Rosie Phillips won the Animal Award in the Jackson’s Painting Prize this year with her work Babs. In this interview, she discusses her process for getting started with an oil painting, how she captures fleeting moments, and why animals are an overlooked artistic subject.
Above image: Rosie Phillips in her studio in Norwich, May 2023
Artist Interview with Rosie Phillips
Josephine: Could you tell us about your artistic background? How did you become an artist?
Rosie: I have been creating from a really young age, pretty much as soon as I was physically able to. I vaguely remember scribbling away on this big plastic fisher price easel/drawing board at home, so that gives you an idea! Drawing and painting is my favourite way to process my experiences and ideas.
I used to have to go to this after school club because my parents would be working, and I would literally just spend all of my time there at the art table. I did get told off in lessons for drawing and reading, so much so that my teachers actually let me get on with it in the end. My parents aren’t particularly arty, but they always encouraged me and kept me stocked with pencils and paper, which is all I really needed to keep myself busy. Competitions were a great way for me to come up with new ideas, I liked having brainstorming sessions with my grandad about colouring designs, drawing techniques, things like that. At 12 I won a competition to produce the cover of a local arts magazine, at 13 it was illustrations for a YA novel, at 15 I took part in my first group exhibition at Holt Hall, Norfolk, with a handful of sketchbook drawings and paintings. I was lucky to grow up in Norfolk around such a great art scene – people were always telling me about opportunities they’d heard about.
When I was around 16, I ended up meeting incredible local artist and BP Portrait Award finalist Paul P Smith, who has been a phenomenal technical mentor and friend. At this time I was also completing an A-level in art at Paston College, where I was challenged to think critically about my practice and experiment in new ways. One of my favourite nuggets of wisdom, given by my tutor, Matt, is to “let paint be paint”.
I haven’t been to anything like an atelier, art school or university, which is why I have referred to myself as self taught, but I feel like this term can mean different things depending on who you ask. All this being said, the ‘becoming an artist’ pipeline has always felt quite blurred, and there’s a lot of growing I plan to do.
Josephine: What is your process for starting a painting, and is it always the same approach?
Rosie: The ideas for my paintings tend to stem from time spent with my friends and family. Moments will just sort of present themselves; I’ll notice the way that someone is draped onto a sofa, or a chance photoshoot with my friends before a night out will result in some interesting compositions for me to tackle. For Babs’ portrait, we were just hanging out after a long walk and she was staring up at me from the sofa while I got on with some little jobs – she is the most inquisitive dog ever and she’s always shooting me these little knowing looks. I like the mystery surrounding body language in paintings, especially in animals, and I enjoy exploring materiality to distort the context further in my own work. She was sitting so still that I ended up rushing to set up my easel in front of her and got straight to work, which turned into a 4 hour session! This sort of scenario works best because I’m acutely aware of how precious each second is and will get really into the zone.
Sometimes there will be more planning involved, for example I have recently been exploring my love of live performance, so I have been actively out and about with my sketchbook looking for these moments of visual tension and storytelling. I’ll usually produce a series of drawings and thumbnails to decide what works, then some small colour studies to get a sense of harmony. Though most of the time I will get impatient and excited and end up throwing myself straight into the painting, solving the problems as they appear. I think a bit of that is healthy because it keeps me engaged and selective throughout the process. In terms of actually painting, I will use charcoal to sketch out big shapes, then go in again with some soft graphite for more detail, and then start blocking in large planes of colour and tone. Though with Babs I think I actually prioritised the details in her face because I really wanted to nail that glance – it really depends how much time I have to work with.
Josephine: Something that makes Babs so compelling is the balance between detail and restraint. How do you know when to hold back?
Rosie: I think in this sense I was lucky to be working against the clock – I was scrutinising the painting in detail as I worked so that I could make every mark count and only convey the areas that I was initially drawn to. I have also become much less set on representing everything ‘accurately’ – my ultimate goal is to create a fresh and interesting image. I’ve grown comfortable with experimenting, tweaking, adding things and taking them away to achieve an overall sense of balance, letting my marks breathe. I’ve come to learn that erasing is just as much a part of the process as adding a bunch of layers, it keeps things from feeling muddy. Plus it’s fun to loosen up and explore the tools that I am working with – I really enjoyed working in the swirls of hair along Babs’ back and legs with an old, fractured brush. I also try to not get caught up in chasing changes that happen naturally during a live sitting, like lighting and posture – I really like that areas of the painting feel dynamic, for example, her irregular front legs. It reflects the passing of time that has occurred.
Josephine: Do you always work from life, or photographs too? Which do you prefer?
Rosie: Both. I rely on photographs a lot to achieve different things, but I absolutely love to work from life and will do so whenever I get the chance. Processing a 3D environment gives me a lot to chew on; I find myself less inclined to slavishly represent everything, and, in comparison, I find that paintings end up with a noticeable vitality and sense of atmosphere.
