Alison Elliott manages to do something truly remarkable with paint. She brings her subjects to life with a combination of closely observed detail and traditional painterly methods, updating the techniques of the old masters for a contemporary audience.
It is Alison’s attention to the minutiae of an animal’s form that sets her apart from other animal portrait artists. Her paintings show a deep admiration for her subjects, a love which is demonstrated by the intimacy and almost obsessional level of detail that she manages to achieve. She has a natural affinity with animals and her paintings often reflect a deep understanding of the character of each subject. ‘I would call myself an animal portrait artist,’ she says. ‘It is part of my creative process to identify the animal and to communicate the ideas and subjects that reflect their character.
Boy, oil on canvas, (127x203cm).
‘Boy was a six-month old giraffe that I photographed in South Australia. When I saw him he projected an aura of vulnerability and beauty. I just had to stand still to watch him. This is how all my projects begin.’
‘I work in a similar way to the photographer Richard Bailey, who strips the photograph down to just the bare essentials. Like Bailey I focus only on the subject, “cutting it out” from its environment. This minimal approach places the animal at the epicentre of the painting, with no peripheral distractions to draw the viewers’ attention from the portrait. I don’t feel the need to add anything else. Less is more.’
This commitment to capturing the subject is most evident in her large horse paintings, in which veins ripple across the surface of the animal’s skin, networking over the flesh and outlining the musculature moving beneath. Her horses are painstakingly composed from thousands of tiny brushstrokes, built up in layers over periods as long as a year.
Stivalery BJ, oil on canvas, (106x160cm).
‘I set up a photoshoot where this Arabian horse was based. I hung a 12ft (3.5m) canvas backdrop and photographed her standing. I photograph dogs in the same way, although they come to the studio.’
Each painting starts with a consultation with the subject’s owner to identify the animal’s character. This usually involves both owner and animal visiting her studio for the initial photographs from which the paintings are produced.
Getting these initial images right is crucial to the success of the finished work. She uses a Canon 5D Mark 11 camera and a fixed aperture 50mm lens to achieve the necessary clarity of the image and true-to-life colours that she finds essential to making an accurate representation of the subject.
Once a single photograph is selected to work from, Alison decides on the scale of the painting by projecting her chosen image onto a paper backdrop.
Many of her earlier paintings are life size – most impressively Fledalji and Boy, which are both painted at 1:1 scale. In newer works, such as Li Mei the painting exceeds life size, which is becoming a more common occurrence in her practice.
These decisions about scale are very important to the effectiveness of the finished work. The larger paintings such as Fledalji create a huge impact on the viewer – they dominate the space and are both awe inspiring and majestic.
In addition, Alison paints miniatures of smaller animals. These two strands of working co-exist and often help to inform each other, with some miniatures graduating to larger paintings. Her miniatures are mostly made to commission as portraits of much-loved pets and are usually sized between 4x43⁄4in (10x12cm) and 7x91⁄2in (18x24cm).
These small works invite the viewer to draw near to appreciate the detail. Because of their size, they can be fitted into even the most crowded home and as a result are proving to be exceptionally popular with commercial galleries.
Frank Nichols, oil on gesso panel, (10x12cm).
‘I was particularly drawn to Frank Nichols as he was born with a hair lip. When he came to the studio for the photo shoot he drank from a spray bottle for water, which I found so endearing! He projected so much confidence and happiness, which I aimed to capture in the painting.’
Materials and techniques
Alison is completely self-taught, having learnt the majority of her working process from books and magazines. ‘I learnt from reading and experimenting with different techniques and supports until I began to feel comfortable with what I was doing. It’s taken me years to get to the stage I am at now and I still feel constantly challenged by the medium.
‘I consider myself to be a classical artist and I try to continue the traditional working methods of the Old Masters whenever possible. I’m a great believer in the efficacy of time-honoured techniques and I also favour high-quality, traditional materials. I buy most of my supplies from Russell & Chapple in London. If I am going to devote months to creating a painting I strongly believe that it is best to choose the highest quality materials that I can afford.
‘Russell & Chapple produce my canvases, which are double oil-primed French linen stretched onto custom-made exhibition stretchers. Linen has a much smoother surface than the more open weave canvases, which makes it the perfect base for highly detailed working.
