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Secret Smile by Denise Findlay
Secret Smile by Denise Findlay

The Artist Masterclass with Denise Findlay


Denise Findlay - Posted on 12 Jan 2008

Youth and Beauty


For Denise Findlay the challenge of capturing the character, complexity and sense of life in the human form has consistently been the motivation for her work. In her distinctive oil paintings, pastels and pencil drawings she explores the beauty of the head and figure, experimenting with scale, surface and medium to add further interest and impact. Her work ranges from detailed miniatures painted on copper to imposing, large-scale canvases. 

Regal painting by Denise Taylor

Regal, oil on linen, 18x101/4in. (46x26cm)

"Sometimes the final design and concept for a drawing or painting develop from trying out different ideas with the model," Denise explains. "But alternatively I may start by having a more specific theme or narrative in mind, and select and pose the model to suit that. I am always very particular about the choice of models. For instance, the girl who posed for Regal (left) is my cousin, and she is someone who has featured in my paintings for more than ten years now.

"Although most of my subjects are young, female and attractive, it is not so much the outward beauty that interests me as much as the beauty within the structure of a face or a certain pose or composition. In fact, I do occasionally paint men, and also in recent months I have started to introduce other elements into the paintings — decorative backgrounds, for example, and animals, such as the dog in Regal.


Maxine, pencil on paper

Maxine - Profile, pencil on paper, 5X7in. (12.5x18cm)

"Obviously there must be qualities and features within the subject that I can relate to and consequently feel I can do something with. At present, as a young woman myself I am happy to explore this particular theme: I suspect that as I get older the scope of my subject matter will gradually become broader. "As well as using friends and relatives as models I occasionally notice someone in the street whom I would like to paint, and so  approach them to see if they are interested in sitting for me. Maxine, in Maxine — Profile (below) is an example. But my work isn't necessarily driven by seeking a likeness of the sitter. Of course this is an important consideration in a portrait commission, but when I am painting something of my own choice there may be other qualities that I wish to focus on, and in that case I am not unduly worried about achieving an accurate likeness."

Photography sessions

Usually Denise starts by taking lots of photographs of the model, and from the subsequent evaluation of these she selects images to work from. Where the relationship of the model to the context or background is important, as in On a Wing and a Prayer, below right, for example, she normally tries to set this up in the studio and so photograph both elements together. However, because she prefers the model to be lit from above, and her studio doesn't have a skylight, she often uses her father-inlaw's studio for the photography session.

On a Wing and a Prayer by Denise Taylor

On a Wing and a Prayer, pastel, gold leaf and sheet music
on handmade paper, 281/4x18in. (71.7x45.77cm)

 I like a single source of light, and in particular I like the balance and symmetry you get when the light shines down on somebody," she says.

In addition to creating exactly the right quality of light for the image, so that it evokes a certain mood and presence, Denise also takes into account the scale and medium to use. She enjoys working with different sizes and media, and solving the inevitable challenges that this involves.

One of the media she likes to work with is oils on a copper support. Due to the nature of the surface and the technique required, these paintings are generally small, although even here Denise has experimented with largescale projects — discovering that the main problem to overcome is in handling the weight of the sheet of copper.

"There is quite a different impact between an image that is smaller than life size and one that is far larger," she says. "When we are confronted with a head that is much larger than we are used to seeing, as in Self-portrait (below left), which is 60in. high, it cannot fail to provoke some kind of response, and in fact it can be quite unnerving. 


Self-portrait Denise Taylor

Self-portrait, oil on linen, 60x54in. (52.5x137cm)

"My preferred way of working is to have a body of drawings and painting in progress all at the same time, including different sizes and media. It is very difficult to get started when there are no other ideas already under way, I find. I used to work on one project at a time, but I think the danger there is that you can get too involved with a painting and so fail to notice if anything is going wrong. In contrast, when there is a choice there is bound to be at least one painting that you would like to work on. Also, very often in that situation one painting will inform another.

Working on copper

"Copper is an ideal surface for small paintings in which you want to involve detail and create crisp, well-defined effects. However, being a smooth and quite slippery surface, initially it is difficult to encourage the paint to adhere. The answer is to be patient and gradually build up a few layers of paint that will provide a good surface key to work on. In fact I rather enjoy this sort of problem, because I think if you can fight through it and overcome it, you actually end up with a stronger painting. As well as the copper I like painting on found pieces of metal: rusty oddments that I can transform into something precious."

East and West, oil on copper

East and West, oil on copper, 21/3x41/3in. (6x11cm)

 The pencil drawings are made on sheets of smooth, lightweight cartridge paper. Denise begins with areas of tone and then carefully resolves the form and detail of the subject by working with a succession of short hatched lines, additionally using a putty eraser to lift out highlights and define shapes. In the process she works with various pencils, generally starting with hard pencils and light tones, and then gradually introducing softer pencils and stronger tones.

"The pencils must be sharp," she says, "and I try to be sensitive to their nature, potential and the techniques they best suit, which for me is linear work."

For a more spontaneous approach, perhaps working on a bigger scale, Denise chooses charcoal and chalk for tonal studies, or pastels for colour work. Here, she normally starts with a midtone, initially using the medium in quite a thick, rough way at first and then defining areas as necessary. Again, she uses a putty eraser to modify tones and colours as well as to help resolve shapes and surface textures.

She works on a variety of papers to suit the scale and effect required. These include unusual handmade papers with pressed flowers, heavyweight watercolour paper and cartridge paper.

Oil paintings

Her oil painting process allows plenty of freedom, and an even more intuitive approach. For these paintings Denise usually works on a linen canvas surface that is sized and then primed with a oilbased or acrylic primer. Occasionally, for a really soft surface, the canvas is left unprimed and instead is simply prepared with three coats of rabbit-skin size.

Rather like the pastel studies, she begins each painting loosely with a mid-tone colour to block out the white surface and provide a tonal reference to work from. Thereafter, especially for the large paintings, she often works wet into wet, applying thin layers of colour and gradually developing the subtle tones and effects she wants.

One of the strengths of Denise's paintings is that they have an immediate sense of connection and communication. "What I aim to achieve in my work is a visual and emotional experience that everyone can relate to in some way," she says. "In my view a painting should not be something that can only be understood by the art elite; and equally you should not have to read an essay to make some sense of it. A painting should speak for itself."

Feb 08 TA

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