Michelle Heron was shortlisted for the Jackson’s Painting Prize 2020 with her work There is a light that never goes out. With sensitive observation of texture and detail, Michelle immortalises shopfronts of bygone eras. Here, she tells us about where she developed her love of fonts, her unexpected productivity in lockdown and the qualities of the heavy body acrylic paint she uses in her work.
Above image: Parkview Hairdressers, Kennington, 2017, Michelle Heron, Acrylic on canvas, 30 x 40 cm | 11.8 x 15.7 in.
Clare: Can you tell us about your artistic background/education?
Michelle: I always enjoyed drawing and making things in my bedroom when I was a child but didn’t come from a very artistic home, my mother painted when young but stopped after she had me so I felt like I didn’t really have anyone to guide me. I studied BA Hons Fine Art at the University of Hertfordshire where I focused on suburban imagery as I was fascinated by the streets I grew up on in Norwich. My work has always been influenced by my surroundings and I feel like I need to paint familiar scenes to really dig into what it feels like to live there, to get beneath the surface. My painting has changed a lot aesthetically since my degree, becoming more photo realistic which wasn’t a conscious decision. I think the more time I’ve had to develop my practice, the deeper my focus becomes on my subject and the detail. After my degree I continued to paint but more as a hobby as I was working full time day jobs and never had the idea or ambition that I could make a living from painting.
Clare: Where does a painting begin for you? Can you take us through your process?
Michelle: I have a lot of photos I’ve taken over recent years of shops on my travels and sometimes an image will just jump out at me or has been in the back of my mind. It depends a lot on feelings. I think my feelings and emotions are what drive my process. So it could also be that I’m excited to paint how the interior of a shop window appears to me or how much I want to explore capturing a particular mood, or thinking back to the moment I stood in front of that shop with my camera phone. I might also be inspired to paint light so I can make a more painterly work. I can get bored quite easily so I’m always changing what I want to explore, to keep things fresh and exciting for me. I think it’s why painting has always stuck with me as it’s not always easy but I enjoy the struggle.
I usually begin by painting a coloured ground on a gesso panel. I’ve discovered some really smooth panels made by an Italian company called Belle Arti and they’ve enabled me to paint a high level of detail more easily. I use acrylics and on a smooth surface they’re great for blending tones either with a dryish brush or my finger. I sometimes vary the colour of the ground depending on what excites me or what kind of atmosphere I want to capture. For example, with ‘There is a light that never goes out’ I wanted to capture the sombre mood of the story of the shop and using the yellow ground helped create the effect of a light being left on inside while it was closed.
I then draw out the composition roughly. I don’t like to spend too much time drawing, it’s mainly to get the foundations right, I prefer to dive in with painting. While I’m painting I tend to chop and change what I choose to paint, feeling my way around as I go.
Clare: What is it about a particular storefront that inspires you to paint it?
Michelle: I enjoy the stories I hear or read about the shops, the lives that have been touched by them. In the beginning it was more about their aesthetic – the old signage, the nostalgia for bygone days. But lately it’s become an obsession, I guess I feel a responsibility to immortalise them. Also, living abroad and especially this year not being able to visit those familiar places, by painting them it has allowed me to visit ‘home’ and the familiar in my imagination which has comforted me in a way.
Clare: I love how your work celebrates the fonts (amongst many other things) of shop fronts from days gone by. Do you paint all the fonts by eye or do you have a catalogue to refer to?
Michelle: Yes I prefer to paint the fonts by eye rather than using any tools. I think also why I don’t choose to square up my paintings to draw the elements is to keep the painting ‘mine’ and maintain a human touch. I tried using a ruler the other day to paint tiles but I didn’t like how unnatural it felt. It would feel too rigid and jarring to me. When I used to work in schools as an art technician I would spend a lot of time making the displays for students’ work around the school and I became fanatical about finding unusual fonts for the headings. So I think those days might have set something in my mind to start seeking out shop signs with unusual fonts.
Clare: Can you tell us about your time there and your studio? I imagine the store fronts are quite different?
Michelle: I moved to Italy a couple of years ago with my Italian husband, just because we fancied a change away from busy London. I’d always been curious about living abroad to get a different perspective on the UK. One week before lockdown we’d moved to central Italy to run a bed and breakfast business but then obviously things postponed our plans. As we hadn’t worked together before, I was finding it a struggle to concentrate with another person in the house so we decided to buy a shed to put outside as my studio. Having that distance and being able to leave work there has helped me to focus better and given me space to dedicate to my painting practice, not to mention stopped us from annoying each other during lockdown! It’s funny to say this but it finally felt like I could take being an artist seriously. We live in the middle of the countryside so it’s a bit of a change to London, lockdown didn’t feel very unusual as we can’t see anyone anyway!
