Alexia Sinclair: Layers of Interest

Written by Fredrik Franzén on . Posted in Fine art photography

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Peter the Great | ©Alexia Sinclair

Alexia Sinclair is a photographer and digital artist from Sydney, Australia. Her images consist of staggering amounts of photographic elements, illustrations and layers, carefully arranged and brushed through in Photoshop. Her biography describes the outcome of this process as “dark and seductive, baroque and symbolic,” and it is hard not to agree.

The same biography refers to Alexia’s celebrated series The Regal Twelve as her crowning achievement. The Regal Twelve portrays twelve famous, or perhaps infamous, female monarchs, each one captured in her own characteristic setting. The series generated widespread attention in fine art circles, but Alexia, who is obviously a star on the rise, is already promoting the second part of her series: The Royal Dozen. This time she is focusing on male monarchs, and the portrait of Peter the Great is taken from this series.



“The flamboyance of the character is crucial to me,” says Alexia. “There are obviously plenty of historical figures who I could’ve chosen, but they weren’t necessarily visually interesting. Choosing Peter the Great gave me a range of elements that I could light in creative ways.”

Who is Peter the Great?

“Peter the Great was the tsar of Russia. He was known for his love of shipbuilding so I put wood shavings at his feet to symbolize his interest in the subject. He also travelled the world, collecting bits and pieces for his cabinet of curiosity. That’s where this portrait is supposed to capture him – in his cabinet. Actually, everything you see is supposed to be some sort of symbol of his reign.”

Alexia says that she thinks of her images as jigsaws of photographs and illustrations. Exactly how she creates them is quite tricky to explain, but it goes a little something like this: First of all, Alexia and her colleague James Hill build the set. Alexia then locks down the camera (so it cannot move) and starts photographing the set, over and over again, with subtle variations. She shoots with different exposures. She moves an object. She photographs a lit candle, blows it out and photographs the smoke. Once she is done shooting, Alexia layers all of these images in Photoshop. Finally, she goes through the meticulous process of carefully brushing through different elements from different layers, creating something organic and highly personal.

“I often use highlights from one layer, shadows from a second and midtones from a third,” says Alexia. “I do all of this by hand so that it ends up looking almost like a painting.”

For instance, the hanging curtain was shot several times in the same place but with different exposures. The same goes for the table and the globe. Other objects, such as the butterflies and the bell jar, were shot in different places.

I had a butterfly on a stick, which I moved around and shot from different angles. I then layered all the butterfly images in Photoshop and brushed through the ones that I wanted to keep. The same goes for the bell jar. Actually, we only had one bell jar, so I had to shoot the one we had in all of the different places you can see it in the image.”

Moving the jar but not the camera or the lights allowed Alexia to get a whole bunch of images of jars in different places – lit exactly the same. However, to complicate things further, there were also times when Alexia and James had to move the lights.

“We only had two ComPact 1200 with 3×4´Softboxes at our disposal,” adds James. “We’d love to have more lights, but this was a personal work, and we didn’t really have the budget. Since Alexia is working with so many layers, having absolute color consistency is pretty much the most important thing for her. I mean, she is dealing with maybe 50, 60 or even 100 images, and to have to color correct each one afterwards is obviously a pain. We learned pretty quickly to spend the money we have on one or two lights that we can trust and move around, rather than having 10 bad lights that all fire differently.”

Is working in this way as difficult as it sounds?

“The most challenging part is to understand how the different elements are going to come together,” says Alexia. “I never move the objects in postproduction. Where I shoot them is where they are going to be in the final image, and since you can only see one image at a time when you’re shooting, you’re sort of building this huge jigsaw puzzle. Take the bell jar, for instance. If I’d move it just a little too far, the jars would’ve overlapped each other in the final image so you really have to imagine all the pieces of the puzzle in your head!”

Shah Jahan | ©Alexia Sinclair


“This background was shot in India,” says Alexia. “It’s actually shot in the very palace that Shah Jahan built and later was imprisoned in.”

Who was Shah Jahan?

“He was the Indian Emperor who built the Taj Mahal as a tomb for his dead wife. When his son came to power, the son locked up his father in this room, and Shah Jahan spent the rest of his days looking out of this small window, at the Taj Mahal, where his dead wife was buried. In a series like The Royal Dozen, I try to create different moods and different characters for each one. Shah Jahan is far from your stereotypical, bold military leader. He is a romantic king, and this is a love piece.  That’s why he is holding a rose, symbolizing his eternal love.”

How did you light the set?

“I shot the background in India with just natural sunlight, and then I shot my king in the studio with a Pro-B3 and a Softbox 5´Octa. The light that’s falling on his face, that’s the Octa. I often do it like that, shooting my backgrounds on-location with just available sun light, and that light later dictates how I set the light in my studio. In this case, we used the Octa to recreate the natural light that was falling under the archways.”

What else can you tell us about this image?

“Well, we then have the petals. As soon as we’d shot the king with the rose in his hand, we just pulled off the petals, and then let them fall through different frames. Once again, just like with the Peter the Great portrait, I didn’t cut out or move anything. I just brushed them through from different layers. That way they’re all lit the same. Since we didn’t move the lights this time, the petals are also lit exactly the same way as the king. Then we have the grass, which was shot on a third location. And the hair dress is actually an illustration I did.

An illustration? Really?

“Yep. I drew all the feathers by hand.

That’s amazing. I would never have guessed…

“That’s good,” laughs Alexia.

Napoleon | ©Alexia Sinclair


“Okay. So this next image … is me!”

“She manipulated her nose, though,” says James. “It’s not really that big.”

“Thank you,” says Alexia. “Anyway, we shot the background on-location in Versailles, France, whereas the little hill in the foreground was shot here in Sydney. For the portrait of me, we used a pretty simple layout.”

“We did this one the day after Shah Jahan,” says James. “Alexia was pretty tired, so we decided to just use the gear we still had from the day before, which was the Pro-B3, the Softbox 5’ Octa and something else for fill. Can’t really remember exactly what it was, though…”

Alexia, why did you decided to use yourself as model?

“Because when I exhibited my series of queens, The Regal Twelve, everybody assumed that I was in the portraits, which I wasn’t, so when I started working with The Royal Dozen, I wondered if they’d recognize me as a man. Also, Napoleon seemed kind of appropriate. Ever since I was a little girl, people have always told me that I am such a little charger, like a little…

“Little dictator?” asks James.

“Right,” laughs Alexia. “A little dictator.”


We have many more of Alexia’s images, complete with thoughts and comments. If you think we should post these too, leave a comment or drop us an email!

Alexia Sinclair’s website


The complete Royal Dozen series

Written by Fredrik Franzén


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Comments (3)

  • Cassie Wright


    Please, Please, Please add more of Alexia’s images, complete with thoughts and comments. I was blown away by her work and it gave me a great big jolt of inspiration! Would love to see more! Thank you 🙂


  • Paul Curuti


    Please add more images!!!


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