Zohar Flax was shortlisted for the Jackson’s Painting Prize 2020 with her painting Waterlily Pond, Kew Gardens. Here, she talks about the difference in light in the UK and Israel, and the how she started painting by getting to know her materials first.
Above image: Tel Aviv, Florentin St., 2019, Zohar Flax, Oil on canvas, 50 x 60 cm | 19.7 x 23.6 in.
Clare: Can you tell us about your artistic background/education?
Zohar: When my youngest son started his final year in primary school I started a foundation course in art at Hampstead Garden Suburbs Institute in London. It was a wonderful year in which I was taught by great teachers, the basics of painting, drawing, sculpture, ceramics and etching (which I’m enchanted with).
Painting was the one discipline I felt that I wanted to keep exploring. When I moved to Israel, I studied for three years under the tutelage of Elli Shamir who is an Israeli master in figurative painting.
Clare: Where does a painting begin for you? Can you take us through your process?
Zohar: For me a painting begins with a question. I take photographs of places that I have a strong relationship with. This stage feels like a ‘treasure hunt’ and when I return home, I go through the photographs I’ve taken and I choose the images that I would like to explore more. It is impossible to paint the world. There’s always a gap between the image on my canvas and the world. When I paint, I keep asking questions about why I chose this particular image that I am painting, what I feel about it, what is the most important thing that I want to focus on, questions about the colours, light and texture. Through these questions I’m trying to expose and convey my feelings. By failing to recreate the reality of the world on the canvas, in this gap between the painting and the world, me and the person who is looking at my painting meet, and hopefully I can convey my feelings to them.
Clare: In the four years since you started painting, what has been the most important thing you have learned? What has been the biggest challenge?
Zohar: In the four years since I started painting I got to know the media; the paint, the brushes, the canvases. I learnt about the history of art; the great artists and movements. This knowledge gave me tools to do what I love: to paint. In a way only now am I starting my biggest challenges in painting. To begin with I think that I simply fell in love with painting. If I may compare it to relationships, I was fascinated with paint and canvasses and subjects and just wanted to paint all the time. Now I’m at the stage where I need to work on my relationship with my art. It is harder but my love of painting is coming from a deeper knowledge of the practice and of myself. My biggest challenge is to bring more of my emotions and feelings into my paintings, so that whoever looks at them will be able to feel what I felt when I painted them. I do experience difficulties in this process but I’m optimistic and excited to see what I will be able to achieve.
Clare: What is it about Tel Aviv that draws you to create paintings of it? How does the light differ to other places you have been? Can you tell us about the aspects of the city that you want to examine in your work?
Zohar: When I returned to Israel after almost 30 years in London, my childhood memories overwhelmed me. Tel Aviv is “the big city” in Israel and as a child I used to visit relatives in Tel Aviv. I think that the streets and buildings were imprinted in me from those days. Tel Aviv is a beautiful city where so much is going on there, and by painting it I can connect to the “here and now” as well as to my past.
The light in Israel is much brighter than in the UK. It is interesting to see the work of painters who came to Israel from Europe at the beginning of the 20th Century, who talked a lot about the brightness of the light in Israel and at the same time in their paintings the light is very European. They painted their memory of light from Europe rather than the brightness of light in their adopted country. I am very aware of the mildness of the light in London which I loved, compared to the brightness of Tel Aviv, where the light is ‘in your face’ and doesn’t let you ignore it. I do hope that this uncompromising brightness of the light, that is also my childhood light is transferred to my paintings of Tel Aviv.
The aspects of Tel Aviv that I try to expose are the hidden stories that I can only imagine happening within the buildings and street corners of the city. In my paintings I can only paint the places but I would like my painting to make the people that look at them be able to fill them with their own memories and stories.
Clare: Can you tell us about your colour palette? What colours can you not do without?
