Maddy Buttling won the Animal category prize in the Jackson’s Painting Prize this year with her work Buying My Dogs Everything They Touch. Her small scale oil on wood paintings depict day-to-day observations of pets with quiet consideration and a steady hand. Here, Maddy, talks about the deification of animals, her methodical process and the tactile pleasure of painting.
Above image: Crufts, 2019, 2019, Maddy Buttling, Oil on plywood, 13 x 22 cm
Clare: Can you tell us about your artistic background/education?
Maddy: I’ve just graduated with a BA Fine Art from Chelsea College of Arts. I’ve always been very interested in making, and very interested in animals. The two really came together in my second year at Chelsea, when my childhood dog died. Processing what felt at the time to be a huge loss, I painted her obsessively. Painting her became a channel to process my grief, a grief that was not just for the loss of my companion, but for a symbolic end to childhood. I began to explore the idea of memorialisation – how death can elevate the pet to the level of a deity, and how the extravagance of oil paint can immortalise them.
Clare: Where does a painting begin for you? Can you take us through your process?
Maddy: Narrative is explicit within my work; I often paint in series, pulling from the same motifs. Typically, paintings begin with photos taken on my mobile phone. I sometimes crop the images, but other than that, little editing takes place. The paintings are very much recording the moment of the photograph, the free spontaneity of phone photography, how the same domestic spaces are recorded through the years, with animals dying and being replaced alongside the furniture.
At the start of 2020, I began work on a series of paintings around a family of dogs, owned and vlogged by a YouTuber called ‘Jenna Marbles’. Each titled after the YouTube video from which I screen-captured its reference, they are painted on panels cut to the same measurements as the YouTube fullscreen on my laptop. They record the home and dogs aired in the many videos. It’s a montaged tribute to these ephemeral online dog-idols, an act of deification through paint.
Clare: When I see your work online, I imagine it to be large in real life, but they’re all quite small scale. Why do you choose to work on this scale and how does it inform your work?
Maddy: In a way, painting at a small scale is one of the most intrinsic elements to my practice. Painting animals is not hugely popular in today’s art canon, neither really is painting on a small scale, but to make what I want to make I can’t compromise on either. Naturally, both the ‘pet portrait’ and the ‘miniature’ are often read as either ironic kitsch or amateur over-sentimentality. But my paintings are authentically sentimental. Viewers’ reaction to this could be laughter, sadness, anything, really. In my own mind, they portray both the hilarity and tenderness of the relationship between human and animal. My paintings are quiet, and sensitive. They’re little windows into private spaces, it’s not in their nature to call out by filling a wall.
Clare: The wood grain shows through in a beautifully textural way in your paintings. How do you prepare your surfaces? Can you talk about surface texture in your work.
Maddy: I work on wood panels, either cut to size plywood, or floorboard samples ordered online. I trace lines from the source photo directly onto primed panel. I use clear gesso, so the grain and tone of the wood becomes my ground. I block in paint, leaving flashes of wood as linework. The small gaps of transparency give the more textured paint work space to breathe, this also feels as though it makes the paint and panel one object.
Clare: Some of your works can be almost sombre in colour, whereas others are bright and kind of celebratory. What can you tell us about your colour palette and how you approach each painting in terms of colour?
Maddy: Colour mixing is a very important process for me. I work slowly and from a simple palette, always oils, at the moment that’s usually Titanium White, Burnt Umber, Ultramarine Blue, Napthol Red, and Yellow Lake. I’ll bring in other paints too when I need to shift transparency or warmth of colour. I mix a lot of colours. I usually start with mixing up quite a few before I begin applying them, I feel this warms me up and helps adjust my eye to the tones of the particular work. My application of paint is quite methodical. I’ll start with a blocky, dark-toned, underlayer, and will usually let that dry overnight before continuing. After that I like to work wet-on-wet (I enjoy the textures and blending this can achieve), then I let layers dry and work further on top of that, until I get to a final layer of bright fine detail flourishes.
I like to pause part way through a painting and observe the stages of mark-making, where textures and tones of underpaint can be rethought of as unexpected finished layers. I’ve found such pauses have led to darker, more ghostly, paintings. Where the work seems to be waiting for highlights to be applied, sometimes I enjoy the eye having to search a bit more for the image. And darkness can add the element of sincerity intended to such seemingly kitsch work.
Clare: I really enjoy watching your process in the highlights on your instagram page. Especially when you pull back masking tape in various paintings, it’s so satisfying. What can you tell us about this?
Maddy: I do like to share the tactile pleasure of painting. Some works can subtly show these actions themselves through their mark-making, but viewing a complete painting can never replicate the sensation. The sticky peeling of tape pulling away from messy blobs of paint that transform into neat lines, the reveal. Watching that kind of stuff makes you want to paint. There is something quite ritualistic about it.
