Marie Lenclos is a London-based French artist whose paintings are inspired by her immediate environment, colours, lines and shapes.
Here, Marie shares how she develops new ways of approaching lines, light and colour in her work, and how her past experiences have influenced her figurative and abstract paintings. She also discusses the methods and techniques she uses when painting, focusing on detail and colour harmony after reframing and tweaking compositions she finds from everyday life.
Above image: Work in Progress: Marie Lenclos, Oil on canvas, 2021
By Marie Lenclos
My father, the colour designer Jean-Philippe Lenclos, was a ‘holiday painter’. When we’d arrive in Brittany from Paris for our summer holiday, he’d immediately get painting in our rented accommodation, and we basically wouldn’t see him for the rest of the holiday. That’s how I started to paint, aged 13. He’d set up a simple still life of bowls and fruits for me, often in the garden, with oils and canvas he’d brought in his luggage.
I learned painting this way in relative freedom, as his advice was loose and rare: the main idea was to observe forms and shapes first, and to try and make colour vibrate next. In response to my ongoing discouragement and frustration, his principal commandment was: ‘don’t judge your own work’. I was to do my best, but not be the judge of quality. If I was unhappy with my creation, I was to finish the painting, put it aside and do the next one. I still believe this to be a good work ethic: don’t thrive for perfection. Practice and work should be the leading forces.
Starting young and not in a ‘taught’ environment meant there was never any fear associated with using oil paints. I mixed colours from a basic palette, using turpentine with a little linseed oil and a drop of siccative. Even though oils were the only medium on offer, for me they became the essence of painting: I took pleasure in preparing the solvent, letting the smell invade the air around me. I enjoyed the thick paste of the paint, and the magic that happened when mixing colours together.
The thing I enjoyed most, and it’s still the same now, was the immediacy of the process. From palette to canvas, colour was applied and what you saw was what you got. There was no in-between stages, no processing, no unnecessary waiting. If you got it wrong, oils allowed for reworking, refining and adding. It’s a forgiving and friendly medium in that sense.
I continued being a holiday painter until my early twenties, during my studies as a French Literature student in Paris. When I switched to studying graphic design, first in Brussels then London, I painted a bit more, but never with the idea of becoming a painter.
And then life took another turn: with the birth of my daughter and starting an MA in Communication Art and Design at the Royal College of Art, painting completely disappeared from my life. I had no space or time for it. For almost twenty years I forgot about it, lost in the process of raising a family, completing my studies, and working as a freelance filmmaker. The paint tubes I’d borrowed from my dad’s collection were relinquished to a wooden box, hidden in some cupboard.
When I started painting again in 2015, it was with the same old tubes of oil paint and brushes rediscovered in the wooden box. I picked up where I left off and re-started with still lives. Slowly my interest evolved towards painting abstracts, mostly shapes, as a way to experiment with juxtaposing unlikely colours next to each other to see what would happen.
Colour was, and is, my driving force. I evolved towards painting simple lines of colour filled with gradients, again as an exercise in colour and harmony. I find these paintings very relaxing, if painstakingly slow, to make: it’s basically a colouring in exercise with oil paint!
Lines are made on the canvas and then filled from top to bottom with gradients. I sometimes have the memory of a landscape in my head as I’m painting. This guides my colour choices and helps to create a visual structure evoking the sky, sea, hills or city I have in mind.
I started painting urban landscapes in 2017. These are basically shapes and lines also, but organised in a figurative way. They are the result of years and years of being aware of my surroundings and conscious of the way I am looking at the city around me.
As a documentary filmmaker, I got used to ‘framing’ things, even without a camera. I’d be walking around and suddenly see something and think: ‘this would make a good shot’. Now I see something and think: ‘there is a painting in this’.
I am lucky that I live and work in an area in London where there is a multitude of interesting urban structures and perspectives. I live in Loughborough Junction, South-East London. My immediate surroundings have seven railway bridges going across streets at different levels and angles. It’s near Brixton, which also has some really interesting architecture and striking buildings.
Every day when I walk to my studio or go shopping, I see beautiful urban landscapes. Their permanence is reassuring, yet always transformed and beautified by the way the sun and shadows fall around them.
For this strand of my work, I use photographs as a starting point. It’s necessary because the painting idea comes to life in a ‘moment of seeing’, when lines, light, colours and shapes fall into a particular order that makes sense to me at that particular moment. I am editing what I see by using the frame of the photo as the first stage of creation.
The painting develops over the drawing stage, where I make marks on the canvas with a biro. Reality is simplified, in a way, and perspectives become my own. I always use a black biro. It’s neat and precise, and doesn’t rub off when touched by the side of my painting hand. Sometimes the ink of the biro comes through the paint if I have been a bit heavy-handed, but I don’t mind that. It adds to the composition in a way, making the construction of the painting visible.
I use a ruler to get straight lines and strong shapes, which I then start to colour with oil paint. I spend a lot of time on the colour, the gradients and the light, working and reworking areas in relation to each other.
