Lucy Gable won the People’s Choice Award in the Jackson’s Painting Prize this year with her work Menopausal Me. In this interview, she discusses the underrepresentation of middle-aged women in art, how her medical career has helped her painting, and why the subject of portraiture captures her.
Above image: Lucy in her studio
Josephine: Could you tell us about your artistic background. How did you become an artist?
Lucy: Since early childhood I knew I was good at drawing and wanted to be an artist but at some point in my early teens I was persuaded to pursue a career in medicine as I was assured (by people who knew little about art or medicine) that I could always ‘do art’ in my spare time! As it turned out, I didn’t have any spare time until I decided to leave my 25 year career as an Accident and Emergency doctor and emigrate to Portugal, in 2014. I built a studio by glazing in a section of wide verandah on the back of the house. It’s glazed on three sides and north-facing, so the light is excellent and it overlooks the medieval town of Óbidos so the views are pretty spectacular too. Since starting on this path, I’ve found myself on a very steep and intense learning curve. I have no formal training but I’m an avid and almost obsessive learner. I do on-line courses, read books, listen to podcasts, watch You-Tube videos and stalk my ever-changing list of favourite artists on Instagram! I think looking at art is really inspiring, and I do look at a lot of art, but sometimes it can have the opposite effect and can make you feel despondent and inadequate, so if I start feeling that way I switch off from it all for a while and just paint. I’m still very much finding my way and evolving.
The problem with being self-taught and self-led is that it’s hard to push yourself out of your comfort zone without someone bossing you about or calling you on. On the other hand I get bored easily so I enjoy trying new things. I’ve produced some work that I like and an awful lot of work that I don’t, but I think that’s true for all artists. In moments of self-doubt I tether myself to the variously-attributed quote that says if you’re not embarrassed by what you were painting three years ago then there’s something wrong! It occurs to me that I’m struggling slightly with this question because it asks “How did you become an artist?” as if there is an endpoint – a particular point in time where you achieved the status of ‘artist’. I think it’s a bit more elusive than that.
Josephine: What is your process for starting a painting, and is it always the same approach?
Lucy: Once I’ve had an idea, or decided who/what I’m going to paint, I get over-excited and impatient and have to force myself NOT to just pick up a paintbrush and smear paint on a blank canvas. I have used this approach in the past, and although it’s initially quite fun and exciting, it quickly becomes agonising as I find I have to keep repainting bits and changing things and the whole thing takes eons.
I try to force myself to make plans other than just a vision in my head, and to do initial colour studies and sketches. I find this quite hard but I know it saves a lot of time and frustration and heartache in the long run. How I do the initial sketch on the canvas depends on how important it is to get an exact likeness. If it’s a commissioned portrait, or a portrait of someone I know, then a likeness is vital and certain features have to be put in the right place, relative to each other. I will usually use a grid to get the proportions and features placed correctly. If I’m using a reference photo and it’s a large painting then I’ll sometimes use a projector, although to be honest, I find that a bit of a faff. Once I’ve got something on the canvas and I know where I’m going with it, the rest feels almost compulsive until it’s done. Not easy, but compulsive.
Josephine: As the People’s Choice Award winner, a lot of people found commonality with the rawness and honesty of your work. Was this your intention?
Lucy: Not specifically. My intention was to make a feminist statement about the depiction of women in art, particularly middle-aged women. There are two questions that I wanted to address: firstly, why are middle-aged women so under-represented as subject matter for portrait and figurative artists? The flawless beauty of youth will always be a favourite with artists, and, increasingly, very old age has become interesting subject matter, but for some reason there’s a gender bias in middle age with men being painted/drawn for more often than women.
And secondly, why are women of all ages so infrequently depicted as expressing emotions such as discontent, assertiveness, superiority, authority, capability or humour? Young women are most often depicted with expressions suggesting passivity, sadness, innocence or seduction, and old women are shown as lonely or the ultimate capitulation, dying. Yet I know for a fact that the majority of women, particularly middle-aged women, are often irritated, immensely capable, furious, uncomfortable, assertive, exhausted and absolutely hilarious. And one of the many things we are most irritated by is our sudden apparent invisibility.
