Rosso Emerald Crimson won the Portrait/Figure category award in Jackson’s Open Painting Prize 2019. Her winning painting Walthamstow Central, is a portrait of a daughter and father, observed waiting for a train on the station’s platform–the iconic William Morris tiles serving as their backdrop. Both figures have a strong sense of individuality, but also appear unified: the man looks out beyond the frame of the painting, while the girl’s gaze is fixed, with a casual defiance, on the viewer. The ability to capture these spirited subjects is Rosso Emerald Crimson’s power. She gives agency to her predominantly female characters, using the tools and techniques of the old master’s. We caught up with Rosso to talk materials, process and finding the method for the mood.
Clare: Tell us a little bit about your artistic background/education.
Rosso: When I decided to take up art in my 30s, I thought it was too late for me to enrol formally in an art school. So I am primarily self-taught, although, throughout my years of practice I have been attending many painting workshops run by established artists. I have also been training for a few months at the London Atelier of Representational Art (LARA) where I learnt the fundamentals of representational drawing/painting and at the Prince Drawing School in Shoreditch.
Clare: How would you describe your practice?
Rosso: Until now, painting has been my main focus. I have been experimenting extensively and almost entirely with oil paint, in a rather classical way. I am deeply attracted by the human figure and portraiture in particular, and I love the way oil paint has allowed me to approach this subject matter.
Clare: What is it about a subject or theme that defines whether you paint alla prima or build up layers over time? What are the benefits of each for you? Which approach did you take with your category prize-winning work, Walthamstow Central?
Rosso: Alla prima paintings have a very different energy to work which is created over a few sessions: imperfections, irregularities, vibrant and strong brushstrokes and elements of impressionism/expressionism are part of the first approach, especially when executed from life. Subjects which I like to paint in this style are flowers, which I find a perfect mixture of abstract/figurative shapes. With portraiture, I am a bit of a perfectionist. If I have time, I use a direct, layered approach, as this allows me to retain control of the outcome.
I don’t use glazes, but I like to build up a portrait slowly, have breaks (even of days) in between sessions and come back always with fresh eyes and new ideas to develop the subject further. Essentially, the choice of method comes down to the energy or mood I am after – spontaneous and vigorous or calm, meditative, even hypnotic….? In Walthamstow Central, I deliberately used both approaches within the same painting: I wanted to have some strong realistic portraits but let the rest of the image either unfinished or executed in an expressionistic way. The portraits were executed in 2-3 sessions each, while the bodies/outfits were done in one go.
Clare: You have incredibly rich colours in your paintings. Can you talk about how you prepare your palette?
Rosso: Yes, I am deeply attracted by strong, saturated colours. I am especially in love with all the incredible and unpredictable combinations one can achieve starting from the basic primary hues. My palette contains always essential hues for the skin tones – cad red, crimson red, ivory black, cobalt blue, titanium white, yellow ochre and some other earth tones (raw umber and burnt sienna), plus, on a separate row, a sparkling mixture of yellows/oranges/reds and blues (Prussian, teal, turquoise are my fav) which are used almost exclusively for anything else around and outside the portraits. The mixing and combinations are rather spontaneous and on the go.
Clare: What mediums do you like to work with? What do you use to tone your canvas?
Rosso: In general, I like to use and work with oil paint as it comes out of the tube. Occasionally, when the paint becomes too hard to move around, I use a few drops of cold pressed linseed oil. I also a few drops of oil if I work over the same section of a painting over different sessions, following the fat-over-lean rule.
I tone my canvas in different ways, based on the type of picture I will paint, trying to follow a complementary rule – cool tonal for warm figures, and vice versa. My favourite is tonal washes done with earth colours – burnt sienna, raw umber and terre verte.
Clare: Do you maintain a practice of sketching? If so, how often do you sketch and what materials do you use? (ie. pastel, pencil, watercolour etc.)
Rosso: I do sketch a lot. Before starting a painting but also as a way to brainstorm for new ideas. My sketches often start from doodles, they are done on scrap paper with a biro, without much intention and direction. I keep these doodlings in folders until the time comes to develop them further. If that’s the case, I try to extrapolate and add more details from the original doodles, trying to come up with a more accomplished drawing on paper, using pencils.
Clare: What are your most important artist’s tools? What are your favourites?
Rosso: Long handle brushes, of all types. Squared hand mirror, black and white. Palette knives. The most essential – and my favourite – would be XXL (extra extra long) brushes with longhair/bristles, rare to find, so I try to make them DIY.
Clare: What makes a good day in the studio for you?
Rosso: A good day is a full, creative and productive day. When I finish some work in progress, or I start working on something that I hadn’t even planned, or just when I can keep focused on something for hours possibly even skipping lunch.
Clare: What are your art influences? Who are your favourite contemporary artists?
Rosso: The art that inspires me varies periodically. There are different components that attract me from a piece of art and which can be found across genres – the aesthetics, the message, the emotional factor, and I also love works which show the vulnerability of the artist themselves, however disguised. I like artwork where I can identify with the history behind, and equally art which is inspiring, thought-provoking and motivating. Among all the artists I love, I’ll name three contemporary women artists that I deeply admire for their raw realism, Paula Rego, Jenny Saville and Lita Cabellut.
Clare: In the studio – music, audiobook, Radio 4 or silence?
Rosso: Most of the time, silence, with occasional soft background music.
Clare: What is coming up next for you and where can we see more of your art in the flesh or on-line?
Rosso: I have a couple of exhibitions in the immediate future. The opening of Arrows of Desire, a group show dedicated to Saint Sebastian, martyr and queer icon, on the 4th of July, at The Horse Hospital in central London. Following that, Walthamstow Central was shortlisted again for the TALP- The Open Art Competition organized by The Artist magazine, which will be held at the Patching Art Centre in Nottinghamshire. In the meantime, I am working on a new body of work for a couple of projects which will be hopefully ready at the end of 2019/beginning of 2020.