Alicia France, who won the Portrait/Figure Category Award in the Jackson’s Open Painting Prize 2018, is a British artist living and working in Newcastle upon Tyne. She explores a variety of mediums across her figurative studies, from pencil sketches and etchings to oil paintings on aluminium. Working on a small scale, she draws the viewer in to her everyday observation and subtle celebration of the traditional nude portrait. We caught up with Alicia to find out about her muses, her process and her influences.
Clare: Tell us a little bit about your artistic background/education.
Alicia: I’ve always been fascinated by people from a young age. As a child I used to study people’s faces all the time, examining the contours, features and proportions. Since then, I have studied art all through my education with a great passion for portraiture. I studied art through my GCSE’S (from which my love of Vermeer began), A Levels and eventually my BA hons degree. I was always encouraged to showcase my work so entered local exhibitions in my hometown of Rochdale. Inspired by the masters, I’ve always had an element of tradition in my paintings which I combine with the subject matter of modern working class life. This traditional quality to my work, however, was mostly discouraged throughout my Fine Art degree and I often received poor grades. I found it very difficult in university, as did many of my colleagues and friends. The art world can be very brutal and I did consider leaving in my second year but with some miracle persisted and achieved a first.
I also feel it would be an injustice not to mention my family whilst answering this question. I’m not sure what kind of artist I would be without them. My parents met in art college so there has always been creative foundations within the household. My mother would encourage me to paint, even as a baby, from collecting leaves in the pram for collages to spreading paper across the kitchen floor and handing me the brushes and paint. At Halloween we would rip up bin liners and spread them across the walls of the house and paint murals of witches and graveyards.
Clare: How would you describe your practice?
Alicia: My practice focuses on conveying the extraordinary within the ordinary and the idea that the simplest and most ordinary of things, moments and people can make the most beautiful and interesting art. In the last few years I have incorporated this concept with the beauty of naked flesh. Whether the subject is in the middle of their weekly routine of bodily grooming or enjoying the view from their tourer-caravan; these solitary and mostly private moments are something I am passionate to communicate through my paintings. The portrait, to me, is one of the most fascinating forms of art and I aim to revitalise it with inspiration from art history and the realities of modern life. I usually work quite small, even miniature, as it forces the viewer to get up close and personal with the painting and its subject. However, I intend to embark on a new series of large paintings on aluminium in the near future.
Clare: Who are the subjects in your figurative paintings?
Alicia: I always like to paint people who I have a relationship with, whether it be a relative or a friend. I want to be able to capture their personality or their feelings in that moment which is far more achievable when you know the person. My main models/muses are my mother and my close friend Jan. I have been painting them both for years and there is still so much about them I have yet to convey. I definitely feel strongly about the importance of my models. They do half the work in my eyes; their personality, their expressions, their body language; it all fascinates me and fascinates others and that is why I love doing what I do.
My mother is so passionate about my art and was the first person to offer to model. The first time she modelled for me was on a caravan holiday. It was an unusual and unique setting for a nude painting but was an environment that gave a glimpse into her world, her life – a woman of simple pleasures and one that will sacrifice her time on holiday for art! What makes her such a good model is how expressive she is through her facial and bodily expressions, like an open book.
My second model, Jan, is a very close friend of mine that I first met as a young child but actually became good friends with in college whilst studying art. From the moment we started talking properly, I knew that she had to model for me. She is so interesting. ’One on her own’; a combination of mature and childish, old-fashioned and modern, serious and hilarious. She is so full of confidence and comfortable within her own skin. Plus, the fact that I think she is a reincarnation of the Mona Lisa! The facial likeness between her and the Da Vinci masterpiece is uncanny and has always fascinated me.
Alicia: Nudes, or naked portraits, interest me so much because they are simply the truest representation of the human form. They have so much to offer artistically. I love painting flesh. There are so many colours to pick out and highlight which I thoroughly enjoy every time I paint. It is also interesting to see the different aspects of someone’s personality and emotion when they are nude; confident, vulnerable or relaxed. What I’ve noticed most, is that people feel empowered which I find most gratifying.
I think many would agree that Titian was the creator of the quintessential Nude. The classic poses and physical dispositions of the female figure derive from his characters such as Venus and Andromeda. The whole character of Venus and her archetypal pose interested me most and especially correlates with Nude in Caravan. My mother’s pose, though very Venus-like, was her instinctual behaviour; to recline into the position most comfortable and natural to her, which also happened to be that of the typical form of the Renaissance Nude. It fascinates me how the modern woman automatically mirrors that of centuries ago.
