Artist interview: Checka Levi Morenos

by Cass Art

WINNER OF THE CASS ART PRIZE FOR THE HOLLY BUSH EMERGING WOMAN PAINTER PRIZE 2021

Founded by Ecclestone Art, The Holly Bush Emerging Woman Painter Prize 2021 supports, mentors and celebrates emerging women painters. Each year 22 artists are chosen from this competition to exhibit in London and this year artist Checka Levi Morenos was awarded the Cass Art prize for her painting 'The Student'. We caught up with Checka Levi Morenos to hear more about her work and her new-found love of plein air painting in Venice.

Hi Checka! Congratulations on winning the Cass Art Prize at the Holly Bush Emerging Woman Painter Prize 2021! Firstly, can you tell us a little about yourself and your creative journey so far.

Thank you! My name is Checka, I am an English/Italian naturalistic painter born and raised in London, and my methods are inspired by the old masters and a few early 20th century painters. I trained in Fine Art at Leeds College of Art, but I found that the contemporary style of art education did not suit me. I actually abandoned painting for a while and went on to have a 6-year career in design, but inevitably my need for painting returned and I found myself starting a summer school in Italy to learn the renaissance sight-size method of painting. This took hold of me, and eventually I relocated to Venice, Italy and started painting professionally. I now live and paint between the two cities. 

Your winning work ‘The Student’ depicts a seated man smoking in a dark room, the play of light in the piece is really interesting, with the bright light from window behind, most of the detail is thrown into darkness. Can you tell us more about the work, the story and the title behind it?

The Student is my 92 year old Venetian grandfather, Mario Levi Morenos, pictured in the same house in which he was born and in which still lives. In May 2021 I spent a week living with him, each day awaiting his post-lunch cigarette in his armchair beside the balcony to get a couple of hours of painting in. I selected this composition because the intense value compression of the bright backlight in a darkened room seemed to resound perfectly with his thoughtful, humorous and unegoic perspective on life. The hours we spent together were a more bonding experience than I could have anticipated, and I hoped to give a reflective and nostalgic quality to the painting, one that might mirror the comfortable silences that stretched between us while I worked. As for the title, it was the advice he imparted to me throughout our fifth and final sitting that made the cut: “Never stop being curious and never stop learning from life. Always remain the student.

Your work is centred around an honest observation of nature, the idea that the artist is nature revering itself. How much of yourself and your own expression do you feel is present in your work and how much do you try to control this? Is the presence of the artist important to you?

I believe that a painter should avoid embellishing their artworks with an intended ‘personal style’, but allow the painting to depict nature as it is, without intentional interference of personality or ego. The reason for this came about when I came across the writings of the Renaissance Neoplatonists, one of which outlines that ‘God created man to marvel at God’s work’ [The Oration on the Dignity of Man]. While this is a simplified and literal interpretation, my art is based on a more secular reading of the text: Indeed, that the artist is nature revering itself. Thus, the purpose behind my work is to attempt to relay nothing but the beauty of what we are in our purest form, nature. That what we are, just as we are, is perfect. While aware of the impossibility of this endeavour, I hope that my attempts will allow my paintings to serve as a reminder of the beauty of our natural world, the people within it, and that there is so much to live for.

Since moving to Venice, what was your experience of art making during the pandemic and how has it effected your practice?

Moving to Venice blew my art practice wide open. Inspired by both the architecture of the city as well as its rich painting history, (I was able to soak some of this in before Italy’s lockdown) I found my approach entirely changed. First and foremost, I began plein-air painting, something that always seemed too intimidating to do in the centre of London but is the norm in Venice. If, when you step out your front door, you are surrounded wall-to-wall by beauty, it is difficult to not be inspired! But to be honest with you, the biggest change for me was the effect this city had on my mental state. The business of London and its impact on my mental health seemed to melt away when working alone in my studio on the water. Moving here throughout a pandemic gave me the mental and physical the space to play without feeling self-conscious, allowing me to engage with my work more intensely and fully than I ever had. Throughout the past year, my relationship with my practice solidified into something tangible, and in many ways I have the pandemic to thank for that.

What is in your plein air painting kit and what are your top tips for anyone who wants to head outdoors for some painting?

My top tips in plein air painting would be: 1) Key the sky in first, (if there is no sky in your composition, go for something that won’t change its value too much throughout the day) and use that to work from for the rest of your values. Values matter more than colour, more than anything in your painting really, so make them your priority. 2) Squint. Paint the fuzzy shapes you see through your eyelashes until the very end, only then open your eyes to start adding final details. 3) Possibly the most important tip - only paint what you WANT to paint. If the composition doesn’t make you feel things, don’t waste your time, because the viewer won’t feel them either.