That being said, when I’m trying to convey fleeting moments over the course of months, or a specific composition, photographs can be an absolute life saver to work from. With a couple of exceptions, I always use photos that I have taken myself and so am able to retain a lot of creative control. There are a lot of random photoshoots on my camera roll where I’ve been hanging out with someone and have suddenly felt compelled to make a painting – it’s such a great way to record a lot of information in a short time.
Josephine: What is your favoured surface on which to paint, and which paints do you like to work with?
Rosie: I have pretty much always painted on primed, pre-stretched canvas (usually Winsor and Newton or Jackson’s own brand) as I enjoy working with a noticeable surface texture. The Jackson’s painting prize afforded me the opportunity to invest in some equipment to start stretching my own surfaces, and more recently I’ve been trying out Belle Art oil primed fine linen – it’s a lot tougher and I’ve been enjoying finding new ways to work with it. Oil paints that I use include Michael Harding, Gamblin, Winsor and Newton, and Jackson’s. I’m starting to experiment a lot more with mediums, but have tended to gravitate between linseed oil and Liquin in recent years
Josephine: Which historical or contemporary artists have influenced you the most?
Rosie: I’m inspired by a huge range of contemporary artists and creatives. Lisa Brice, Rachel Jones and Noah Saterstrom are among my strongest influences right now. If I’m looking at historical artists, I really admire Velasquez and John Singer Sergeant for their confidently loose marks and tonal range, and Ingres for his striking compositions. I adore Art nouveau and Vienna secessionist art for this too. Gustav Klimt’s paintings are magical – I was surprised to learn that he would actually paint his figures in full before obscuring them with pattern and colour.
Josephine: Are there any unconventional or experimental techniques you’ve tried that have become part of your practice?
Rosie: I’m not sure if it would be considered majorly unconventional, but as a result of playing around with various techniques I’ve started to incorporate the sketching and planning process into my paintings, as opposed to treating it as something that happens ‘behind the scenes’ of a painting. I really enjoy using soft graphite to mark and outline my work, then applying medium, or working more paint into the lines to achieve a smoky effect. I also like to embrace the ‘underpainting’ stage by applying thin layers of paint to a rough surface texture, to contrast with highly rendered areas.
Josephine: How do you deal with artist’s block or moments of creative stagnation during the painting process?
Rosie: I try to keep my hands busy no matter what, and I’ll allow myself to make some really bad stuff. It can be helpful to step away and spend time doing other things I enjoy, but I will still usually bring my sketchbook everywhere to scribble in and practice different approaches to a problem I’m working on. I use it as a tool rather than display – I find that this takes the pressure off. Podcasts are also really great to have on while I paint, if I’m feeling stuck in my own work then it can be helpful to listen to a creative pep talk or learn about something, especially if it’s art history related (I’m always recommending the show ArtHoles, it is SO funny, sometimes tearjerking, and packed with unusual little nuggets of trivia).
Josephine: As the Animal Award winner, what do you hope to convey in a portrait of an animal?
Rosie: Anyone that spends time in the company of animals knows that they are interesting, intelligent, and complex; I believe that this should be respected. Throughout history, their sentience seems to have been disregarded, we only really see them represented as accessories, working tools, entertainment, food. I try to bring about an unspoken connection between the animals that I paint and the viewer, through capturing a gaze, or the way that they engage with the space and people around them, for example – the kinds of things that are typically reserved for human representation in art and culture.
Josephine: How was your experience taking part in Jackson’s Painting Prize’s first independent large-scale exhibition at Bankside Gallery?
Rosie: What an incredible space! It was absolutely bonkers to have my work up at Bankside – I remember going to shows there as a teenager to see the work of some truly incredible artists, so to be showing there myself, in the heart of London, literally a stone’s throw from the Tate Modern, was unbelievable. The process from start to finish was seamless. I got to meet and chat to so many fantastic artists as a direct result of the exhibition, some of who’s work I’ve admired for years, as well as the Jackson’s team and a whole community of art lovers who have all been so lovely and enthusiastic. I can’t thank everyone involved enough. I feel so privileged to have been a part of this new development in the painting prize, and look forward to seeing it flourish in coming years.
Josephine: How do you know when a painting is finished?
Rosie: Rarely, ha! I don’t think I’ve ever reached a point with a project where I’ve not had to pry myself away – that usually happens a number of months later when I’ve moved on to new projects, or once something has been posted online or exhibited. At points during the process I will have a cup of tea and a good long stare, and compile a to-do list of things that bother me. When it gets to the point where nothing is jumping out at me and I feel satisfied, I will usually call it. I seem to have a habit of pulling all-nighters when I can sense that I’m close to finishing a painting, I’ll just get so sucked in, telling myself “just another 20 minutes, I’ll just tweak this bit”, and before I know it it’s 6am the next day (I wish I was exaggerating here).