Belgian artist and musician, Jan Muës, was shortlisted for the Jackson’s Painting Prize this year with his watercolour painting, Mona’s Ball. Jan’s surreal, theatrical and meticulously painted watercolour works all tell a story, and are often set against the Belgian countryside featuring the artist himself as protagonist. Here, Jan tells us about where his inspiration comes from, his colour and compositional process, and tuning into the right kind of paper for your work.
Above image: Caught in the Middle, 2017, Jan Muës, Watercolour on Arches 300 gsm cold press paper, 51 x 41 cm
Clare: Can you tell us about your artistic background/education?
Jan: Ever since I was a 7 year old little boy, I have always felt a deep urge to draw and paint. Starting with colour pencils on the walls of the bathroom of my parents house, much to the chagrin of my mother, and later moving to watercolour and oil paint. My father was an amateur painter and a trombone player and had 7 children, so every child had to develop their own speciality to stand out. At the age of 9 I learned to play the trumpet too. I studied at the academy of fine arts in Antwerp, but got much more education going to museums and studying the old (Flemish) masters.
Clare: Where does a painting begin for you? Can you take us through your process?
Jan: Inspiration, for me, always comes out of the blue. The basic idea always appears out of nowhere, as a little gift. For example, my last painting The Bald and the Beautiful, I was peeling potatoes for dinner when all of sudden lightning struck and an idea appeared in my mind and started developing. Next thing I remember is looking down in the bucket and realising I had, without even noticing, peeled about 10 kgs of potatoes, which of course is too much for dinner for my wife and me. The next step is the mind starts to sculpt and fine-tune that idea, day and night, leading to many a sleepless night, until the idea is fully formed and the story falls into place. Then I start making rough pencil drawings to check compositions, framing, etc. Usually this leads to new inspirations or the addition of new elements to the story or composition. Usually I do a rough coloured pencil version to get a general idea of colour composition. The last phase before actual painting is usually an elaborate pencil version, as a study for tonal values and background details. When I’m ready to paint, I do a pencil drawing true to size on sketching paper which is then transferred to watercolour paper, after which I can start painting. I only use the classic watercolour painting methods, such as wet on wet, wet on dry, glazing, and dry brush.
Clare: I was interested to read that you work with watercolour pans rather than tubes. What is the appeal with pans for you?
Jan: Out of habit, since I have never used anything else! I always use Winsor & Newton. Back when I started it was easier to get pans than tubes so I still use pans.
Clare: There is so much incredible detail with your work. Do you spend a long time on each piece?
Jan: It requires a significant amount of concentration, so I can only paint a few hours at a time. I also have to divide my time between painting and daily practising the trumpet. Switching between these two worlds proves to be not all that easy, as both require my full attention. Finishing a painting can take weeks or months, depending on life at the time (or the amount of potatoes to peel).
Clare: Does playing jazz trumpet have an influence on your visual work? Are there any similarities in your approach to music and painting?
Jan: I have synesthesia which for me is a pleasant “brain defect”. So, for every note I play (and words I think and speak), I see an associated colour and this sometimes influences the colour composition of the painting I am working on. Storytelling for me is very important in both my playing and composing of music, as well in my paintings.
Clare: Do you have a practice of sketching or drawing? If so, what is your approach and what materials do you use?
Jan: I sketch mainly to try out some basic ideas for a new work. These are rather swift, speedy scribbles. I draw them with a soft pencil B (1) on plain white copy paper. On the other hand I use Steinbach drawing paper and soft graphite pencils 2B (0) and 3B (00) for more elaborate studies and portraits. Even though these drawings are very detailed I try to maintain a spontaneous drawing style and handle the pencil loosely. I do like the graphic effect of those loose pencil lines. With this spontaneous technique, I create the illusion of the right texture of the subjects being skin, fabric or any other material. I never use blending tools. A very important element in my drawings is the right balance between light and dark values.
Clare: What are your most important artist’s tools? Do you have any favourites?
Jan: Paper, for me, is the most important tool and I usually use Arches Cold Press 300 g paper. My layering technique is really attuned to this type of paper.
My favourite brushes are Windsor & Newton, series 7. Paints are transparent and semi-transparent single pigment Winsor & Newton.
Clare: How has the lockdown of the last few months affected your practice?
Jan: Despite the somewhat dark days, it has actually had a positive influence on my painting routine since there was less distraction during the day. At this time, I painted The Bald and the Beautiful which is an allusion to vanity and decay. It’s a creepy charade where a handsome young man is threatened by the Grim Reaper in an old, worn-out puppet theatre. The whole scene is situated in a (pseudo) idyllic Disney-like cartoon background. I love these kinds of contrasts. Besides, one can discover them in most of my paintings. In my opinion, humour and philosophical thoughts are complementary.
Clare: What are your art influences? Who are your favourite contemporary or historical artists and why?
Jan: My main art influences are:
Jan Van Eyck, for his exceptional technique, his perfect compositions and the brilliant use of glazing colour.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, for his authenticity, storytelling, technique, his original use of universal timeless themes and his of raw humour.
Johannes Vermeer, for his exceptional use of light, shadow and colour, his composition, and his soft brush technique.
René Magritte, for his surrealistic original idea’s, simple but strong compositions and of course his sense of absurd humour.
Edward Hopper, for his almost cinematographic compositions and desolate ambiance.
Andrew Wyeth, for his masterful painting technique, poetic narratives and rural atmosphere. His best-known tempera painting Christina’s World was a real eye-opener for me at the time.
Clare: What makes a good day in the studio for you?
Jan: No distractions.
Clare: Where else can we see your work online or in the flesh?
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Jackson’s Painting Prize.
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