I have always been a great admirer of Vermeer and his subject matter, exquisite delicacy and thoughtfulness in his representation of female subjects. I could look at them forever. It actually makes me feel happy when I look at them. I particularly love the simple activities that his subjects are engaged in. Simple activities that often involve the mind wondering into deep thought – sewing, reading a letter, praying etc. It is very grounding to the soul. These are beautiful moments that I aim to capture in the modern world, a world that is sometimes too busy and hectic to notice them.
Clare: You have a great way of capturing the essence of a subject’s character in a specific moment; empowered, nonchalant, disinterested, joyful or even an in-between moment. Can you talk about what interests you about painting these moments?
Alicia: Thank you! It means a lot to me to be able to capture the essence of someone’s character. It’s what portraiture is all about! These moments really make you wonder what they’re thinking. Art should make you think. An interesting portrait should make you wonder, make you ask questions such as ‘What is this person thinking?’ and ‘Why do they look such a way?’ I think people do enjoy art which has this quality.
Clare: What are the different challenges working with a circular frame compared to a traditional rectangular frame?
Alicia: I think drawing out the composition of a painting is quite different on a circular frame. I only choose particular portraits and compositions for circular frames as sometimes it seems far simpler working on a rectangular canvas or plate. For example, the positioning of the main figure/subject on a circle can feel quite tricky as the space is compromised compared to a rectangle. Hence, why I choose specific artistic arrangements.
Clare: In addition to your oils, you paint miniatures, make etchings and paint in watercolour. Your subject matter is distinctive across all the mediums you work in. But in your etchings, you have a series of party photos. Can you tell me about these?
Alicia: Contrary to my nude pieces, I’m intrigued by social scenes and drunken gatherings. The way we let go of our inhibitions and how we behave when socialising or inebriated fascinates me and makes really interesting art. This series of etchings captures these moments. As references, I used photographs of my friends (including myself) socialising on various occasions. Most of the photographs are actually taken by my sister who enjoys taking candid shots when we get together with friends.
Clare: Do you have any favourite paints, mediums, brushes or surfaces? After white, which colour do you have to replace most often? What do you like about working with oil on aluminium?
Alicia: Even though I predominantly class myself as an oil-painter, I thoroughly enjoy working with other mediums such as ink, pen, pencil and charcoal and currently intend to explore them more. I’ve been drawing a lot recently, challenging myself with the extent of detail. The nicest part about pencil drawing is how you can really put your heart into it without thinking about colour and changing/washing brushes.
I would definitely still classify aluminium as my favourite surface to paint on at the moment. What I love about aluminium is the way it makes the painting feel more like a luxurious physical possession rather than simply a canvas. I also like the way my brush sits on the surface and how it glides when applying paint. I also like the contradiction between the painting of soft flesh on something so harsh and cold like metal.
When painting, I use mostly titanium white, raw umber, yellow ochre, ultramarine and cadmium red. After white, I use up raw umber most often, being the colour I use most to create tone.
Clare: What is a good day in the studio for you?
Alicia: I feel myself progressing when I feel I’ve done something better than I did it the previous time. Whether this is how well I have conveyed something, a feeling, an emotion or simply the technique. It’s a good sign when I’m excited to continue work the next day as, like many artists, I can be very self-critical.
Clare: Who are your art influences? Who are your favourite contemporary artists?
Alicia: The artists who influence me alternate depending on my mood or my work at the time. I’m very passionate about honest representation so artists such as Jenny Saville, Egon Schiele and Lucien Freud have been a huge influence. The brutal and truthful way they present the human form fascinates me and has inspired a good deal of my work throughout the last 7 years.
Clare: In the studio – music, audiobook, Radio 4 or silence?
Alicia: When I’m in the studio I always have to have something on in the background. Most of the time I play light sitcoms on repeat like Big Bang theory, IT crowd, Benidorm, The Office, Black Adder etc. It’s basically a comfort blanket for when I’m working. I can get quite tense and anxious when working, mentally and physically. I always put pressure on myself that the current piece I’m working on has to have a certain quality that the previous piece didn’t. I also have to take breaks in-between painting due to my hypermobility syndrome which gets very painful in my hands so it’s nice to have some entertainment during those rests! When I’m accompanied by my sister in the studio, we always play Disney music – you can’t go wrong with that! Occasionally I will choose something a bit more ‘sophisticated’ – I absolutely love Chopin and I’m a total history geek so historical and art documentaries are up there in the list too.
Clare: What are you working on at the moment and what can we look forward to seeing from you?
Alicia: At the moment I’m looking to enter a few competitions/exhibitions. Alongside that, I’m working on my new business venture Beau Bazaar. It’s an online gift shop that sells a selection of unique and artistic gifts ranging from etching prints, hand-designed greetings cards and offers various commissions such as portraits and miniatures, all hand painted by myself!
You can see more of Alicia’s work on her website here.