Here is a step by step of a recent plein air painting beach scene done in Lido, Venice a few weeks ago. (I would normally prime a seascape in a cooler blue, but I didn’t have any other canvases to hand that morning.)

My Plein Air painting kit has evolved over the years and having tried pretty much everything, I am currently using:

  • An Italian Steel Field Easel (I found in a fair in Venice, but which can be found very easily online) which is lightweight, easy to pack and away and keep a firm grip on your canvas board on windy days. 
  • As a palette I actually use a wooden brush holder which I modified to include a thumb hole and clasps to keep it shut. This is useful because it keeps my paint relatively wet when shut and is easy to transport, it is lightweight enough to clip onto my easel so I can paint hands-free, and it doubles as a pochade thumb box on quick stops during car journeys when the view is just too good to resist!
  • Clip on umbrella
  • An assortment of long handle brushes, mostly filberts (Da Vinci, Zecchi, Daler Rowney), Sables from Zecchi (sizes 0 - 5) and a few hogs (Winsor and Newton)
  • Roll of paper
  • Paper bag to act as a bin
  • Clean Box to carry my wet painting home in
  • Sun hat/Sun screen/Bug spray
  • Odourless Turpentine
  • As a medium I use a balsam/sun thickened linseed oil and turpentine mix, but when I don’t have that to hand, I use Zest It Painting Medium from Cass Art which is very similar, is kind to the environment and smells lush.
  • My Paint collection Includes Old Holland Ultramarine Blue Deep, Cobalt Blue and Cerulean Blue. And in Michael Harding, Yellow Ochre, Cadmium Red Mid, Cad Red Light, Cadmium Orange, Cadmium Yellow medium, Cadmium Yellow Light, and Warm White Lead Alternative.

When you’re not painting outdoors, you are in the studio, what is your studio setup like?

I did have a studio on an island just off Venice (Guidecca) but once lockdown set in I was forced to set up shop in my apartment, and found that my work improved dramatically. Having my studio in my apartment was conducive to a comfortable and relaxed work environment in which I could start and stop when I liked, able to pick up a brush here and there between tasks, and since my methods don’t generate much mess, I realised it suited me well. I am therefore still painting from the second-floor palazzo apartment that I also call home. 

What will you do with the prize?

Yes, thank you so much for the voucher! Despite being a necessity in my field, art-supply shopping has always been a guilty pleasure of mine! So far in my Cass Art basket I’m just topping up on regular supplies but there are a few luxuries in there too including:

A Winsor & Newton Distilled Turpentine 250ml, and some Michael Harding Oil Paint Yellow Ochre 225ml, Warm White and Cadmium Orange 60ml. I find Old Holland blues trump all other brands so I’m getting some Old Holland Classic Oil Colour in Cerulean Blue F39 40ml, Cobalt Blue E250 40ml and Ultramarine Blue Deep A244 40ml - the most important for plein air summer skies and impossible to find in Italy! I’m trying out some new surfaces including an Ampersand Primed Texture Cradled 38mm, 20.3 x 20.3cm and an Ampersand Primed Smooth 3mm, 27.9 x 35.6cm. Brushes wise I’m getting some Daler Rowney Georgian Sable Filberts in Sizes 2-8, some Da Vinci Russian Black Sable Filbert Series 1845 Brushes in sizes 10 & 12 and a Daler Rowney Graduate XL Extra Large Stiff Synthetic Filbert Brush in size 40 which makes a lovely scumbling effect for priming and backgrounds.

And finally, what’s next on the horizon for you?

At the moment I am awaiting the framing of some miniature sunset paintings I have been working on. Over the summer I have been painting most evenings from my boyfriend’s boat in the Venetian lagoon, and once they’re framed, they will be released as a mini-series on my website and instagram. I am also discussing the possibility of an exhibition in a local gallery here in Venice as well as planning a trip to Portugal to create a whole new series of rustic Portuguese landscapes towards the end of the year. Lots to look forward to so make sure you follow me on instagram @checka_levi_morenos and subscribe to my seasonal newsletter on my website www.checkalevimorenos.com to stay updated! 

Thanks so much Checka! Happy painting!

Feeling inspired?

Read more artist interviews on the Cass Art blog, shop Michael Harding and Old Holland Oil Colours for your plein air painting kit, and find out more about the Holly Bush Emerging Woman Painter Prize.

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