is one (painting in the series) that depicts a phone, but that’s because it’s a selfie. What I love about painting is that I’m so free to just depict what appeals to me – women’s bodies and faces, messy rooms, flowers, environments – and I really like it to be free of anything I don’t consider beautiful. Anything that’s an eyesore to me goes, and the phone is the first guard of that.

The really remarkable thing has been that when I paint, I get to show moments of transition, or longing, or heartbreak, and I get to turn things that feel really hard – when you’re crying or you’re sick in bed – into an object I find beautiful.


Lena Dunham: A lot of the images I paint are selfies, or images that my friends send me of hard days in their lives – when they’re moving or splitting up with someone. One of my greatest joys is to then render my friends in watercolour and send it back to them and be like, ‘This is the beautiful, glowing person that I see’. I by no means think I’m a realist portraitist, and what I love about watercolour is that it makes it fucked up on its own because it’s a hard medium to control.

A lot of times when painting you just pick up on the energy (of someone); it’s the same way when you take a photo of someone on your phone – some people pose and have this incredibly composed camera face, some look kind of shocked, and others make a crazy expression. Those indicators tell you what to do (when painting). I did a series of images of my best friend Jemima (Kirke, who played Jessa in Girls) – one of them is in the window of Chris’ store right now – and I think for me, I get to know her better by just the continual exploration of her face. 


Lena Dunham: Both of my parents are artists, and right before I left for the UK I went up to stay with them at their house in Connecticut. I got to see what they were each working on, and each of the images they were doing were so special and strong – that was a really powerful moment for me. 

My dad started as an abstract expressionist and his work is becoming more and more representative as he goes along, and my mother is a photographer who works primarily in fantasy and surreal images. My parents really inspired me to embrace colour in a totally different way than I had been. 

My dad is my painting teacher – I send him everything I do and he tells me what he likes and what he doesn’t. It was a really interesting thing to get my father to encourage me to engage with colour and push myself to be messier, because I can be a little tidy. In the same way I don’t want to hand a script in until it’s perfect, I don’t want to give people an unfinished product. But my father is like, ‘It doesn’t matter, just do the thing that feels honest’. He really encouraged me to not be too precious – he’s like, ‘What’s the worst you could do? You could ruin your painting, then you’d make a new one’. Now my major thing is: if I think it’s done, I usually wait and do another layer.

“When I paint, I get to show moments of transition, or longing, or heartbreak, and I get to turn things that feel really hard – when you’re crying or you’re sick in bed – into an object I find beautiful” – Lena Dunham


Lena Dunham: I paint a lot, but I love when I have phases when I can paint every evening. When I was living in Wales (this summer), I wasn’t going out to dinner with friends because I had no friends, so I got home every single night at 7PM and waited for Love Island. That and painting is all I did all night.

There was a moment when I was sitting on the grass outside in Wales, just in my underwear and feeling – as a city person – my connection to nature. That was very powerful for me, the time I spent in my backyard in Wales just appreciating nature and thinking how important that space is for so many people historically. Just getting to be in my body in this really authentic way was very inspiring for me.

There’s a painting I did that’s me sitting on the grass and it’s just a shot right at my crotch with the grass prickling up below me. For me that’s so evocative of summer, so I printed out a lot of the images and put them above my painting desk – ten or so pictures of Jemima, and those ones of me. It’s fun because I’ll take three photos that just feel like a very basic and useless selfie of a moment that doesn’t even need to be recorded, then I’ll turn it into an object of permanence. 


Lena Dunham: I loved it because it was fashion, but it was that eccentric British fashion that’s a little messier than what people are usually doing in the US. It didn’t have that desire for perfection – women were dressed like fucking kooks and all waiting in line for a trailer bathroom and eating ice-cream. That kind of summer night where people come out in their vests – and it’s a kind of loony vest – is really appealing to me.

(After that) I started showing Christopher pictures of my watercolours, and was so surprised and honoured when he offered to show them. He’s really able to understand my aesthetic, and I understand his – we both like to make things that have a sense of humour but still have beauty. I love the way he just fucks with objects and twists them. You know, the purse he gave me for the Serpentine Gala is now hanging from a lamp in my house!

Lena Dunham’s Watercolours are on display at Christopher Kane’s Mount Street, London store until the end of October