So, I did a series of drawings and mixed media pieces of friends and former colleagues for which I’d asked them to pose looking directly at the viewer with an expression they might adopt if they were feeling angry and indignant. It was interesting how difficult many of them found it to pose without smiling, let alone looking a bit cross! Society has brainwashed us into believing that many of the emotions and characteristics that we possess are unattractive in women (although often attractive in men). This annoys me. So I decided to do a self-portrait which expressed with complete honesty, how I felt, without any regard for how I looked – something which is as alien to me as it is to most other women. The fact that it won the People’s Choice Award has touched and thrilled me because not only have I clearly connected with a lot of invisible people, but I have also been seen. And heard.
Josephine: Has portraiture always been your focus?
Lucy: Figurative art, and portraiture in particular, has always been my genre. I have no idea why but I have no impulse to draw inanimate objects, even though I occasionally try it. Even when mindlessly doodling it’s always a face or an eye or a mouth that appears on the paper. I do enjoy looking at other genres such as still life and landscapes, and I’m a very keen gardener so I love botany and flowers, but I have no desire to paint them myself.
I have occasionally dabbled in other genres – for example, I did some watercolours of my local town of Óbidos, which is very picturesque, but I just wanted to see if I was capable, really. I don’t feel any desire to do any more. When I was younger I used to draw horses a lot, and sometimes dogs. Also dancers and fashion models. But mostly faces of pop idols and would-be boyfriends! I think it has something to do with connection and relationships. I much prefer to paint people I love – family members and close friends. I’ve never painted anyone I don’t like and I’m not sure how I’d manage it if I was asked. I’ve painted dogs I don’t know, but then I’ve never met a dog I don’t like!
I’m particularly interested in eyes and hands because they say so much. I have tended to paint portraits with the subject staring directly at the viewer, because I just feel that the eyes really are the windows to the soul. I’ve started wondering recently whether that degree of eye contact might be intimidating and I’ve started doing a few portraits with the subject looking elsewhere but it feels a bit weird to me, like I’m not quite getting the essence of the person.
Josephine: Do you have a favourite kind of sitter for your portraits? How do you choose your subject?
Lucy: Commissions choose themselves, or are chosen by their families, but in my self-led work my favourite subjects are older women, because I think they’re the most interesting. Their eyes and mouths are often saying completely different things.
I don’t choose to paint men so often, not because I don’t like them – I do – but because I think men are visible enough already. But regardless of gender I prefer to paint older people, with character and colour and shadows in their faces. I rarely if ever paint children, but I do paint my own beautiful adult daughters and their friends.
One of the most important things in a subject, for me, is the light. I like interesting light and shadows, and some faces are more predisposed to that than others I have in the past painted a few portraits of people/pets who have died, from reference photos, as gifts for their loved ones. I’ve done this because I wanted to do something kind for them but I don’t do it any more unless asked because I’ve come to suspect that it could be intrusive. I do still feel a compulsion to paint my own deceased loved ones though, such as my mother and father and a beloved dog, and I find the process strangely affecting.
Josephine: How important is drawing for you? Do you keep a sketchbook?
Lucy: I keep a lot of sketchbooks! Drawing is very important to me and I find it a lot easier than painting. I’ve always sketched and even whilst working as an A&E doctor I liked to draw diagrams to illustrate the position of wounds and injuries – a picture speaks a thousand words! I also like to sketch whilst on the sofa in the evenings, with the telly on in the background. I find it meditative. For a long time I considered drawing and painting to be entirely separate entities, and only recently have I come to fully appreciate how the two media can be mixed, either directly in the work, or one can be used to facilitate the other, in the form of planning and studies. I have a tendency to compartmentalise and I find it liberating to break the rules (it’s not something you’re encouraged to do in medicine!). I also enjoy experimenting with coloured pencils and toned paper, the combination of which lend themselves particularly well to portraiture.
Josephine: What materials or tools could you not live without?
