Catherine MacDiarmid’s portraits strive to depict the connectivity between the painter and her subjects. Often using oil paint, Catherine’s work explores how its materiality can be pushed and manipulated. The result is a dynamic surface quality that complements the lively characters she paints. In her Behind The Paint series, she paints children who have chosen their disguise, and as a result offers a glimpse into the world that these sitters enjoy escaping to when exploring their imaginations. Her painting Behind the White Witch Paint was shortlisted for the Jackson’s Painting Prize 2019. In this interview Catherine describes her working methods and how she balances her painting with family life.
Lisa: Where did first find your passion for painting, and for long have you been engaged with your painting practice?
Catherine: I can’t remember a time when I never drew or painted. As a child I was always doing some form of art. Apparently, I painted everyday when I started school at 4 year old, and they had to move me onto other activities saying that I was hogging the easels and paints. As a child I was obsessed with drawing, especially looking at artists and copying their styles in my own images. I went straight from school to a college fine art foundation at Carlisle College of Art and Design, and from there to complete a visual arts degree in Leicester. After my degree I was determined to make a go of it as a career so became active within the arts community in my hometown of Kendal, which is where I am still based. As artists I believe we are quite lucky in that we can practice almost anywhere, as long as you don’t isolate yourself too much.
Lisa: What was the main inspiration behind painting Behind the White Witch Paint and can you describe the process of painting the work?
Catherine: Behind the White Witch Paint is part of a series of paintings that focus on the masks and disguises people can create with face paint. The theme developed from my sideline business of face painting, which evolved from a love of face painting my own children. Having two boys with Autism Spectrum Condition I discovered that they found disguises a helpful tool which displaced them from the world around. They always enjoy dressing up and these other personas fascinate me. I was keen to see how much of the original character remains when protected by a guise, and whether I could still paint that person behind the paint.
This particular painting is of a little girl that I face painted. I always ask the child what they want to be when they come to me for face paint, rather than show them images that they have to choose from. This way they have to use their imagination. The girl described what she wanted to be, and I painted it. It was her disguise. I then took a series of photos with her parent’s permission explaining that I might like to use it as reference for a painting. I love it when a child is very clear about what mask they want. I don’t always manage to get a photo that inspires me and I choose carefully whether the image communicates to me something other than the disguise. This is usually in the eyes. When I have chosen a photo it is then quite simple to choose a scale and transfer it into an oil painting. I love to make a loose under-painting using pure turpentine, working with bright primary colours straight onto the canvas with no drawing, rubbing back to the surface to create some lighter tones. After a check on proportions I then work wet into wet with oil paint to create the varying tones and colours. I make sure my ratio of solvent to oil is correct for the upper layers so that I am working ‘fat over lean’. If I am lucky I get a run of days to complete a portrait painting so that the layers don’t dry. This is not always possible with my busy life, so a quick wetting of the surface with my dilutants helps me then work on a wet surface again.
Lisa: Does what you are hoping to depict in your portraits differ with every work or are you essentially, striving for emotional truth, every time?
Catherine: I believe that every portrait has an element of the artist in it and when painting I am not always aware of how the people are truly feeling at the time of execution, so I believe I am not necessarily getting an emotional truth each time. Perhaps more of an emotional connection in varying levels for each time.
I recently painted my step daughter from life and she had just found out of a death of a friend, which she believes shows in the painting. I wasn’t thinking of this at the time but perhaps it can be an accidental connection with an emotional truth that is sometimes caught.
Lisa: Do you have a painting that you are particularly proud of and if so, which one is it and why?
Catherine: As well as my Behind the Paint series I have been working, over several years, on a body of work entitled Personal Space which is about isolated individuals in crowds of people, mainly on dance floors. These evolved from observing my own children within these situations and developed into an exploration how children find their own position in social settings. However sometimes I put my own narrative on them through the titles that I give them. Angel is one of these pieces, done in charcoal on paper. It hung on my studio wall for about 2 years after finishing, as I never knew if it was truly completed. Then suddenly one day i decided it was finished and titled it in homage to a young boy called Angel who looked after my son when he moved to a new school. I think that because it took such a long time to complete I have a bigger connection to it. It is also one of my more abstract pieces and as such it reflects a courage in me, that is the ability to stop before it became too realistic. It has been accepted into The Pastel Society this year so will be on show at the Mall Galleries from 5th – 16th February.