Zohar: My colour palette is a bit restricted and composed of Raw Umber and Aquamarine which I mix together to create my darks. Then I have Cerulean for the sky, warm and cold Yellows (Cadmium and Lemon Yellow) and Cadmium Red. For flesh colours I use Burnt Siena and Permanent Orange for the pinks. For greens I mainly use Chrome Oxide and Bright Green. Lately I added Ivory Black (for greens) and Italian Earth. And white of course (Titanium). If I need to restrict this list further, I will give up Cerulean, the Cadmium Yellow and the Orange, the two greens and maybe the Burnt Siena, as I can get their effect with what’s left, but who doesn’t like shortcuts sometimes?
Clare: Do you have a drawing practice? If so, what materials do you use and how often do you draw?
Zohar: I do draw sometimes although not as much as I used to. While studying in London we used to go every week to the V&A and draw in the sculpture gallery. I loved those days, as before I started painting I used to see the students and people who sat and draw at museums, dreaming that one day I will be able to do just that. I realise that nowadays I usually draw when I’m on the move. I carry a small notebook and some pencils in my bag and whenever I have time, I take them out and draw the scene in front of me. I love using the hardest pencils 6H and up but I’m using softer pencils as well.
Clare: What are your most important artist’s tools? Do you have any favourites?
Zohar: I love a high quality linen canvas where the brush almost glides on it. This I can find more in London than here. I also use the British brands Rosemary and Co. for all my brushes and Michael Harding for my oil colours although my Italian Earth is from Old Holland. I do get the feeling of excitement every time I go into an art shop. It’s one of my great treats which has been affected by Covid-19. Online art shopping is a second best.
Clare: How has the lockdown of the last few months affected your practice?
Zohar: In a way my life as a painter, working in my studio, is quite solitary and I feel that during the Covid-19 quarantines, everyone around simply joined me, so in that respect I didn’t feel a big difference. In the first quarantine my three kids returned home and it was cosy and nice. We live on a Kibbutz in the north of Israel, which is an enclosed community, like a small village with a lot of open spaces so it’s a comfortable place to pass a quarantine.
With respect to my painting, since March when we had the first quarantine, I’ve painted mainly from observation – still life and plain air in my studio and around it. Sometimes I manage to go to the beach and paint there. This is new for me as I used to paint mostly from photos that I took. I think that I’m in a process where I need to have a direct relationship with my subjects without the interpretation of the camera which is another stage of remoteness to the world.
Clare: What are your art influences? Who are your favourite contemporary or historical artists and why?
Zohar: There are a few artists that influence me. I love looking at Van Gogh paintings. He is a genius, especially his use of lines and colours. When I look at his paintings I feel emotional as if I can relate to what he felt when he painted his canvases. I learned a lot from the way Cezanne paints by putting simple patches of colour one next to the other and creating a picture of the world. Sometimes I’m trying to do just that. Rembrandt’s paintings can penetrate my soul. The more I look at them the more colours and layers appears in front of me as if by magic. I also like Freud’s paintings, mostly his still life of flowers and vegetation, and Morandi for his subtle examining of the world through his still life and restricted colour palette. The fact that so many others are affected by those painters’ works reminds me that our souls are connected.
My biggest challenge is to be able to transfer in my paintings my feelings so that people that look at my paintings will be able to know and relate to them. This is what I’m trying to achieve now.
Clare: What makes a good day in the studio for you?
Zohar: I like to start my day in the studio early in the morning. The light changes fast in the morning so I will start indoors and do a quick still life sketch. If the weather permits, I’ll go outside to paint for a couple of hours. A good day at the studio is when I don’t get any ‘distractions’ (like cooking for the family etc.) and can just paint.
Clare: Can you tell us where we can see more of your work online or in the flesh?
Zohar: At the moment I am concentrating on my challenge of painting from observation only. Exhibiting my work is not an option at the moment because of the pandemic that does not allow it. My work can be found on a couple of international websites – singulart.com and saatchiart.com but mainly through my own website zoharflax.com
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