The Guest Artist section is a place for artists to talk about their work, techniques and materials. I am sure that one artist explaining how they solved a problem will help other artists and I hope that a community evolves where artists will assist each other with their artistic dilemmas, share ideas and technical information as well as make connections and give each other friendly support. To join the conversation please add your comment below. It will be great to have some interaction!
Here today to share her art with us is Sophie Ploeg who paints in Gloucestershire, UK. Thanks Sophie!
(Click on the images to see a larger version.)
JA: Please tell us a little about yourself.
SP: I was born and grew up in The Netherlands and moved to the UK in the year 2000. I was working on my PhD in English architectural history when I met my British (now) husband and decided to stay. Although I have always loved drawing and painting I was heading for an academic career in art history. I very much enjoyed my study years but when my children were born I found I could not combine an academic job with my less than great health (I have POTS, a form of dysautomnia) and wanting to be there for my children. So, as a stay-at-home mum, I picked up my paint brush again and, well, the rest is history!
So I am what people call ‘self-taught’ and continue to find challenges and learn new things. Learning through looking at other art, reading, and most of all working hard and always trying to push beyond my own limits. I want every painting to be better than the one before and I try to set a new challenge in every painting I create. I learn a lot from looking at and reading about the contemporary realists as they are popping up all over the world, but predominantly in the US. Realism is definitely rearing its head although the UK seems still a bit reluctant to allow it in. Twentieth century conceptual art has a strong foothold but I feel it is a thing of the past and we need to move on and revalue the painting instead of the viewer. But I think I am digressing…
A little about me: I am Dutch, a mum of two boys, live in Gloucestershire, and am a artist. I love painting people, figures and portraits and textures such as fabrics.
JA: What materials and techniques did you use in making the art work you are showing here?
SP: The painting ‘Autumn’ is a portrait of a friend. The ideas for my paintings usually grow in my head first. It simmers there for a while until I know exactly what I want to do and how. So when I had this one ready in my head I asked my friend to pose for me and I took photographs. I love working on a non-absorbent ground so I prefer oil-primed canvas. In this case I applied some alkyd oil primer over a universally primed ready-stretched canvas. I love the super fine weave of the Italian Belle Arti canvases and that is all I use at the moment. Once my primer was dry I drew the shapes with a small firm brush using some burnt umber (Winsor & Newton) and then scumble in the light and darks very roughly. This phase takes a long time, since I do not make any preliminary drawings I want to get the drawing right and make sure everything is in the right place, has the right proportions, etc. The likeness must be there and I need to know where my darks and lights go. I scrub, wipe and draw with a small stiff brush.
When the first stage is done and dry, I move on to colour. This is the stage where there is lots of fun, lots of bold colour and it usually ends up looking like an expressive messy explosion of colour. But there is method in my madness as I exaggerate the colours I see. I look for cool tones and warm tones and put them in, I dance around with hues and chroma. I have moved to a slightly softer small brush like a synthetic mongoose such as Monarch from Winsor & Newton.
After that I start to refine. Colours get toned down dramatically and I create texture with the smallest of sable brushes, endlessly stippling and hatching at the skin texture, layering and layering colour. My technique of tiny hatches is a remnant of using pastel as my main medium. For years I worked in pastel (my mum gave me a box of Rembrandt pastels as a teenager and that created my love for the material) where I hatched and layered colour to create the desired effect. I still use the same technique but now use a small size 1 soft brush. The layering of colours gives a lovely texture and richness that is never flat or dull.
The last stage of a painting goes slowly. The painting sits in the studio and I look at it. Upside down, in a mirror, on a computer screen. I look for flaws, details to fix, subtle changes to make.
JA: What challenges (if any) did you face in making this work and can you give other artists any tips for solving similar problems?
SP: All my paintings involve some sort of challenge. In this painting I wanted to create an intriguing Mona-Lisa smile that would not bore the viewer while I challenged myself technically with the wooly scarf and hair. The surface texture of that scarf should look different from the skin, from the hair. Textures are vital. One tricky part was the background. I wanted it to stay dark and muted to complement the warm autumnal feel of the painting. The composition with the hood made the picture very centralized and inward looking. I played with breaking the line of the hood with some hair, I painted in some trees and leaves and a bit of sky in the background but it was all too distracting from the centre stage. So ‘less is more’ won out in the end and I chose a colour with the same chroma and value as the hood, just a different colour.
JA: Please tell us something about the idea behind the work you are showing here.
SP: I like colour and sometimes ideas for paintings get inspired by the colours or the mood of the seasons. I saw my friend dressed like this regularly and always thought she looked particularly autumnal with her red hair and green scarf. On top of that I wanted a portrait of a woman, a real woman. Not a model, not a teenager made to look like a grown up, but a woman, beautiful, interesting and full of depth.
JA: How does this work relate to your artistic practice, how you approach art over-all?
SP: I paint portraits regularly and have had many portrait commissions. I enjoy painting people very much and often paint my children or use myself as a model. I feel a person gives life to paintings that some still lives and landscapes lack. It is never the same without a person in it. That said, I have been experimenting with painting various fabric textures without using the figure. I would never have thought I’d be painting still lives but I am trying to put as much life into them as I possibly can. It is an interesting dynamic. My love of painting textures (whether it is skin or wooly scarves or hair) has led to an ongoing series of paintings of fabrics like silk and lace. I have always loved fabrics and made my own clothes when I was younger and my mother and grandmother were always busy with fabrics, thread and wool. I feel painting fabrics slots in perfectly with my life, history and love of painting textures. And I am far from bored with painting them so there’ll be lots more to come. I still have some black lace lying around that I want to paint, I just haven’t figured out how yet. So my portraits, figure painting and still lives are all connected by my love for textures.
JA: Do you have any art advice you would like to share?
SP: Painting and drawing is not like cooking. There are no recipes. There is no answer to the question ‘how do you paint that?’ It all comes down to seeing beauty in the world and then just hard work. Paint what you see, not what you know, since your knowledge might well be wrong. Look, look carefully and you’ll see skin is not pink and grass not just green. There are no rules and there are no tricks. That gives you the freedom to explore, invent and find out. Oh and don’t be put off by all the technical stuff around oil painting (as I was). Just get a brush, a canvas and some paint and get started. No need for mediums and solvents if you don’t want them.
JA: What is your favourite art material?
SP: I would have said pastel a few years back but I am afraid oil paint has taken over the pride of place. The depth of colour you can create with it is just too beautiful! I currently use Schmincke Mussini and Vasari paints – they are just beautiful, but also have different brands on my palette like Old Holland, Michael Harding, Blockx, Winsor & Newton. I have tried many canvas materials but am now happy with the Italian cotton and linen that Jackson’s sell. It is a good balance between quality and cost. I am still finding the perfect brush. I love Winsor & Newton series 7 sables but they are pricey and so are the Winsor & Newton Monarchs so I am experimenting with more affordable ones as well.
All images are copyright of the artist.