Lucy: Aside from the obvious – paints, brushes, canvas, paper – there are three things that I would miss terribly. First and most importantly, a paintbrush cleaner. This is a snazzy stainless steel number, the Studio Essentials Large Brush Washer Metal Deluxe, consists of a cylindrical vessel into which you put your turps or other paintbrush cleaner liquid, and suspended over it is a mesh-like thing to clean the brushes and then higher up a coil thing to hold your brushes so they’re suspended in the liquid, and so the brush bit doesn’t get bent over and ruined. It’s fantastic and has revolutionised my life. No more ruined brushes.
Part of my prize for winning the People’s Choice Award was £500 supplies from Jackson’s Art Supplies and I bought one for my daughter, who is also an artist. It’s a game changer. The second thing I’d really miss is kitchen roll. You can never be sure a rag is clean, can you? The third thing I’d struggle to do without is a three-tiered little trolley-on-wheels on which I keep all my currently-in-use paints and brushes, plus of course brush cleaner and kitchen roll!
Josephine: Are there any unconventional or experimental techniques you’ve tried that have become part of your practice?
Lucy: I can’t really think of any unconventional techniques as such, but I do use a technique according to unconventional experience and knowledge.
I studied anatomy in great detail as part of my medical training, and whilst I realise it’s not uncommon for art students to also study surface anatomy and to sketch cadaver studies, I think I’m lucky to have studied anatomy, and used it in practice and in great detail in my career in A&E. Wounds and injuries to the hands and face are particularly common and it’s of paramount importance that all underlying structures are identified and checked for injury. So not only do I feel lucky for having a background knowledge and understanding of anatomy and functional anatomy, but I feel particularly lucky to have a knowledge of the anatomical structures and colours in life (as opposed to cadaver studies).
I use this knowledge when painting skin. For example, areas with a good blood supply are pink (cheeks, nose), areas with a lot of underlying adipose tissue are yellow-ish (neck, cheeks), and areas with no adipose tissue tend to have a blue-ish hue (around the eyes, nose). Areas with mucous membrane rather than skin (eyes, lips, inside nose) are Indian red. I use glazes when painting skin and layer them up in a similar way to the way the skin is layered. I find this technique very useful because the glazes allow the layers to shine through as they do in living skin.
Josephine: What is your favourite part of the process of a painting, from start to finish?
Lucy: The best part is after you’ve planned it and got a sketch or outline on the canvas and now you can loosely fill in the first layer – lights and darks and middle tones, until the canvas has paint all over it. That’s the point of peak happiness for me. It’s fun, it’s satisfying and it’s full of hope and optimism. After that I plummet into a valley of despair for a while and then slog a way at the really hard and frustrating bit of layering up and trying to get it how I want it and imagined it and as time slowly passes I get gradually more more satisfied until finally I think I’m finished, but not but sure, and always feeling slightly disappointed and vaguely discontented.
Josephine: How do you deal with artist’s block or moments of creative stagnation during the painting process?
Lucy: I’d love to tell you about my strategy dealing with those times when nothing seems to be happening but the truth is I just become increasingly morose and bad-tempered, blaming everything and everybody for my inability to get my finger out until eventually I’m forced to have a word with myself and just get on with something, even if it’s just a tiny sketch. Cleaning the studio and then going to look at some gallery art sometimes helps as an interim measure but ultimately you just have to KBO, as Winston Churchill used to say.
Josephine: How was your experience taking part in Jackson’s Painting Prize’s first independent large scale exhibition at Bankside Gallery?
Lucy: Taking part in the Jackson’s Painting Prize exhibition at Bankside Gallery was a fantastic experience. It was an absolute pleasure to work with the organisers, who couldn’t have been more efficient, helpful or friendly. The gallery is in a great position on the south bank of the Thames, right next door to the TATE Modern gallery. I flew over to London for the Private View and I felt immensely privileged to be exhibiting amongst such a talented group of artists. I was particularly proud to have won the People’s Choice Award as connecting with the ‘people’ is what exhibitions are all about.