Kylie Sandford won the Dry Media Award in Jackson’s Painting Prize this year with her soft pastel drawing Microcosm I. In this interview, Kylie discusses her artistic background, her approach to colour, and how her relationship with the natural world fuels her practice.
Above image: Kylie Sandford painting in her studio in Québec, Canada.
Artist Interview with Kylie Sandford
Josephine: Could you tell us about your artistic background? How did you become an artist?
Kylie: I have always been interested in drawing and colour. I have a strong memory of a particular pink dress in a children’s story painting that was thrilling to me. The way that colour glowed was fascinating and mysterious. I have a creative family and we spent a lot of time in nature and looking at art when I was growing up. My mother brought me to the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, where there were a lot of Group of Seven paintings and sketches of the Canadian landscape. As a teenager I took part in after-school classes there, where I could explore with different mediums and techniques. I always knew I wanted to be an artist and that was encouraged. Later, I went to Concordia University in Montreal Québec, where I completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts. It was Giuseppe Di Leo who inspired me by teaching drawing techniques to achieve realism and depth with pencil, while Alfred Pinsky inspired the art of careful looking and seeing.
I wanted to learn technical skills, and this happened with paint after university as I met and worked with artists such as Frank Imperato, who studied trompe l’oeil at the Van Der Kelen school in Brussels. I learned about glazing with oils and dry-brushing as well as the properties of pigments. Over the years I slowly developed my painting skills and knowledge of colour. When I moved from the city to the Eastern Townships of Quebec in 2009, it felt like a return to the comfort and wonder of nature from my childhood. I was inspired by the surrounding natural environment and I began to paint almost full-time. This is where I’ve been creating and developing my thoughts into artwork ever since.
Josephine: You have incredible control of your material; it’s hard to believe Microcosm I is pastel on paper. Can you share some of your techniques? Do you have any that are unusual?
Kylie: My process for creating involves spending time in nature and looking closely. I take a lot of photographs. Once in the studio with an image that is exciting, I tape off the composition I want from the image and draw a few graph lines. The same goes for the enlarged, to scale, paper I want to work on. This is my guide to placing the general shapes of the composition I have chosen.
Some drawings I try just don’t work. When this happens, I think of it like a trial run and start another. In this way, drawing is a pressure-free exploration of colour and technique, time for play without expectations. I don’t have a set technique and have taught myself to work with pastels by experimenting. I like to work with robust, rough or cold-press paper, so the pastel can grab the surface and be applied sometimes thickly, depending on the properties of the colour.
I work from the general to the specific with both shape and colour. I sometimes paint with water to saturate the darker shapes, so that I can build lighter colour on top, while keeping the depth of the dark area visible underneath. I don’t use black very much and instead use complementary hues for contrast. For lighter areas I use the white paper with transparent pigments. These need to be planned and set first in the initial laying down of main shapes. I use a rubber-tipped pointed tool I stumbled upon and it is very useful for smoothing the colour into the texture of the paper, or to help soften or define a shape’s edges.
Josephine: Have you always worked with pastels? What is it about them that interests you??
Kylie: Pencils were my first loved medium, then I worked for a while with Sennelier oil pastels. When I started going to model drawing sessions years ago, I began adding colour to my pencil sketches with Conté or soft pastel. Using soft pastel is a way for me to record a colour idea quickly, without getting too involved in layering and mixing, as I do with my oil painting. I’ve always had a few pastels around, which I use to add colour to plein-air drawing in my sketchbook. The matte quality of the pigment I can hold in my hand is irresistible to me. I love the texture of them on the paper. Over the years I have collected soft pastels, but my first attempt to complete a full drawing was awful and I lost interest. I didn’t see how to control them. Still, I collected more pastels. Then I made a drawing of my daughter one day and it came out wonderfully. Recently I bought a large box of 60 Maggie Price Basic Values soft pastels by Terry Ludwig to add to my collection and a series of drawings took off. I love the intense colours and the rectangular shape of those pastels in particular, but I also have much loved Unison and Jack Richeson pastels as well as some round from Sennelier.
