It's great to hear from students with questions for their projects but painting can sometimes keep me too busy to answer in depth so hopefully I've covered what you need in a previously asked question below.
Is your name Mary or Mary Jane?
Mary Jane. My parents added a hyphen in there but I prefer it without...
Can I study with you or do a work placement at your studio?
Sorry but no. I'd like to but my studio is really too small and work keeps me too busy at the moment. On occasion, I have done some one to one work with a few artists - it's been very much on a private basis. If I do work out a way I'll post up details here.
Ahead of my 2013 show, Liberty Rests Art of England Magazine asked me:
Your paintings are quite theatrical in style, would you describe them as narrative works?
Yes, very much so. I originally trained in Illustration at Brighton and have always loved to use narrative in my work, setting a scene a little like a director might. For my next exhibition, the planning started months in advance. I like to set my models against beautiful backdrops so first I choose a location. At the moment I’m working in the exquisite home of Interior Designer Madeleine Lee – full of Swedish Art Deco and antique furniture. I have also been scouring the shops in Brighton, where I live, for vintage clothes and props. My latest paintings feature military costumes, red Guardsmen’s jackets which also have echoes of hunting themes, and Venetian masks, which I have used before but these are plain white ones, unadorned. I like the idea of a painting hinting at a story but not spelling it out explicitly. For example the women in my paintings interacting with military uniforms are exploring ideas around country, patriotism, peace, love, perhaps those left behind or those in opposition... But a painting should stand alone without need for explanation. Ultimately, of course, it's best left to the onlooker to read what they will in to these pieces.
What did you study at college and why?
I have a BA (Hons) in Illustration from Brighton University. I chose that course because I love to explore narrative in my work - and I loved the challenge of exploring different mediums and projects plus fewer and fewer fine art courses were offering the access to world class practising artists, not to mention a life model available which Brighton did. (Plus Brighton is an awesome place to live and work!) Learning to work to a brief is really useful too - obviously now I set my own generally but it gives me a structure when I'm developing each body of work and of course it comes in very handy when it comes to commissions.
Are self-portraits easier or more difficult to paint than portraits of other people and why?
Self-portraits are generally a completely different animal to a commissioned portrait, obviously you know own features immeasurably better and your goals for the piece are entirely self-defined. The challenges of capturing someone you have only met a few times though hugely sharpens your observation skills so both have their particular pleasures.
How do you juggle getting such a realistic likeness of your subjects while bringing out their character?
My paintings start with a simple charcoal sketch. Capturing a likeness has, in some ways, a correlation with caricature; the trick is getting as much character as quickly as possible in the first lines that I put down. Most people have asymmetrical faces and what gives them their unique look can be something irregular in the shape of their eye or the line of their mouth. It’s capturing this that is so important. From the charcoal sketch, I then build up a monochrome grisaille underpainting over which I gradually add colour with both transparent glazes and full bodied colour. It is a time consuming process but I really enjoy the unique qualities it can give - the surface becomes egg shell smooth and offers very delicate tonal variations, impossible to achieve with other painting methods.
Where do you work?
My studio is right in the heart of Brighton's North Laine, it's an extremely vibrant area and I'm very lucky to have just about everything I need, art supplies, a drop in life drawing class, and lots of little shops that I can wander into for props, costumes or general inspiration all on my door step. I used to host and curate exhibitions here of my own and other local artists work which I really enjoyed but over the last 8 years or so I haven't been able to keep that up as I've just been too busy with my own work. When it comes to interacting with other artists I tend to do that most online via Facebook, Twitter Instagram. I've begun a number of projects with other artists this way and hope to do more in due course.
What are your main sources of inspiration?
It's probably easier to say what I'm NOT inspired by!!! So much... history, culture, politics... film, fashion, books... music is a great love, my partner, and several extremely talented friends are musicians and the two disciplines have very marked creative parallels, the only other pastime I can imagine finding as much transcending all-consuming passion for would be as a musician, I'd like to find more time to explore it someday.
The practice of working creates it's own momentum too - I tend to work diligently and in long stretches but at least once a week I need to get out of the studio and really clear my head, heading to the South Downs for a long walk, or to London for gallery visits, theatre or gigs are my favourite ways to do that...
What inspired you to pursue art and portraiture in particular?
