I think horses – and horse riding – represented freedom for me when, in so many other respects, my life was governed by the tyranny of dance classes and rehearsals. I loved my chosen work, but riding was a wonderful release from it.
I was, once, long ago. But at sixty-seven I no longer ride and I don’t have a horse, though I live in the countryside and have land and a stable.
However my time is so consumed with being an artist, that there’s not enough of it left for what it would take to keep a riding horse. Success brings all sorts of things in its wake but time is not one of them. My diary is packed with exhibition and illustration commitments. My husband, Peter, works too, as a curator, and it’s already a challenge, finding the time to do things together. He doesn’t ride, and so it’s not an activity we could share.
Yes. But I also ‘play’ a lot with materials. (Accidents, while great, can be useful tools if they can be repeated.) Each type of material requires a different skill-set and mastery, and playing helps me become practiced and fluent. Acrylic inks work in this way, oil paints in that. Primed canvas has these advantages, but gesso on board suits me better. Watercolour requires one set of disciplines, and acrylic tube-paint, another. This dry pastel fixes well, and this one changes colour when sprayed. The same pigment (colour) will behave differently in different brands of paint, because there are different versions of a pigment, some ’true’ and some ‘manufactured’. (The word ‘hue’ usually means a manufactured substitute of a natural pigment that may itself be too expensive. You have to read the information on the tubes really carefully.) I make up notebooks of working techniques and some of the earlier ones have been my companions for twenty years or more. You think you’ll remember everything, but you won’t. When something works well, I make a note on which brand and how the colour was mixed, or exactly which viscosity allowed for me to scratch through a layer of wet paint with the end of my brush. (A technique called sgraffito.) Materials are chemicals, and you need to understand how they work. I researched coloured pencils for over a year because I discovered that though it didn’t say so on the tins, most were wax-based while only a very few were wax and oil-based, and the latter were better because they didn’t ‘bloom’ when used heavily. Blooming happens when waxes mixed with the pigments manifest as a fine, white, disfiguring dust on the surface of the artwork. When it occurs some time after the work has been put under glass it’s as though white mould has set in. But the manufacturers are often not keen to show-and-tell what their products are made of, and so I had to extensively research to get the information I required, and that took determination. I phoned around the companies tracking down people who would talk to me and eventually I found the perfect coloured pencil brand for my purposes. (Faber-Castell Polychromos.) On another occasion I was dissatisfied with the way shellac-based aerosol fixatives affected the surfaces of my works in dry pastel, so researched until I found a casein-based product that came in pump activated misting dispensers. Sometimes being an artist requires the perspicacity and insight of a Hercule Poirot!
Of course none of this matters a fig to the man or woman standing in the gallery looking at the work. But the knowledge is a big part of my discipline as a painter, because it enables me to be better at what I make across many disciplines of media. When I have an idea it’s reassuring that I can pick and choose exactly how I might go about making it a reality.
6) Do you sometimes struggle to get the right gestures in horses and humans? I like that you prefer Stubb’s observations over Munnings’ photorealism.
Yes, I do struggle. This are where maquettes come into play for me. They help with that. But I think too that I should explain my attitude toward the life model. I like having a life model from time to time. It’s a great discipline. But I never make paintings from models because I’m not looking for those levels of reality. I make life studies for eye-to hand practice, and for information. But after the model has gone, I use the studies done from the model to make maquettes, and it’s those I use to make my compositional sketches. The maquettes free me from all sorts of level of distraction that come with the life model.
7) Do you think you need specific talents to be an artist, such as drawing, or is it enough to want to make things?
My methods are particular to my experience. I came to art very late. I was having a mid-life crisis when at forty I began seriously painting, and I because of my circumstances – I had to make a living – didn’t go to art school. I am self-taught. To begin with I taught myself in in an academic manner, by observation and painting from life. I improved my drawing. I taught myself by practice, landscape, still life and figure painting, and from books, perspective and colour theory.
8) I really enjoyed working with a horse made of individual paper pieces, an idea borrowed from your Gawain and Gringolet. Do you develop an idea using a range of techniques in an organised way, or is it different every time?
Maquette of Gringolet under construction. I work in paper when creating the pattern, and then transfer to more robust card that I can work on in paint and pencils.
I takes time to build maquettes, and I’m always looking for different outcomes and improvements. The earliest ones were utterly simple, and they served me well. Now they’re much more complex, because I’m always looking to make them more flexible and articulate. These days there are all sorts of things going on behind them. Sliding bars and swivel joints allow me to reconfigure the maquettes so as to be more useful as compositional tools. Essential pivot points are no longer fixed, but can move around. Where once I had a half dozen maquettes, I now have many. Boxes and boxes of them. Ranging through animals, mythic beasts, saints, angels and knights in armour, I make new ones for every project. They’re my actors.
Moreover sometimes they become tools for other disciplines, and over the past years I’ve used sets of maquettes to produce animated films.
An animated film to accompany orchestras playing Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale, is performed all over the world, and more recently, I used shadow-puppet maquette sequences in the Goldfield Ensemble production of Hansel & Gretel.