Lisa: You have won quite a few awards and your work has been acknowledged in competitions such as the BP Portrait Award and Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year. How important is it to have this recognition?
Catherine: It is very important as a tool for getting an increased audience and hopefully some commission work. I don’t like to define myself as simply a portrait artist but it does help to have this as a bow from which to earn. Ideally I would sell every piece I paint/draw to earn a living, but that just doesn’t happen. Every bit of publicity makes your audience grow. Then maybe more doors will open, more exhibitions offered etc. Don’t get me wrong though, money is not the reason I create. I think figurative artists in particular find it more difficult to get recognition and Gallery representation, which is something I would love. I have also, and still do, suffer from self doubt, as I think many artists do, so this recognition helps to alleviate that.
Lisa: Do you have any favourite brands of paint, brushes, or canvas? If so which and why?
Catherine: I prefer a stretched fine linen surface as it is a tight as a drum and I love the way the paint moves on it. I like to use Michael Harding and Winsor and Newton Artists oils, with genuine turpentine in the under layers, and a touch of linseed oil in the later layers. I sometimes use Liquin if doing some glazing work, as this helps it to dry quicker, but I always mix it with solvent. I work with a variety of brushes and sizes (mainly flats and filberts) and look after them well so that they last a very long time.
Lisa: Do you have any tips with regards balancing your artistic life with other day-to-day responsibilities?
Catherine: Yes – plan your studio time and stick to it. I work in my home studio, a converted garage, and avoid doing things in the house if it is my studio time. If I have any jobs to do in the house I only do them when the kids are home from school. It is a big deal for me as I have been a single parent for 5 years now and I run courses for adults at the local Arts Centre. If I didn’t dedicate all my child free time to working I wouldn’t be at all productive. However, I am a bit of an obsessive, and my wonderful children have given me a reason to not be painting or drawing all my waking hours.
Lisa: How important is keeping a sketchbook to you?
Catherine: A sketchbook is very important and is a real personal thing to me and not many people get to see them. I usually have several on the go at once, in different formats, big and small. I use them to explore compositions, sketch my kids, cat, or anything that I fancy really. I take bigger sketchbooks into the life room and have several of those full of charcoal, pastel, watercolour and graphite sketches. I will sometimes post images from them on my Instagram feed, but only a few.
Lisa: How have you found the experience of taking part in the Jackson’s Painting Prize and do you have any advice for anyone considering taking part this year?
Catherine: I was thrilled and surprised that my painting got into the shortlist in the Jackson’s Painting Prize 2019. I also had 4 paintings altogether in the long list which was a real boost to my confidence. It is never easy as there are so many great artists out there producing fantastic and varied work. It can depend very much on the selection committees as, past a certain point, it can come down to taste and trend. I think it is also important to say that being rejected does not mean you are no good. You have to take it and move on, and not doubt yourself or your creativity (advice that I sometimes find hard to follow). It is, as prizes go, quite reasonably priced to enter. I have had a look at the judging panel for this years competition – it is a great line up.
Lisa: Where online or in the flesh can we view more of your art work.
I am showing Personal Space – Angel in The Pastel Society 2020 at the Mall Galleries in February.
I have 3 pieces selected for the Upfront Open in Penrith, which runs until 22nd March.
I also have 2 pieces in Barrow Dock Museum, Significant Forms, an exhibition by South Lakes Arts Collective until 1st April.
Header image: installation shot from Catherine MacDiarmid’s recent solo show, Brewery Arts Centre, Kendal, Cumbria
Click here to find out more about Jackson’s Painting Prize 2020