I knew I wanted to be an artist from very young age and so planned my education route accordingly - taking Foundation courses, a degree, (Illustration at Brighton) and various part time courses in Life drawing, Printmaking etc... I still take courses and consider an artists learning process never ends..
My father is a superb draftsman when he turns his hand to it, and his mother trained at The Slade, working as a portrait painter through the 1950's so it was always a perfectly natural career for me to pursue and one that my family have always supported.
I've always thought that to an extent what you are drawn to paint, your subject matter actually chooses you. By virtue of it being that thing you find endlessly fascinating enough to sit for hours repeatedly studying and trying to capture. Portraits - or paintings where the figure predominates were, if you'll excuse the expression, head and shoulders above any other subject for me
How has the subject of gender affected your work in subject and style?
As I grew up I was of course made very aware of the historical lack of female artist's work in national collections... the fact that it was virtually impossible for a woman to draw from the nude till the last century, the battles which those women had to go through to study at all and as is still evident from the news, are still ever more bloodily battling I find both shocking and heartbreaking. I produced some work while at university that dealt specifically with those themes, but more recently I found that my language is more autobiographical and my narratives have more personal meanings but the issue of gender of course comes into that.
Why have you choosen to paint these particular models?
There are lots of reasons but I think that the best work comes when I get a real connection with the model, it doesn't have to be that I have known them that long - but that can really enrich the work. I'm looking to see something clearly that rings true for both me and them - if it's working my most successful paintings of a particular model are often my models favourite paintings of them too...
I paint friends, family members, they can occasionally be professional models but often they are people I've spotted on the street and asked to sit for me. I like to develop a relationship with my sitters so my ideas about how to portray them evolve - it really sparks my imagination more.
Do you stylise your work?
No. I certainly don't consciously enlarge or distort features - but I have a vision of how I want the work to look, of course, and I'm happy that the natural process of my technique has brought about a certain "handwriting" to the look of my work... I remember an old college lecturer had a favourite saying that: "Style is a product of your limitations" and in a sense that's undoubtedly true, but I always found that rather unnecessarily negative - your work evolves by way of a series of solutions on your way to achieving your desired outcome and it is this that leads to the unique qualities that I'm trying to achieve and certainly enjoy seeing in other artists work. I think it's paramount to aim for uniqueness in some part of your work which is why I've personally been happy to be principally self-taught as a painter.
I am drawn to more tonal values - and often may adjust skin tones to work best according to the feel of the work, taking into account any props, costume, particular light etc... preferring to avoid a homogenised brown-ish skin tone - the best painters I admire really observe the subtle variations in life-like skin tone.
Can you describe your technique
I use an indirect method, building up many layers of increasing detail, firstly with a light charcoal sketch then building up a monochrome grisaille underpainting over which I gradually add colour with both transparent glazes and full bodied colour.
It is a time consuming process but I really enjoy the unique qualities it can give - the surface becomes egg shell smooth and offers very delicate tonal variations impossible with other painting methods.
You work in oils which take a long time to dry, do you work on several different paintings at once?
I can have up to 20 paintings on the go when preparing for an exhibition. I work with two or three models for a collection and I will have a number of sittings, with the models either alone or together. I’ll make lots of thumbnail sketches to get an idea of how they will pose, what they might be holding or looking at or wearing. Then when I’ve got the scene with all the props, costumes and lighting right, I’ll take hundreds of photographs. Over several weeks I’ll study these, gradually filtering them down to the ones I am constantly drawn back to, making drawings and studies until I know which ones I want to develop further into paintings.
Do you have any advice for a keen portrait artist starting out?
Find out what its is about your work that is absolutely yours and hold onto it no matter what knocks, rejections and well intentioned advice may come your way.
Be your own harshest critic and the person you most try to impress. Strive to learn and improve your work constantly. That way you have a lifetime of working away making yourself happy when you see each improvement... much better than judging your success on financial rewards or arbitrary judges!
Take your work seriously but don't forget to revel in how wonderful the whole process is! It goes a long way to be professional and nice to deal with, work hard and most importantly enjoy it! While it's wonderful to be paid to do what you love it can also be a lot harder work and far longer hours than most people realise so look after yourself while you're doing it.
Who are your biggest influences?
