Zosia Olenska won the Jackson’s Art Supplies ‘Atmospheric Acrylics’ competition with ‘July’, a truly exquisite painting of a midsummer somersault. The painting has a distinctly 1920s feel about it, with a innocent joie-de-vivre quality. The composition emphasises the movement and energy of the subject, while the choice of palette is highly sophisticated; wonderful warm yellows resonate with earthy greens, greys and ochres in the background, making use of a broad tonal range that adds to the drama. Here’s my interview with the artist behind this exciting painting.
Lisa: What inspired you to paint ‘July’ and how did you go about developing the composition?
Zosia: I’m really drawn to the subject of amateur acrobatics and trying to capture that type of physical play and movement: it’s such an unselfconscious expression of joy! As it’s an idea that I have been toying with for a while, I have been hoarding reference images from any source I can come by. I tend to accumulate vast numbers of images and return to them as the idea congeals, cropping or combining them. The composition for ‘July’ was based on a blurry black and white photograph. It was the position of the figure that drew me to the image, and I then expanded the space around this focal point, using colours that would bring across the feeling of a sunny summer’s day. After the summer we have had, it was the last part that required the most imagination!
Lisa: Is the work typical of your practice? How would you describe your work?
Zosia: I think that the main way I would describe my work at the moment is ‘in flux’. It has taken me a while to find my feet in this medium, but I am gaining confidence with each piece and beginning to really luxuriate in the materials. This painting was a bit of a breakthrough in terms of my working method, and I definitely want to develop in this direction.
Lisa: For how long have you been painting and did you go to art school?
Zosia: Part of me still wishes I had gone to art school. Both of my parents trained at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, and while they both had creative careers I think they found supporting our family from fine art impossible relatively early on. I was warned vigorously against the life of destitution that would surely follow an art degree. So, in retrospect laughably, I studied Medieval History instead! As a result I am mainly self taught, supplementing my technical knowledge with day courses or online tutorials. I have only started painting seriously this last year. My father was a fantastic oil painter and I think the weight of that expectation kept me at bay. For years the body of my work has been in pen and ink, and drawing is definitely the foundation of my practice.
Lisa: There are a lot of layers of transparent paint in ‘July’ that add to the energy of the painting. Did you use a lot of mediums to paint this work?
Zosia: Probably not as many as you would think! I like using glazing medium to add transparency and flow to heavy bodied acrylics, but most of the variation in texture and depth comes either from the attributes of the different brands of paint I use, or from the thickness with which I applied them. Acrylic is incredibly versatile and forgiving! I have watered it down to a wash, slapped it on thickly, scratched into it, rubbed it in, rubbed it off… there are grubby bits of kitchen towel all over my desk and I have to own up to the odd bit of finger-painting too.
Maintaining the energy of this painting is the aspect I am most pleased about, and it is that which has helped solidify my working methods. I have done paintings where they get heavier and more stodgy the more I have worked on them. Here I whacked down the first layer in one sitting pretty crudely. I then came back to the painting for an hour or two at a time over the next week, picking out bits of detail, clarifying shapes and adding dashes of colour. I am not just saying this because of the prize: I save my Golden Acrylics for the very last touches. The colours are so buttery and intense that they make the drab hues in the composition sing by contrast. The difficulty at the end is that different mediums and paints reflect light in different ways. The end result can be distracting, so I tend to finish each piece with a coat of matt varnish to unify the final surface.
Lisa: You work in a number of different media including Pen and ink, sculpture, and acrylics…what is your favourite medium to work with and why?
Zosia: I think painting is quickly becoming my favourite medium, but I am not sure that I can separate them out neatly as one informs the other. Drawing is the backbone of what I do, but my pen and ink work is pretty tight and observational. Sculpture is messy, more instinctive, and it makes you think about form and movement in a different way. I think the good qualities in my painting come from sculpting- even literally: I use sculpting tools to put down my first layer of paint and only later return to it with a brush. I think that helped me overcome the fear of attempting to be a ‘Painter’. Having said that, it isn’t that painting is the pinnacle: some ideas will work better in one form than another, and switching between media helps keep a fresh eye.
Lisa: What is your greatest artistic ambition?
