Clae Eastgate (formally Claire Eastgate) is a British portrait painter with over 15 years’ experience of painting portraits to commission. Far from simply aiming to achieve a physical likeness, her paintings are imbued with the soul of her subjects, hinting at the lives they have led, and the challenges they have and are facing. Clae’s most recent project, Painting the Poets, is an ongoing project which celebrates the most exciting female poets working today. It’s a project that she hopes will be taken on by other painters in the future. Ahead of International Women’s Day (8th March) this interview with Clae explains more about her hopes for the project, and how she has found her experience of painting some of today’s brightest literary talents.
(Please note: the video contains some strong language)
Lisa: For how long have you been painting and where did you learn to paint?
Clae: Iʼve been painting all my life but began to learn properly in my late twenties. I left art school feeling disillusioned, there was very little on offer in terms of teaching how to paint. I have since taught myself.
Lisa: Why poets in particular?
Clae: My initial reason was having always been drawn to writers and poets, perhaps itʼs the other side of myself Iʼve always wanted to be. What I like about poets and poetry in particular is how the painted portrait is the extension of the portrait already created in words by the poet and how these interact. Our creative practices have crossovers and itʼs something I often talk to the poet about while I am painting her. As I began the project it quickly became clear to me that the growing numbers of women writing and performing poetry was something to be marked and celebrated. This is an unprecedented time in history and perhaps partly due to the path laid by the first female Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, but I think also to the unstoppable need for women to make their voices heard.
Lisa: Do you tend to work in series in this way, and if so, why?
Clae: This is the first time I have worked in a series in this way. Itʼs an important step in how my creative practice is evolving and developing on all levels.
Lisa: How much does the work of the sitter inform your work when painting her portrait?
Clae: The work of the poet is very informative and offers a lot about who they are but it is not always obvious and not the whole picture. This is why it is important for me to spend time with the poet, more often than not in their own homes or work place where everything around them is reflective of their life and who they are. This is an intimate exchange of life stories and in depth conversation. It is probably the most important part of the process and is crucial for developing ideas around the composition of the final work.
Lisa: What have been the greatest challenges that you have faced working on this series so far?
Clae: I think allowing time for the work to evolve. Iʼve been working on the project for around two years and it is only now that it is right for it to come into public awareness. It was important to not only create some of the paintings but to allow the project to find what it needed to say and not rush it. I now see this as a long term project, a legacy in the making which will continue to grow in ways I may still not be aware of.
Lisa: How do you go about finding the right gallery to exhibit a body of work? What is most important to you?
Clae: It was important to let this aspect develop more organically in terms of how and where the portraits should exhibit. I soon became aware that I wanted the collection to show in different spaces and not necessarily a gallery for instance. Now the project is at the stage of introduction to the wider public, the growing interest in exhibiting the paintings is happening and not necessarily in a place one might expect. For instance, part of the collection will be shown to celebrate the opening of the newly built Manchester Poetry Library later this year. The opening wonʼt just be an exhibition of the paintings, however, there will also be poetry readings and performances by the poets whose portraits will be on show including Carol Ann Duffy, Imitiaz Dharker, Jackie Kay and Helen Mort to name a few. More of an event than a private view which I like. As the portraits are created they will show incrementally in different places over the next few years. Iʼd like the different art forms to merge together, that is, when a gallery, art institution or venue show the portraits it is important to me that those particular poets are there performing as part of the opening. There will also be film and audio as part of the experience so the overall idea is about moving away from traditional expectations. Because I am a painter it doesnʼt necessarily mean my work needs to be shown in just a gallery.
Lisa: Do you feel pressure to do justice to your sitters? If so how do you overcome this feeling of responsibility?
Clae: The paintings are worked on for a long time. Getting to know each of the poets is crucial and involves spending time with them. Sometimes that involves a longer journey like the time I flew to France to find Kate Tempest in a remote place writing her book. It was a great experience. Gathering the right material and understanding how each of the poets work is crucial to doing the portrait justice. When I have this I donʼt feel pressure. Somehow the paintings create themselves compositionally. Itʼs as if they know what to do. If I donʼt feel I have it right, I go back to see them and this means listening to my instincts and registering even the slightest feeling of doubt and acting on it.
Lisa: What have been your biggest highlights so far in painting these works?
Clae: Spending time in the portrait sittings with the poets is a big highlight. Itʼs an amazing journey and Iʼm enjoying it very much. A few in particular like getting to know Carol Ann Duffy who continues to be very supportive of the project and the wisdom of the older or more established poets like Gillian Clarke and Imtiaz Dharker. The younger, rising stars are very exciting to be around. They perform with such energy and passion, speaking with courage on themes you know will be life changing for some people hearing or reading their words. Another highlight was an event organised by Poet in the City and Kings Place in London recently. This was the first live event to an audience where the paintings, poets and introduction to the project took place and was great fun.
Lisa: And on a practical note, can you share your favourite paints/ canvas/brushes that you like to work with?
I use a mixture of paints and media. I work mainly in oil paint and for these I mostly use Michael Harding and Jackson’s Professional range – both excellent quality. My brushes are predominantly long flats, I like the square edge brushes that lend themselves to the marks I make. I also use a lot of palette knives and other flat edges or tools to get the right marks. For canvas I buy by the roll and stretch my own. I always encourage students to make their own canvases, itʼs not only easy, less expensive and more flexible in creating whatever size needed, it is where creating the artwork begins.
Lisa: Where online or in the flesh can we view more of your work?
Clae: I have a website www.ceastgate.com where some of my work can be viewed. A few of the Painting the Poets portraits are on there and will be added as the exhibitions progress this year. My work can also be seen at my studio in London and the upcoming exhibitions this year which will be highlighted on the website.
Header Image: Heather Phillipson by Clae Eastgate, Oil on canvas, 48 x 48 in.