Making Impressions: Lyudmila Tomova’s Vibrant Paintings

This Cary artist merges formal training with sheer intuition in her moving watercolor and oil paintings. 
by Jessie Ammons Rumbley | photography by Joshua Steadman

Lyudmila Tomova moves quickly. The artist, who goes by Lucy, creates her complex, vibrant paintings within a few days. To be fair, she can spend up to a week conceptualizing. But when paint hits canvas, it’s go-time. “When I paint, I’m so full of energy,” says Tomova. “I paint very fastand I throw everything in. My whole body is involved in this thing.”

Her pieces reflect that spirit. Vivid watercolors seem to move and dance around their subjects; oil paintings are at once detailed and abstract. Tomova says she relies on her “rigorous” formal art training, combined with sheer intuition, to strike the right balance. “My style is expressive yet realistic yet impressionistic, with some deeper psychological nuances.”

Tomova has settled into her creative sweet spot here. She works from a home studio in Cary, paintings-in-progress stacked all over the sunny house she shares with her two children, plus their cat and bearded dragon. The work often happens outside of her dedicated upstairs easel space—the living room and hallway nooks are also fair game. “I thought to myself: Who needs a house? I can just turn this whole thing into a studio,” Tomova laughs.

Tomova is originally from Bulgaria and lived in New York City for 20 years before moving to the Triangle in 2010. It turned out to be a perfect match. She moved for a slower pace of life, but was pleasantly surprised by the art culture she found. “I thought I would be sacrificing some of the art world when we moved, but there is a lot going on here,” she says. What’s more, she sees the North Carolina art community as gracious and open-minded. “There’s an almost uncorrupt view, a pure appreciation of realism and of all artistic styles.”

Bolstered by the artists she met and galleries she experienced soon after moving, Tomova decided to make a living here by painting in the way that she loves. In New York, she says, she learned to multitask, dabbling in graphic design, editorial illustration and the traditional oil painting she studied in art school, first in Bulgaria and then at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Along the way, she says, she lost sight of her own preferences. It was an exciting adventure, she clarifies, but one that was a relief to conclude. “I’ve gone through so many transformations. When I moved here, I decided to just do what I do best.”

Tomova welcomes change, taking it all in stride. She says every transformation culminated in the work she’s been creating for the past ten years. “After I moved to North Carolina, I almost made a full circle. But not quite, because it’s not that I went back, I went to another level.” Her work has been garnering local, national and international attention. In early 2020, the Guggenheim Museum’s Nat Trotman selected one of her pieces, Fearless and Free, for the 2020 North Carolina Artists Exhibition. Her Apotheosis exhibit at Apex’s Halle Cultural Center runs through mid-month, and currently Tomova has paintings on display at two juried exhibits, In the Wind at the National Watercolor Society’s The First Hundred Years exhibition (online, through February 20, 2021) and In the Light at Watercolor Society of North Carolina’s 2020 Annual Juried Exhibition (online, through November 21). 

True to character, while Tomova’s settled into her style, she’s not too settled. “I want to always be spontaneous in my work,” Tomova says. It’s why she won’t pick a favorite medium or give up the freelance graphic design and illustration she occasionally continues on the side. And it’s why she peppers her personal and commissioned work with live painting at weddings and events, teaching at local community centers and participating in plein air competitions. “I know, as artists, we’re supposed to have a niche—but I just can’t,” she says. “I can’t limit myself. My niche is being diverse. The unifying factor is my style.”