The painter Kit Trowbridge was shortlisted for the Jackson’s Open Painting Prize 2018 with her oil painting ‘I Tried to Explain Licking the Honey’. This means her painting was one of the 38 chosen by the judging panel out of the 3,327 submissions. We asked Kit some questions about her painting practice.
Lisa: I was really intrigued by your work ‘I Tried to Explain Licking the Honey’. Can you tell us what the work is about and what inspired it?
Kit: I sometimes employ characters from films as stand-ins for my experiences. This piece involved quite a literal overlap of several different references.
The figure in the painting is Michael Pitt’s character in The Dreamers, during a scene in which he eats honey from the jar. I like being able to explore male beauty through painting because female beauty has been objectified in painting for so many centuries. I thought Michael Pitt would be fun to paint because he incarnates the Western ideal of an angel. And I thought the sensuousness of oil paint on slick vinyl would pair well with the sensory act of licking honey that the image captures.
I got the idea for the title after re-reading an old journal entry about trying to explain a Tolstoy fable on a date. As the fable goes (which I learned from Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot) a traveller is trapped on a branch between a wild beast and a dragon; since he has no way to escape he can only content himself with licking the honey on the branch.
Lisa: The image I have seen of the work is face on, but the medium description states that it has ‘printed photographs cut out and pasted on the sides of the wooden stretcher bars’ – can you tell us about these? What are the photos of?
Kit: There are little cut-out photos of cherries pasted to the sides of the wooden bars, over which I stretched the clear vinyl. I love decoration on paintings and objects from the Renaissance as well as in the borders of illustrated fairy tales. So, I wanted to use this type of peripheral decoration to make the painting feel more like a precious three-dimensional object. Formally, the colour and lustre of cherries relates to Michael Pitt’s lips, which are discussed during the film. Cherries have also become cultural shorthand for sensual consumption, which parallels Pitt’s licking the honey.
Lisa: I find the ambiguity of the image and the very close cropping of the head very interesting, and when I looked at other images of your work cropping and image selection is clearly something of interest to you. How do you select the images that you work with and what is it about taking them out of context that fascinates you?
Kit: Initially, painting just the head was a way to unstick figures from their original contexts and place them in my realm. Prior to this year, I painted male faces that I thought were beautiful, paying little heed to their narrative role. Recreating the forms of their features through paint made me feel like I could understand their beauty.
But more recently, I’ve been trying to develop the theme of escapism in my work. I’ve also been toying with notions of ‘Englishness’ because I was an anglophile growing up and this romanticism functions differently now that I’ve lived in the UK. As I narrowed down my source material to fantasy films and costume dramas, it became more important to include the environment these characters inhabited. But I’ve never been super comfortable with painting landscapes and interiors so I try to keep them to a minimum! When choosing images to work with, these days I start with a movie, character, or actor that means something to me beyond the aesthetics of their face. There is usually an element of nostalgia in these sources, taken from media that have been comforting to me. And if I can, I choose an image that is slightly ‘off’ or has a wry humour to it.
Lisa: There are a lot of popular cultural references in your work. Are your paintings about the human condition or about imagined realities?
Kit: I would love if the paintings were a synergy of the human condition and imagined realities; but I’m still figuring out how to bridge my own experiences with the pop cultural imagery I work from. For instance, after watching North by Northwest (for probably the tenth time) following the end of a relationship, I started re-idolising Cary Grant. I’ve been fond of him since watching Hitchcock films as a child and I suddenly had a new appreciation for him as a Perfect Man and needed to make a painting of him. But I don’t think these personal motivations emerge yet in the paintings I make.
I am conscious of trying to represent imagined realities, though. I have a desire to control everything and so I seek out these magical fantasy spaces as a reprieve from all the things that make me anxious in the real world. Lately I’ve been trying to incorporate a computer aesthetic into my work. I like to draw comparisons between a computer mouse and a magic wand. Creating something digitally is satisfying because of this hyper-neat and clean sense of control.
Lisa: Can you tell us a bit about why you paint your images, as opposed to just use photographs and collage?
Kit: I used to feel insecure about appropriating imagery directly — it made me feel unoriginal and unimaginative – and I was also embarrassed about wanting to paint pretty boys. Prior to my Masters I did create painted ‘collages’ to obscure my direct references. I started to embrace the movie portraits after one of my tutors at the Royal College of Art said I should paint what’s embarrassing. Painting an isolated image is an attempt to translate it into my language and feel more connected with the source. Although, I have come to accept that my work is strongest when shown together as a group because I think my viewpoint emerges from the collection of imagery rather than the individual pieces.