Italian shops are so beautiful and many have maintained their old signage. The light here is different which changes my palette. Although I’ve not really had the time to paint many yet, I kind of feel like I’m more drawn to painting places that I’ve left. It’s been interesting though to see the differences in culture here regarding shopping habits and maybe why high-streets here aren’t all boarded up. Although that might change after this year. Italian shops have mostly kept their individuality in that you’re still more likely to find a town centre with a butchers, a bakery, a pharmacy, a bar, a clothes shop or a tobacconist rather than a one-stop shop that caters for all.
Clare: How do you set up your palette. What can you tell us about your use of colour?
Michelle: I pretty much stick with the same six or seven colours and mix all the variants from them. I like to limit the decisions I make so it allows me to focus more on the actual painting. My staple colours are: Burnt Umber, Ultramarine Blue, Cadmium Red, Naphthol Crimson, Cadmium Yellow Light, Titanium White and Mars Black.
Clare: What are your most important artist’s tools? Do you have any favourites?
Michelle: I like to keep things simple, even my fingers are a useful tool for smudging paint on the panel. I guess the most important tools are the paints. I love using professional heavy body acrylics, they give my work a cohesion but they also have deceived some people into thinking my work is oil. I used to use oils but prefer not having any strong odours as I’m quite sensitive to smells, light and noises. Plus I think acrylics give another quality that’s hard to achieve with other mediums.
Clare: How has the lockdown of the last few months affected your practice?
Michelle: I’ve never been busier and it’s actually been a really positive time for my practice. At the start we’d just moved house so I was feeling a bit exhausted but the lockdown felt overwhelming and I struggled to make any work. It felt like my head was wading through mud at times (it still does!) and that I “should” be productive now I have all this time. But then the wonderful Artist Support Pledge came along and it was such a positive turning point as it gave me something else to focus on. Plus it felt rewarding to be able to offer some joy to others. It did become quite overwhelming at one point though as I was swamped with commissions. But I’ve learnt a lot about pacing myself and managing my workload this year. I think I’m currently up to painting number 43 since lockdown which is incredible. I’ve worked on a much smaller scale which has surprisingly been physically challenging but has also allowed me to explore new ideas faster. Not to mention providing valuable income since our business suffered. It’s also been so lovely to connect more with people via Instagram and I’ve made some new friends and collectors. I’m really excited at what I can achieve now I’ve seen what I’m capable of. I do feel though I’m in a privileged position as a full time artist without kids, I’m in awe at how my artist friends have been able to produce any work whilst juggling parenting this year.
Clare: What are your art influences? Who are your favourite contemporary or historical artists and why?
Michelle: I’m mostly drawn to work by Edward Hopper, George Shaw, David Hockney, Rachel Whiteread, Caroline Walker, Turner, Rembrandt and Edgar Degas. Whether it’s because of how they paint light, mood or their ideas around the familiar or mundane. I was greatly influenced by Lucian Freud’s portraits during my ‘A’ Levels despite the difference in subject matter.
Clare: What makes a good day in the studio for you?
Michelle: I usually have rituals to get me in the mood so I’ll make a cup of builders tea and put on a podcast that usually lasts an hour. By the time it’s ended I’ll be in the “zone”. I find it almost impossible to work without something on in the background. Usually music gets me in a certain mood that helps me to connect with what I’m painting. I found it hard to enjoy painting if I’m not invested in it emotionally in some way. I tend to procrastinate a lot but I’ve found I work better if I’ve got a clear horizon, so I’ll tend to get admin and life jobs done in the morning so I’m free to paint the rest of the day. A good day is where I feel like time has stood still and I can stand back from a painting surprised at what I’ve achieved. It gives me a buzz but makes me feel grounded.
Clare: Can you tell us where we can see more of your work online or in the flesh?
Michelle: At the start of the year I was planning my first solo show in London but moving house and Covid stopped that. So maybe next year if things get better I’ll try again. I don’t have any plans right now as I’m happy just focusing on making a new body of work and commissions. I find if I have too much pressure or projects it stifles creativity. I currently have 3 paintings in this year’s ING Discerning Eye Exhibition which this year is online and can be seen here: www.ingdeexhibition.org until December 31st. I also have a body of work on show at The Dragon Gallery in Petworth: www.thedragongallery.com
Apart from those I show my most recent works on Instagram a few times a week: @michelleheron.art
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