I started painting pictures at the age of 42, the end result of a process which I’m sure had to be gone through for me to do the work I do. I trained in graphic design, which has left me with a very definite sense of design in the placement of objects and their relation to the space around them. This was then put to good use when I became a stylist selecting props for photographic sessions, both editorial and advertising. This entailed a lot of choosing things that go together and composing a picture with a group of objects simply by moving them around until they looked right through the camera. I do this now, instead of sketching, to plan a still-life set up and my eyes are the camera. I am sure the fact that I worked almost exclusively on shoots for cookery books and magazines influenced my present choice of subject.
I learned to use paint when I started to work with paint effects, such as marbling, graining, stencilling etc. I worked on furniture, photographic backgrounds and in people’s homes. Surprisingly, this was invaluable experience in working with paint and learning how to let the paint work for you.
I discovered the versatility of acrylic paints at still-life painting workshops in the Gloucestershire home of artist Sue Wales. There I tried Chromacolour, which I now use almost exclusively – the colours are bright, clear and are much less chemical looking than most other acrylics. I use this paint almost like watercolour, very thinly with wash (or glaze) after wash. The joy of acrylics is that they do not pick up the colour underneath and rarely go muddy. I paint over and over, scumbling and manipulating the watery paint as well as using thick paint very dryly, almost scrubbing or stippling it on. When washed over with a water glaze this thick paint takes on a wonderful texture.
I much prefer to work on paper rather than canvas or board – Arches cold pressed Not 140lb (300gsm) as the paint dries instantly and I can keep working over and over very quickly. I also like the texture and grain of the paper and find this very sympathetic to painting both textiles and fruit, I dislike the grid texture of canvas and have yet to find a primer that will give me such an absorbent surface as paper. I know that my work would be taken more seriously if I worked on canvas, and probably fetch a higher price, but I seem to have perfected a technique that works well for me and which I am still exploring.
Mangosteens, (33 x 49cm)
I stretch the paper and do an accurate drawing in pencil of the positions of the fruit, ceramics, etc. I invariably have to paint the fruit first before it shrivels and dries as I use a very powerful light in order to get good contrast and strong shadows. I paint exactly what I see, very rarely changing anything. Starting with the light to mid tones I keep working the darks darker and the lights lighter. I use a very wide range of colours arranged on a stay-wet palette with another stay-wet palette for mixing on. These are invaluable if you are working with acrylics. I never use black but make marvellous dark tones with indigo, raw umber and dioxazine purple. I love using ‘off’ colours such as indigo, lime green, yellow ochre, Venetian red hue, sepia, olive green, linden, Chroma deep red. Unbleached titanium and parchment are marvellous off whites.
I hardly ever use straight primaries.
Cut Lemon with Spoon, (30 x 20cm)
No object is ever just one colour; this also applies to shadows, which are made up of lights and darks like everything else. The more you look at something, the more colours you see in it. Often I use pencil crayons to add texture and depth of colour. Alternating between the two media can be a good idea if you are getting stale. (Although if you varnish your painting, the crayon can sometimes run.)
My brushes take a lot of punishment as I scrub and stipple with them and often rub the paint on with the side of the brush so I buy the cheapest available and replace them regularly.
There seems to be a lot of snobbery about acrylic paints and many people tell me they can’t get on with them. However, if you use them simply as a means of achieving the effect you want to create, thick or thin, wet or dry, and not as a specific medium they will work for you rather than vice versa.
Apples on Paisley, (28 x 28cm)
I particularly admire the contemporary Netherlands painter Henk Helmantel, who paints in a very traditional manner but often with a spare, modern look to his work. Also, the restricted palette of Chardin and his loving way of rendering every domestic detail, however humble. Ordinary, everyday things are what I really love to paint, giving them stature and importance in the painting. Exotic fruits and ornate tableware do not attract me at all. I love recording every detail, especially in the cloths I use, such as the woven print on a tea towel, the worn, fringed edge of an odd piece of Paisley cloth and the crack in an antique bowl. In the same way flaws in the fruit or vegetable are not omitted. I love collecting antique china and textiles and people often spot the bowl or plate from a painting around the house. I need to be excited and grabbed by the subject in order to paint it, which is why I rarely do commissions. What I paint has to feel exactly right at the time I am painting it.
Although I love other artists’ full, almost cluttered still lifes, I cannot do this myself. I pare the composition down, taking things out, making the space around the objects just as important. Photographers whom I have worked with, such as Peter Myers and Laurie Evans, have probably been more influence on my work than other painters.
Plums on Paisley, (29.5 x 35.5cm)
I generally have two or three main colours which are linked both in the fruit, china or cloth and echoed in the background. There is a fine line between having something that is too contrived and coordinated and something with no colour theme at all. My most popular paintings by far have red in them: cherries, plums, Paisley cloths. I hardly ever use blue, preferring purples and mauves.
Cut Fig, (33 x 22cm)
I tend to spend about four to five days on a painting in my rather chaotic attic studio, listening to Radio Four, or tapes of books, and can often look at a painting and remember exactly what I was listening to when I painted it. I find it so difficult to break off when a painting is going badly, desperately wanting to keep at it until it is right, but if something is going well this is no problem!
My advice to anyone would be to paint what you like, what you would like to have hanging on the wall of your own home. If you really like it then other people will as well.