Zosia: I keep joking that I want to make things so beautiful that people’s eyes will melt out of their faces, but aside from being impossible, that would probably end up being quite self-defeating. I would like to make work that people want to live with, that they find new elements in over time, and that transport them in some way to a good place. I’m bored of the tendency to equate Serious Art with bleakness. If this doesn’t give you hope then what else is there? But maybe that’s just me. Oh, and being able to support myself off my artwork! Does that count as an artistic ambition? Because that would not go amiss in the slightest!
Lisa: What materials/conditions are absolutely essential for making your artworks?
Zosia: Materials and conditions… This may sound ridiculous, but I have this hoarder mentality when it comes to materials that means I get nervous about using up supplies if I know there isn’t a healthy amount waiting in reserve. I hadn’t made the connection before, but I think this must stem from when I was little. We lived pretty close to the bone at times, and I remember how preciously and with how much respect my mother treated art materials. There was a box of professional oil pastels she used that I wasn’t allowed to touch, and now that I have inherited them I am still scared to touch them! They are in the bottom of my drawer in the same Ferrero Rocher box they lived in when I was seven: one treasure inside another.
As to conditions, my absolute essential is warmth! I have a minor condition that means my hands react in extreme ways to cold or sudden fluctuations in temperature. I lose all feeling in my fingers and it can take a long time to get them working properly again. Unfortunately this means that painting en plein air is pretty much out of the question for me here. But then, the natural habitat for cups of tea is indoors, so it isn’t that much of a sacrifice.
Lisa: What is the hardest aspect of being a painter?
Zosia: Dealing with my own brain. Hands down. I get despondent, I talk myself down, I get frustrated and hate everything I do. I have stopped comparing myself or my work to other people. I can only paint like me and hope that there are people out there who like what they see. I think that in all the ways that technology is fantastic: in bringing inspiration and giving you access to platforms to promote yourself, it also makes you acutely aware that you are a drop in the ocean. I think you have to develop a pretty thick skin to make your life this way. I’m training myself to not dwell on rejections, and to concentrate on the work and maintaining momentum instead.
Lisa: What are you working on at the moment?
Zosia: Right now I have the faces to finish on three figures in a small acrylic painting on ply; I have a larger square canvas sketched out that is going to be a lake-side scene where I want to try and use gold leaf in the reflections of the water. I think it is going to be hard to pull off the combination of mainly paint with the elements of gold without looking cheesy or fractured, but I am going to give it my best attempt. I also have a mainly-white abandoned canvas to finish where I was experimenting in using colour in a way that when viewed close up the palette is pastels, but from a distance they smudge to look monochromatic: working on the principle that when you mix all the colours you end up with grey. We’ll see about that one! There are also small plaster figures and wire frames strewn about the place in various stages of emergence. It’s exciting stuff! I came to the conclusion last year that I wasn’t progressing because I would inevitably get to a stage of despondence with a work, and then I would struggle on with it until just catching a sideways glimpse of the thing would drive me to extremes of procrastination. I had a clean house. And I saw my friends more often! Now those two things have definitely suffered, but because I’m switching between pieces when I hit that wall with something, I no longer wallow in that despair at being awful at what I’m doing. It feels like I’m on to a good thing.
Lisa: Where online or in the flesh can we view more of your work?
Zosia: I have a website : www.zosiaolenska.com which is more functional than not, and getting more so. You can also find my artist’s page on Facebook, and I’m on Instagram as ZosiaO. I tend to put up pictures of works in progress if I think it’s heading in a good direction. (Although maybe that is misrepresentative and I should put the disasters on there too? I’ll think on that.)
At the moment, if you want to see my stuff in the flesh, you would have to come and give me a knock in York! I am amassing enough work so I can give gallery owners some hassle and try and convince them to display my wares. When there is any progress on that front I will be plastering it on social media, so if that’s something you would like to be aware of then please give me a follow.
Thank you so much for this opportunity, for upping the quality of my stash of materials and for asking such insightful questions! I need to get better at talking about my work and this experience has been invaluable. Winning this prize has meant a lot to me. It has come at a time when I have changed jobs to radically decrease my hours so I can concentrate on my artwork. It has been terrifying, and to have my work chosen out of such a strong selection has given me a spring in my step!
Header Image: ‘From the Modern’ by Zosia Olenska, Acrylic Ink on Ply, 25cm x 20cm, 2017