I once took an evening portrait painting class with Charlie Schaffer, who won the BP Portrait Award in 2019. He taught me to start from a point and build the colour around that point, adding as much detail as possible without moving on to other areas of the painting too quickly. I still use this method.
I often start a painting from the furthest viewpoint, or the most detailed area. I work as precisely and as fully as possible before moving on. I like to get an immediate sense of perfection and detail, so it doesn’t suit me to paint undercoats or rough colour before coming back for details and refinement. I try to put in as much detail as possible straight away. It helps me get a sense of the finished image at each stage of the construction of the landscape.
The other advantage of working like this is to allow for each new colour to relate to the one immediately next to it, by using the colour from the previous shape or object as a basis for creating the colour of the shape or object next to it.
Today I tend to use as limited a palette of colour as possible. Generally, that will be one blue, one earthy red, one Yellow Ochre, one ‘black’ (I like Sepia and Mars Black, which are warm when mixed, and also Perylene Black, which has green undertones), and white.
My absolute favourite white is Radiant White by Gamblin: as its name suggests, it is brilliant, but has a satisfying texture that’s very smooth, making it a great mixing agent. Depending on the painting, I’ll also have a key colour, like a yellow, pink or an orange, which I will use for accents but also mix in with all the other colours to create a harmonious range across the whole painting.
I mostly paint on stretched fine linen, because that material fits well with precise lines and smooth gradients. Recently I’ve also been enjoying Belle Arti’s fine cotton canvas, which is superb. The cotton canvas is a little more absorbent, allowing for the paint to almost sink in, facilitating the smooth spreading of paint.
For solvents, I still used a mixture of turpentine and linseed oil until a couple of years ago, when I developed a sudden and severe contact allergy to turpentine. Following extensive research, I started using Gamblin’s Gamsol Odourless Mineral Spirit, which I now use exclusively. I still mix in a bit of linseed oil for smoothness. I really miss the smell of turpentine, but not the burns it caused my hands.
The more my work evolves towards a precise and detailed style, the smaller the brushes I use. I only use acrylic brushes with soft hair. I think they’re mostly meant for other mediums than oil paint, but I like the fact they are flexible and allow for smooth strokes.
I don’t think expensive brushes are necessary, as they don’t always last longer. In my case, what matters is their flexibility and ability to stroke the surface without leaving marks or catching the grain.
I work with thin layers of paint, and I have learnt to obtain the right solvent-paint ratio to create a moist paste I can spread easily. This is how I manage to paint precisely along lines. I use very small brushes for details, sometimes even using miniature synthetic brushes for watercolour, as they keep their shape and allow for straight and precise lines.
My other favourite brush is a flat one, in various widths. Flat brushes are excellent for filling in larger areas of colour and for gradients. I build the colour inside a shape by varying hues gradually, and then smooth over the colour with the flat brush, using regular strokes to melt each colour variant into one another. It used to hurt my wrist, as a good gradient requires a lot of brush strokes to eliminate any visible traces of contrasting colour. However, at the moment, I also try and make colour shimmer by building gradients with a little more texture and some visible colour variants. It’s still something I am learning to do.
Marie Lenclos studied at the Royal College of Art and Camberwell College of Art. In 2019 she was shortlisted for the Ashurst Emerging Artist Prize and the London Contemporary Art Prize. In 2020, she was a finalist in the Visual Art Open and Sunny Art Prize. She recently had two paintings selected for the Royal Society of British Artists Annual Exhibition 2021. Marie returned to painting in 2015 after an absence of almost 20 years.
Q&A with Marie Lenclos
Dan: What are your most important artist’s tools? Do you have any favourites?
Marie: It might sound strange but as I paint sitting down, my most important tool is my chair. It’s a classic wood and metal frame school-like chair I found in the street, and the only one that doesn’t give me a backache. I even brought it home during the first lockdown when I relocated my studio to my living room.
Apart from that, if I were to be stranded on a desert island, I’d really only need to have a set of limited oil colours (one yellow ochre, one blue, one yellow, one red, one black and a white) to be able to paint, along with some Gamsol OMS and an unlimited supply of acrylic round and flat brushes.
Dan: What advice would you give to anyone wishing to develop their painting skills?
Marie: Practice. Don’t put too much importance on thinking your work is good or bad. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you enjoy it and that you stay open to the learning that naturally happens along the way. Practice.
Dan: What are you working on at the moment, and where can we see more of your work?
My abstract painting collection can be seen at the Linley store at 60 Victoria Road, or on their website.
Right now, I am getting a new collection of paintings ready for some shows I have coming up: the Dulwich Artists Open House happening at my house in SE5. I’ll be welcoming visitors by appointment only, from 12-6pm from 8-16th May. You can book a visit by contacting me through my website, or Instagram.
In July, I’ll be doing The Other Art Fair for the first time ever. It’s quite daunting as it’s a big event and a costly investment, and I want to make sure the work I bring there is as good as can be. So that’s my work cut out for the next couple of months.