Elizabeth McCarten recently won the Jackson’s Young Artist Award at The Sunday Times Watercolour Comptition 2017 for her painting’ The Boboli Gardens’. The painting depicts the famous Florentine gardens once painted by John Singer Sargent in an array of glowing greens and blues. The work is measured, understated and peppered with a delicate decorative quality – such as the dancing branches of the trees and the flowing lines that describe the statues in the park. The space and lack of figures in the work transforms the gardens into a magical, mysterious land. Elizabeth McCarten is based in London and now teaches on the Young Artist Programme at The Royal Drawing School, having studied there. I was intrigued to find out more about her work.
Lisa: Can you talk us through some of the thought processes and idea development with your work ‘The Boboli Gardens’? Did you paint the work in front of the subject, how did you work out the composition and the palette that you used?
Elizabeth: It was my first time visiting the Boboli Gardens in Florence and I was astounded by its lavish gardens dotted with classical sculptures and stunning designs and green passages – it felt magical! I made some small watercolour studies near one of the fountains before making this larger watercolour back in my studio in London. I became really interested in the design of this section of the garden where I was standing and the playfulness between spaces, shapes and layers of the garden it just made me want to paint – everywhere you looked felt like there could be a new composition or world to explore!
Lisa: The original subject came from you experiences on a residency at Borgo Pignano in Italy. What was the residency like and how do you think it informed how you work?
Elizabeth: Drawing and looking is an essential part of my practise as a painter and being artist in residence at Borgo Pignano was a fantastic opportunity to engage with a new landscape to develop fresh visual ideas. I spent a lot of time taking long walks over the hills and around the estate stopping of at different points making ink and watercolour studies, I wanted to explore as much of Pignano as possible which meant making lots and lots of drawings trying to find ways of translating what I was seeing into compelling compositions and studies that evoked something of the landscape I stood before and my relationship to it. It was a very productive time and I hope to return again in the future.
Lisa: You studied fine art painting at Brighton University and then went on to complete The Drawing Year at The Royal Drawing School. How did the 2 schools differ from one another in terms of approach to making work? Was it difficult to switch from one to the other?
Elizabeth: Brighton gave me a new sense of independence. Firstly because I had left London and was exploring a new city on my own for the first time and secondly because it helped develop a strong artistic independence and confidence within myself. Whilst the group critiques and tutorials could be tough and offer a sort of deadline or structure to the year, you were given your studio space and you just had to get on with it. I enjoyed this freedom of making the work according to my own schedule and the studios were always busy with exciting paintings and new ideas so I wanted to be there. I learnt how to be organised and develop a positive sense of ownership within my studio practise which kept me motivated throughout my degree and in a lot of ways prepped me for the future as well.
Thinking about life after University seemed daunting then, but I found out about the Royal Drawing School when another student, Anita who was in the year above me was rushing out of the door to get to London for an interview at the school. I was curious about what it was about and later an alumnus from RDS came to give a talk at Brighton and I knew instantly that was where I wanted to go next. Going on to study at the Royal Drawing School and coming back to London was very different, it was the opposite of Brighton, in that you were expected to be in the studio by 10am and the weeks would be timetabled according to the classes you were taking. Having a strict structure was hard to adjust to at first, but the amount of new experiences and approaches to drawing I was exposed to gave me a plethora of new ideas and insight into new ways of seeing that I had never had before, it was astounding. There is a remarkable board of faculty at RDS who are practising artists and tutors whom I have learnt so much from. Not to mention it is also where I also met an incredible group of peers and friends who I still am very close with today and continue to show with!
Lisa: I find your use of colour very interesting…. the limited palettes set moods and lend the composition a poetic quality but I feel you use paint almost like a drawing material rather than a painting material…. lines drawn in colour. How would you describe how you use colour?
Elizabeth: The luminosity that watercolour can provide and the clarity of colour is perfect for using within my work. I gather information and context through drawing and working on studies mostly in watercolour sometimes just with one or two colours before deconstructing and breaking down the image to lyrical lines and marks. A lot of my work is often on paper and will use colour washes and economical lines and brush strokes to attempt to achieve a directness within the work. It can be hard for me to identify where a drawing stops and a painting begins. I like to work fluidly and quickly. The colour I use is very instinctive and imagination and reality start to merge together in a freedom of paint and conversations between figurative and abstraction become apparent. Scenes are reduced to shapes and colour that invite the viewer to see differently into a landscape of possibilities.
Lisa: Who do you consider to be your greatest artistic influences and for what reasons?
Elizabeth: I am inspired by so many masters but the illusion of space within the works of Matisse and the directness of his subject matter on the canvas has been a strong influence for me whilst more recently Richard Diebenkorn’s paintings and the sense of place within his balanced compositions really inspire my own interest of looking at figuration and abstraction and how they can overlap.
Lisa: When did you realise that you wanted to paint and draw? Does creative flair run in your family?
Elizabeth: I was born in a one bedroom flat in Kilburn, North London and I have many fond memories of waking up before anyone else and making lots of drawings – although I work a lot from life I have always had a vivid imagination and loved to draw stories and escape into other worlds I had made up. I don’t remember a time where I haven’t drawn! We spent our summers in the north of Portugal where my Mother is from and the colour, light and culture definitely left a deep impression on me which I feel still comes through in my work now. My father who is a graphic designer would draw a lot from life and watching him gave me confidence to just have a go and challenge myself. Both of my parents have always encouraged me to work hard and pursue what I am passionate about.
Lisa: How often do you get to paint and draw?
Elizabeth: I have a studio in Wapping, London where I work about three days a week, I also work as a Drawing tutor for Young Artists at the Royal Drawing School running workshops whilst also offering private tutoring sessions. Even when I am not in the studio I think it is important to keep up a sketchbook and take every opportunity to draw out and about. London is great as we are lucky to have so many beautiful parks and green spaces to get out to; Hampstead Heath and Regents Park are a couple of my favourite spots I like to visit often!
Lisa: Do you have any favourite brands of paints, paper or brushes that you like to work with best?
Elizabeth: A good quality cadmium palette is a dream for me but always using high quality paints and materials whilst working and living in London can sometimes be a luxury so alas I do not have a favourite brand. However I love the Cornelissen’s Squirrel Mop which was given to me first by an artist friend, Leon and is one of my favourite brushes to use with watercolour. A sketchbook and a Winsor and Newton pocket watercolour set is simply an on the go essential I like to keep! I am generally quite economical with my materials.
Lisa: What are you working on at the moment?
Elizabeth: Recently myself and some of my peers have started a small painting collective putting on pop up painting shows and making use of unused spaces; last month we had a show under part of the Brixton Railways Arches and earlier this year we had a 48hour takeover in a huge warehouse in Clacton. Right now I am working towards more shows using drawings that I have accumulated over the year developing them on large scale paper exploring new compositions and ideas. I am hoping to develop more of my work into different forms of printmaking too which I am excited about exploring.
Lisa: Where online or in the flesh can we view more of your work?
Elizabeth: For most up to date work and information on upcoming exhibitions follow me on Instagram @emccarten_studio or take a look at my Cargo page: http://cargocollective.com/elizabethmccarten
I will be showing with some other fantastic artists at The Pie Factory in Margate as part of a group show with my peers which will be open to the public from the 1st – 7th February 2018. Come along!
Header Image: ‘Golden Field’ by Elizabeth McCarten, Oil on primed paper, 600mm x 600mm, 2017