‘I use Old Holland oils which are very high quality and have a great range of colours. My palette is flake white No.1, cadmium red purple, ivory black extra, burnt sienna, burnt umber, raw sienna light, nickel titanium yellow, Naples yellow extra, Old Holland warm grey light, Old Holland blue-grey, ultramarine blue, Parisian (Prussian) blue extra and Mars yellow. These colours provide the necessary range to capture the animal accurately and give the painting a characteristic tonality that is particular to my style.
‘I buy all my brushes from Rosemary & Co. I use a number of different sizes and shapes – for the finer details I use their pure kolinsky filbert 0, flat bright sable mix 2, pointed sable mix 3/0 2/0 and 0. I also use their golden synthetic spotters 3/0 0 and 1, and the eclipse stubby flats 0, 1 and 2.
Fledalji, oil on canvas, (224x183cm).
‘In 2005 Country Life magazine featured an article on George Stubbs in which they commissioned the photographer Brian Moody to create a contemporary equivalent of some of his best-known paintings, one of which was Whistlejacket. I bought the rights to use this photograph in order to create my own painting. The horse was an Arabian horse called Fledalji.’
Layers of detail
‘Once I’ve made the decision about the size of the work, I order a canvas of the correct dimensions. I start by applying the imprimatura, usually a warm neutral colour such as burnt sienna mixed with a little white, with a large brush. After a few minutes I wipe it off with a clean cotton rag to leave a uniformly coloured ground. At its simplest, this process is about economy of paint, however it can also give the painting a luminous, reflective quality.
‘The photograph I’ve chosen to work from is then projected onto the canvas and I draw an outline of the subject over the projected image, with as much detail as possible. Then I block in the lowlights and highlights, without any detail, so that the whole canvas is covered, after which I start to build up the detail in layers. With each layer I add to the level of detail with progressively finer marks using gradually smaller brushes. I use an array of different sizes and shapes for the different elements of each painting.
‘Each painting takes four layers to get to the most precise level of detail. This is the same for both miniatures and my larger canvases, although of course the larger canvases take considerably more time. The fourth and final layer is what I call a tweaking layer, done to bring out the finest of details such as eyelashes, highlights on hair and light in the animal’s eyes. I use the pure kolinsky filbert size 0 for this because it keeps a strong point.
Visindar, oil on canvas, (122x193cm).
‘My work has always been about detail. I want each subject to come to life, so much so that I can almost feel them breathing, rather like a tableau vivant.’
‘Once the painting is finished I leave it for about a week, until touch-dry, then apply Roberson Retouching Varnish. I find this is a good way to protect the painting from dust and grease without interfering with the drying process.
Technically an oil painting needs at least six months to dry completely but if you are constantly working and selling paintings, you can’t wait six months. Retouching varnish gives that essential layer of protection for sending your paintings out to exhibitions. It also gives them a lovely finish that brings out the colours – the darks especially.
‘However, be careful when varnishing a painting that relies on subtleties of colour, as the varnish can increase the contrast considerably. I don’t varnish my large works because the risk that this might change the painting is too high.
‘I don’t usually frame my work but I do sell my miniatures with a custom-made presentation box. This is for protection, so that the clients can make the decision about framing themselves. It’s also a lovely way of wrapping up the commission as a package, especially if it is a gift.’
Li Mei, oil on canvas, (110x110cm).
‘The scale of the finished painting is a completely subconscious decision, as every subject will dictate their finished size on the canvas.’
Alison studied at Winchester College of Art and Newcastle Polytechnic. She has exhibited with the Society of Equestrian Artists, at Palace House in Newmarket and at Tattersalls Yearling Sales. In October 2014 she won the Curwen Gallery Prize for Figurative Painting and in July 2015 had her first major solo exhibition with them. Her painting Betty Boop was selected for the Columbia Threadneedle Prize in 2015. She is represented by Curwen Gallery, www.curwengallery.co.uk, and Osborne Studio Gallery, www.osg.uk.com. www.alison-elliott.com
This feature is taken from the November 2016 issue of The Artist
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