Clare: What are your most important artist’s tools? Do you have any favourites?
Maddy: Disposable palette paper, while not the most environmentally friendly option, really helps me organise myself. You can cut it up into sections, I’ll have a little square of palette for colours I’ve mixed for wooden floorboards, another for the tones of white wallpaper, for example.
I started to invest in higher grade oil paint, having bought a few small tubes of Michael Harding. The mixing control achieved from the high pigment load of more expensive paint feels very worthwhile to me now. And since I work on such a small scale, the tubes can go pretty far.
I actually paint with cosmetic nail art brushes, bought in bulk, very inexpensively, online. They’re perfect for detail work, and come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. Small paintings need small brushes, and small brushes get worn out quickly, so it’s good to have lots of them on hand.
Clare: How has the lockdown of the last few months affected your practice? Especially your final year of your BFA at Chelsea College of Art
Maddy: My working process is quite introspective, so I have fared much better than many of my peers. Luckily my practice is very transportable. At a pinch I can pack my whole studio and paintings in a backpack. But I’ve missed the interaction of the studio space greatly, you’re constantly learning from the people around you, and of course, the campus at Chelsea is beautiful.
I always had a good idea of what my final works from my degree might look like long before the pandemic, I would say the national lockdown encouraged their thematic realm. My paintings ‘6:17’ and ‘10:18’ recorded my dog, Frida, in my bedroom/make-shift studio during the lockdown. Both paintings are titled for the time at which their reference photograph was taken. In ‘6:17’ I wake to the dog’s head pressed against me, pushing my duvet-covered legs off the bed. A chest of drawers in the background stores my tiny paintings, made on the plastic-wrapped desk. Moving across the bedroom, in ‘10:18’ the same dog demurely licks her arse while sat on my pillow.
I suppose the lockdown placed a heavier emphasis on the relevance of time and place in my paintings, something one could not escape in that period. The same room, the same dog, the same thing, different time of day.
Clare: What are your art influences? Who are your favourite contemporary or historical artists and why?
Maddy: My works of dogs splayed, legs akimbo, on beds and sofas reference Lucian Freud’s nudes. I look to the empty worlds of Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth, and Vilhelm Hammershoi. Also, Post-Impressionists such as Félix Vallotton and Edgar Degas, and their appreciation of Japanese woodblock prints.
I’m often looking at Nabis and Impressionist painters for depictions of lazy everyday scenes, recording the objects of life, and the Dutch Masters’ tracing of the path of light across rooms. I love how contemporary Scottish painter Andrew Cranston pushes the narrative content a painting can hold in ‘Illustration for a Franz Kafka story (2nd version)’, a darkly charming portrayal of the opening chapter of ‘Metamorphosis’. I admire the hidden story behind Hockney’s iconic ‘Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy’ – the cat was really called ‘Blanche’, Hockney simply thought Percy to be a more appealing name for his title, despite ‘Mrs Clark’ having stated, in interview, that out the many cats she had owned ‘Blanche was a special one’. It’s all an illusion, but in the end, the same story is told.
I’m inspired by Gareth Cadwallader’s miniscule, almost hallucinogenicly detailed panels. They capture the comedy of commonly sighted adverts featuring actors grasping fruit, feigning smiles. His website records his references, including advertisement shots that inspired paintings which float across the space, forcing the viewer to scroll back and forth, absorbing it all.
Craigie Aitchison’s ‘Sugarbush Dead’ was directly inspired by Dalí’s ‘Christ of St. John of the Cross’, the painting likens the artist’s Bedlington terrier to some sort of holy Lamb of God. My painting ‘Dead Pierre’, a coincidental pastiche of Ron Mueck’s ‘Dead Dad’, is a Lamb of God of my own proclamation, from a photograph taken accidentally at the very moment of my pet hamster’s passing.
Clare: What makes a good day in the studio for you?
Maddy: I love the excitement of new ideas. But also the thrill of returning to an old work, previously cast aside, and seeing something new in it, accidents in paint work that lead to unexpected effects. Coming across a new artist whose work is visually, or contextually linked to my own is always exciting. I don’t write often, but when I do, just for myself, I find that very satisfying. It can be great to contextualise the physical work.
Clare: Can you tell us where we can see more of your work online or in the flesh?
I was recently shortlisted for the Holly Bush Emerging Woman Painters Prize, and my selected painting ‘10:18’ will be on display at our group exhibition at Burgh House Hampstead in February 2021. Also, my painting Dead Pierre will be on display at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2020.
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