Lisa: How do you develop your ideas for paintings?
Kit: Ideas for the paintings come about in a couple ways. The more straightforward is that I’ll be watching a film and fall briefly in love with a face or character and simply need to paint them to feel like I have a hold on them. Or mark my territory in a juvenile way. Every so often I get bored of painting movie men, but then I’ll watch something and feel this need again—this was the case with the painting of Ryan Gosling I made after watching Drive while I was a bit delirious with fever. Or I’ll set out to photograph a character because of what the movie means to me, for instance with my Harry Potter and Legolas paintings and my nostalgic fondness for the series they come from.
On the other hand, I have a running list of ideas that I’m still figuring out how to realise. These come to me when I’m on the verge of sleep, when I’m reading a Wikipedia article, when I’m seeing a gallery show, etc. I have a colourful list of these words and phrases in my journal. These bits of text are precious to me but I often don’t know what to actually from them.
Lisa: Can you describe the space where you make your paintings and a typical working day for you?
Kit: Currently I’m sharing a studio in Camberwell with my friend Rosa from the Royal College of Art. I’m a hoarder so I have boxes and boxes of stuff: oil and acrylic paints, markers, printable sticker paper, glitter, canvas, vinyl, stretcher bars, coloured pencils, books, Perspex sheets, beads, keychains, fabric, embroidery hoops, and stacks of printed images. I hang up a lot of the printed images on the walls for inspiration in addition to whichever image I’m directly working from.
Once I get in the studio, I usually put on my headphones and listen to Tchaikovsky (I was in The Nutcracker when I was younger) or Beethoven or a Jane Austen audiobook. Then I look at the image I’m working from and try to mix up as many colours from it as I can fit on my palette. I can relax when I finally get to painting. If I’m stuck or need a break I’ll go through my sketchbook lists, read old journal entries, or look at one of my artist books — I love Amelie von Wulffen and Karen Kilimnik. Since leaving the RCA, I like to sketch outside of the studio at the Barbican or South London Gallery.
Lisa: What did being shortlisted for the Jackson’s Open Painting Prize mean to you and did it impact at all on your practice?
Kit: It was really exciting to be shortlisted for the Jackson’s Open Painting Prize. You get so much rejection as an artist, so when an organisation you respect recognises your work, it’s very meaningful. It’s also interesting to see what aspect of your practice people respond to, since it’s hard to know when you’re just working in your studio. Seeing that ‘I tried to explain licking the honey’ was shortlisted for the Jackson’s Open Painting Prize has encouraged me to continue exploring the work’s themes and more experimental painting techniques.
Lisa: I see that you recently graduated from a Masters at the Royal College of Art. How did you find the experience of being at the RCA?
Kit: I had a wonderful experience at the RCA. I think the strength of the programme is in the people it attracts—tutors, staff, technicians, and students. It was motivating to be surrounded by peers that were so dedicated to painting. And making work alongside them in the context of London also helped me evolve my taste in art and awareness of the contemporary art scene. Doing a Masters in the UK was quite different from doing an undergraduate degree in the US — there’s a lot more independence but it’s supported by in-depth discussions about your work. I especially developed the conceptual aspect of my practice at the RCA. My work before was based primarily on aesthetics; while at the RCA I constantly had to figure out, rigorously pursue, and justify what I wanted to say.
I think I’ve also strengthened my imagination throughout the programme. I’ve started to develop my own characters and imagery, which I was afraid to fail at before coming to the RCA. I took advantage of the facilities — I love laser cutting now because I can bring my drawings to life through making them into engraved Perspex objects. I’ve made a lot of close friends through the RCA, especially in Painting. It’s funny when we are hanging out and actually start talking about paint.
Lisa: Where online or in the flesh can we see more of your work?
Kit: I have a website, kit-trowbridge.com, and my Instagram @kittrow is more of a living interpretation of my practice — the behind-the-scenes inspiration gets put on there. Recently I had a solo show of drawings at The Haywood Gallery, an artist-run project space in Borough, and created a piece for the show HTTPS:// at Sluice HQ, organised by London curatorial collective IKO (It’s Kind of Hard to Explain). Another London artist who saw my work at the RCA Degree Show is organising a show around fan art so that will be coming up in the next couple months.
All images are copyright of the artist.