Behind Niklas Elmehed’s gold portraits of Nobel Prize winners

Niklas Elmehed   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Swedish artist Niklas Elmehed is an anonymous celebrity. He lives every artist’s dream — as soon as the portraits drawn by him are revealed, they are seen and shared by millions of people and media channels around the world.

Yet, he’s not a household name. That might change, thanks to a tweet from the Nobel committee stating that Elmehed is the artist behind the distinctive gold-and-black portraits that accompany the annual proclamation of the Nobel Prize winners.

How much time is he given, before the announcement, to draw the portraits? This question, now most frequently asked, is one that he’s not allowed to answer. “Unfortunately, I can’t tell you that, it’s confidential!” he says with easy good humour, on a Zoom call with The Hindu Weekend from the Nobel committee headquarters in Stockholm. With the Nobel Prizes, it’s not just timing that’s everything, it’s the confidentiality as well.

But he can tell us how drawing the laureates is both a marathon and a sprint. “I’m pretty fast, so it’s a few hours for each portrait. There’s a lot of preparation before — it’s like a sports event: you have to train for weeks, even years, then go to the race, and finish in a very short time,” says Elmehed, 44, who has been doing these portraits since 2012.

Niklas Elmehed

Niklas Elmehed  

Why not photographs?

Initially an art director with the Nobel group, he later realised that “to present the winners using photos was very tricky”. As they could not be informed ahead of the announcement, fresh photography was not possible. Existing photos had copyright issues, as well as the problem of poor quality images for the less famous winners. “I got the job of developing a graphic style that would become a brand, and give great impact to the revelation of the winners. I work a lot with their eyes — it’s as though they are looking directly at the viewer. The concept behind it is to have that ‘breaking news’ feeling. When people see these images, they immediately associate them with the Nobel Prize announcements,” he says.

Watch | In conversation with Swedish artist Niklas Elmehed

On the wall behind Elmehed are rows of portraits of previous laureates. The form has changed from an initial blue-and-yellow to the current black-and-gold on white paper. This was in keeping with the rebranding of the Nobel Prize that uses the colour gold during the announcements.

On to the process

To explain the artistic process, Elmehed fetches the latest portraits and holds them close to the camera. “I use an opaque black vinyl colour applied with fine brushes to do the super-thin lines, like in normal painting. But the gold is a little bit special. I use a metal foil, which you can see shimmer, mounted on to a special glue that’s totally transparent. Sometimes, when I’m in a hurry, I use a heating gun to speed up the drying process.”

It is a clever and extremely egalitarian use of the drawing medium: there is a sense of equality, as no single winner has a better photograph than the others.

Niklas Elmehad at work

Niklas Elmehad at work   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

In terms of inspiration, Elmehed did a lot of black-and-white charcoal drawings while studying at The Royal Institute of Art and KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. The gold foil has a connection with ancient icon paintings. “In the portraits, you get these old traditions linked to the graphical style of the digital era.”

As a freelance artist, his clients include the Swedish national football team, and corporates such as Tencent. He has also done commissioned portraits, often for the purpose of gifting, in his trademark vinyl-and-gold leaf style. While these bring great joy to the recipients, he clarifies it’s possible only if “the portrait is of someone not famous, and certainly not in any kind of running for a Nobel Prize!”

Life beyond art

Outside of art and portrait-making, life is busy as a father of three. “My family is into different kinds of sports. I help the children with their gymnastics, football, basketball… and I love to play football and do kickboxing.”

While the current social media buzz hasn’t much affected his personal life, the family does find it fascinating when famous people retweet his artwork. He confesses, “It was a little special when Barack Obama re-tweeted this year’s Peace Prize announcement that had my portraits of the journalists in it!”

Contact Elmehed on | Instagram and Twitter: @niklaselmehed | Facebook:

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Printable version | Dec 4, 2021 11:10:51 AM |

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