In these last few years, I wanted a creative outlet from my oil paintings and was looking for a way to disrupt my usual process. I started to feel a pattern setting in with my oil painting technique and that is boring to me. It actually stops me from working. I want to continually challenge myself with colour and be surprised by the results of what I am creating. The soft pastels take me in a new direction, one where layers are restricted, the blending is restricted and there’s a lot of fun discovering colour relationships and mark-making. I find if I create with two mediums, then something I learn with one, can be used with the other, like my own dialogue of renewal between my oil paintings and my drawings.
Josephine: How long does a piece like this take?
Kylie: I often work on several pieces at a time, so I don’t see exactly how much time it takes. What comes into consideration when answering this question, is all the time spent thinking and practising, the many walks on this particular bit of Canadian Shield and the many photographs taken. A whole journey was taken to get to the creation of this drawing. The drawing part came out fairly quickly because I was excited by this image, as well as my newly bought box of pastels. It was done over the course of a week.
Josephine: The colours in this piece are lovely. Do you keep your palette true to life?
Kylie: Thank you! I love exploring with colour and discovering colour relationships. I draw what I see and feel. When I look at my resource photos after I’m done making a drawing, most often the photos are dull in comparison. So I would describe my palette as heightened or saturated and I like to play with contrast or optical colour to make the image more impactful. Once I have the general shapes and background hues in place on the paper, that is when I like to include some unusual colours in subtle ways, to make it my own palette. I work with the pastels I have, so I am challenged to figure out how to portray a colour I don’t have by mixing or drawing juxtapositions of colours for the vibration I want.
Josephine: Do you keep a sketchbook?
Kylie: Yes I do, I have many sketchbooks from over the years. I like to look through them from time to time and think about those moments I drew. It’s like a visual record of parts of my life, a lot of them drawn with pencil, pastel and Conté.
Josephine: Which historical or contemporary artists have influenced you the most?
Kylie: So many! Lately I have been inspired by Nicolas Party and his wonderful pastel drawings and murals. I love the colour-use in his work, the dialogue created with art from some museums’ permanent collections and themes about our relationship with the environment. The latter is an important concept in my work. I am inspired by the paintings of Drew Burnham, a West coast artist with vibrant paintings from British Columbia, Canada, as well as Zachari Logan’s detailed pastel drawings. Peter Doig and David Hockney’s landscapes have stopped me in my tracks, inspiring me with their use of pared-down essential shapes and colour. Of course the paintings of the Group of Seven and Emily Carr among others, have led me to the landscape and the portrayal of my own connection to nature.
Josephine: What materials or tools could you not live without? Do you use anything unconventional?
Kylie: I couldn’t live without pencils, paint brushes or colour in some form. In my pastel drawings I use a rubber-tipped tool which I rely on, especially because of the textured paper I choose. This tool helps fill the area when needed. For my oil paintings, I often work with glazes to achieve depth, so painting medium is a must for me. I don’t have a favourite kind yet and often make my own mix of solvent-oil-resin to work with.
Josephine: How do you deal with artist’s block or moments of creative stagnation during the painting process?
Kylie: I get outside. I go for walks in the woods or make plans to go to an outdoor place I haven’t seen before. A trip to a gallery or museum is usually enough to get me excited about creating again.
If I’m stuck on one piece, then I start another so that I can move between two palettes. Working on two pieces helps me to discover something on one that I can bring to the other, and so forth. Finally, when working on a large piece, if I get overwhelmed by the size of the whole thing, then I like to hone in on one part and look for a way to make that spot exciting. From there, the flow tends to come on its own and the hours go by un-noticed.
Josephine: How was your experience taking part in Jackson’s Painting Prize’s first independent large-scale exhibition at Bankside Gallery?
Kylie: That experience was really great. I felt proud to be a part of the Bankside exhibition that was full of high quality art made by talented international artists. The show was well put-together and the gallery space was luminous and well situated in London to receive art enthusiasts daily. It was exciting to meet with other prize-winning and short-listed artists, who had also travelled from a variety of different countries or regions to be all together in one space. It was an opportunity to speak one on one with the organizers and I’m thrilled to have been a part of it.
Josephine: How do you know when a piece is finished?
Kylie: It’s just done. I know when it is. There are no more marks to make, nothing stands out strangely to my eye and I feel satisfied.