There are too many to mention and influence comes from everywhere. Some of my earliest memories of visiting galleries involved Ingres, Caravaggio and Vermeer - they were the artist who literally moved me to tears infront of their paintings... it shocked me at the time - that paintings could do that, so that of course became something I wanted to aim for with my own work.
Why have your chosen the figure as your main subject?
Although the figure has always tended to predominate in my work I do add still life elements, they offer a way to extend and add narratives. I'm working on some still lifes currently, I'm sure I'll produce landscapes again sometime soon - it stretches you to vary your subject matter and I think that's extremely important but to an extent your subject matter chooses you... by virtue of it being that thing that is endlessly fascinating to you.
On my 2013 show, Liberty Rests
In this show I've chosen to revisit several of the elements from the last decade of previous works, ideas move in cycles and evolve and it felt timely for me to take a kind of review of past themes and explore where they lead me to now.
Certain paintings also came to mind when I was developing works for this show, particularly Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People - one of my favourite paintings and one that feels particularly relevant right now. With it's grand allegory of Revolution and Romanticism, Delacroix uses his central character to personify Liberty in flesh and blood female form... the woman in my paintings interacting with military uniforms are exploring ideas around this theme. Representing ideas of: Country, Patriotism, Peace, Love and family... those left behind, those in opposition, or perhaps those who stand off to the sides in judgement or sorrow...
Born in the '70s I'm at an age to have lived through so many periods of war and unrest and events even in the last few days (around the time of the Charlie Hebdo and Lee Rigby murders) have a pervasive influence on me despite my preference for beauty and aesthetics, balance and fairness, peace and unity my imagery often shows these contradictions and I find that more and more interesting as I develop these personal allegories, they've become my lexicon and mean an increasing amount to me, but ultimately it's best left to the onlooker to read what they will onto these pieces, I do feel that that is important - the image should stand without explanation and be there for the viewer to imbue with their own meanings.
A young student asked about the major themes in my 2006 show Anima/Animus:
Most of objects and names to my work carry some meaning or other - though for the more observation led nude study or still life perhaps they more simply about the subject themselves... Do you know the story of Janus? It might make more sense to offer this from Wikipedia
In Roman mythology, Janus (or Ianus) was the god of gates, doors, doorways, beginnings and endings. His most prominent remnants in modern culture are his namesake, the month of January, which begins the new year. He is most often depicted as having two faces or heads, facing in opposite directions.
Yes, I often choose a model specifically for an idea... but again I'm unlikely to alter the model to suit an idea - it's still "them" or more accurately a side of them... often it works the other way around - the impression a certain model gives to me may begin to inform ideas for other paintings... so it's very important to me to have models whom I know, like and feel comfortable with. Many of them are friends to start with or have become friends since we started working together. I think the best work comes through an intimacy with the sitter.
If you Google the term Anima/Animus you will find a whole mine of information you might find interesting - and you may well notice that that whole body of work was in some way influenced by Jungian Archetypes. The winged character is not an Angel as such in any Christian or Jewish sense. In the way I have used it (if you notice the angel wings are clearly shown as tied on to a very real human) it's symbolic of more human, earthly perceptions:
On average how long would you spend creating one of your pieces?
It really varies, some pieces simply flow faster than others but in general smaller pieces take a few weeks, larger pieces can take a year or more - I always work on a number of pieces at a time as a painting needs time to dry properly between layers and it gives you time to see clearly what it needs.
What keeps you going while you are working on an exhibition?
Vast amounts of caffeine, my cat at my feet, and either Radio 4 or Radio 6. I sometimes listen to audio books towards the later stages of paintings but when I am at the beginning of a work, I need to really concentrate so I prefer music or peace and quiet. It’s worked out very well for this exhibition as my partner who is a musician is on tour, so I can work all hours, and be anti-social.
Do you ever fight against Alla Prima or is it (working in an indirect method) just the way your do things?
I think practicing both indirect and all prima techniques is exptemely valuable, especially as your work develops, and some amount of each skill set is extremely valuable in the other, but essentially they are not means to the same end. The are answering very different sets of questions. As long as I can remember my heart and eye craves the qualities that only an indirect method can give, not just for the way the work looks, but also for the love of the day by day process, evolution and time that gets invested into producing a work this way.
What are your intentions and ideas behind the work you produce?
To consistently make an improvement whether that be in technique or idea, to push myself to be better each painting, each show... to feel excitement about each piece and what I might be able to do next!