In Conversation with artist Erin Lawlor

by Cass Art

Erin Lawlor in studio by Rosie Osborne

Hi Erin, thanks so much for taking time out of you schedule to talk to us. Firstly, could you tell us a little bit about how you became an artist and was there one particular moment in your life where you just knew this is what you needed to do?

Growing up the creative impulse was always there – drawing and painting, but also writing; from childhood I was a very constant reader, and quite academic - I think I expected to become a writer. I went to France for a few months straight out of school and ended up staying there through my university studies, and then for the next twenty-six years. I’d side-stepped from purely literary studies to the History of Art, which led to a growing fascination with the stuff of paint, oil paint in particular. By my MA year the desire to paint had overtaken any desire to write about other peoples’ painting. And I was by then mired in-between two languages otherwise… Painting struck me as both a more universal form of expression, but also one that was less embarrassingly explicit than the written word. And then there is the pure sensuous pleasure involved in the medium itself. It was a leap of faith, in that I wasn’t at all sure whether I would ever find my voice as a painter, and I’ve always found the word artist an uncomfortable one -  but certainly it was around that time that I recognized the ongoing potential of paint as a medium (which seems obvious now, but was less so in the late eighties and early nineties!) and began to feel clearly that here was something that I could grapple with for the rest of my life without getting to the end of.

Summer Storm, 2021

Your work has a wonderful fluid nature to it, its instantly recognisable as yours especially through your incredibly gestural brushstrokes. Could you talk us through how you approach a blank canvas and secondly how you developed this unique style?

For the first ten years I was painting mainly portraits, small-scale and thick; pure unadulterated oil-paint in all its gloopiness – looking back to the School of London in part, but also post-war Paris.  All the works that I was the most drawn to shared a quality of aliveness about the paint, and the sense of being on the cusp - the alchemy of paint becoming something else, and yet still self-aware, meta-painting. Late Titian, Soutine, de Kooning, Auerbach. The face, or head, as subject, was both a fairly neurotic existential obsession, but also a way of learning my medium – it’s both elemental and a very complex volume. It took me some years to feel ready to let go of the overtly explicit, to accept that what fascinated me the most was that liminal space between, and the brush-mark itself. Once I dared let go of the central figure, I started using progressively larger brushes, and more liquid paint; at a certain point the shift to working horizontally became a technical necessity and I began quite naturally to work alla prima, working in and with the fluidity you mention.

Gimblette, 2021

Using the quantity of solvent I do has the added advantage of obliging me to a relatively short working window, a way of counteracting my natural tendency to obsessive reworking.

These days there is no blank canvas per se, or only very briefly – working with paint as liquid as I do, and pulling through the layers, working wet on wet, requires a stable pictorial background. So there are a several layers of paint that go down before the work proper begins, which don’t require more than the most summary decisions, and take the edge off any blank canvas anxiety!  

  

On this note, your use of colour is one of the most fascinating aspects of your work, it’s so expressive and evocative in a number of ways. Do you have a select colour palette you work off or is it more a case-by-case basis?

There is a fairly complete palette that is always there potentially – I set up my series of tubs before I start, so the paint is mixed and ready to go. On the canvas, technically I tend to start by blocking in areas with yellow and orange, cadmiums and the browns, the warmer tones, before a second layer of colder colours.

Beyond that it is very much about working the colours together on the canvas, both by juxtaposition but also by working through the layers. It is these days a highly instinctive process, born out of decades of trial and error – in the early years I used to constantly find I would over-work and over-mix, and end up with an irretrievably grey or brown mess. It’s a fine line, to work alla prima and all-over and yet lift the colour and form out of the mass.

As for the overall palette of one painting, it is generally case by case, but also sometimes by short series, particularly for the smaller works.

 

Where do you draw your inspiration from to be such a prolific artist? 

The process is very much an ongoing one and I find each painting or series of paintings leads quite organically to the next. There is also so much else that creeps into the studio that feeds in visually, or psychologically: from the weather outside, to what I have been looking at otherwise. There are constant companions (late Titian still) to the more incidental, and contemporary; not just fine art, but cartoons, design, fabrics…I only recently realised how much effect the twinned experiences of Sendak’s Wild Things and William Morris wallpaper had on me as a child, or again the seminal immersive colour experience that was the vibrant blue room with red trees of Ravel’s garden in the  ‘Hockney paints the stage’ exhibition at the Hayward Gallery that I saw as a teenager. A trip to Rome a few years ago led to a series of works where the palette and drama of Caravaggio had crept in, no doubt inevitably. I am constantly looking, and see a lot of other people’s work; it’s the mark of the best exhibitions to give me that knee-jerk response of wanting to get straight into the studio and paint. The current Francis Bacon show at the RA is a case in point; he was such an extraordinary colourist.

It can be quite contrary though too – over the last year or so, in the intermittent moments in the studio between the pandemic and personal health issues, a brighter palette and lighter touch came to the fore. I was reminded of something Nick Willing said about his father’s thesis concerning the plague and the baroque and rococo movements - it felt more important than ever in these dark times to seek out the light, and a certain playfulness. The resulting exhibition, currently up in New York, is I hope an exhibition that is very much about the life-drive, about finding the joy within the dark.

The way I work, the way my visual language has evolved, feels to me very open, and potentially still rich, in terms of both format and mood, and inspiration.

Photo courtesy of Kelly Lawlor

What are your go-to materials and why are these important to your practice?

Good stretchers for starters – I paint on canvas that is already stretched up, and working horizontally, it is important to have the necessary tension.

Oil paint, of course – diluting the paint as I do, it needs it be quite high-quality, with a good pigment-load. Michael Harding and Langridge, or again Jackson’s professional range, are favourites. I use a variety of brushes, the widest ones I use most often these days are wallpapering brushes from Leyland, but also long-handled brushes from Maison Marin in France (their own brand, which can go up to 100cm wide, though I personally find anything beyond 50cm fairly unwieldy). Solvent of course. And mason’s tubs, to fit the brushes.

Good drop-sheets are essential, or I’d end up on a skating rink within no time, quite apart from the mess.

Speaking of your studio, we’re obsessed with artist’s studio habits and how they find their own creative flow. Can you tell us about your studio set and if you have any habits/routines to find that flux state?

I’m lucky enough these days to have a good-sized and self-contained studio through Space studios in the old peanut factory on Fish Island, with large windows and northern light. When I first moved back to London eight years ago, it wasn’t easy to find a studio space, and for a few years I was subletting and moving around – I am very aware of how lucky I am now to have a studio that suits my way of working technically, but where there is also an atmosphere that is so conducive to work – the light is extraordinary, and there is to me a sense of pleasure and gratitude just to step into that space every day. When my children were small I had to paint at home for a while, which was hard on so many levels. In many ways just coming into that separate space is part of the transition to the creative flow, it is an activity that is at once intrinsically entwined with life, and yet that requires a time and space apart.

Photos courtesy of Kelly Lawlor

My way of working, with the preparation of tubs and colours, and brushes, also provides a natural transition into the space and gestures of painting, and a stilling of the mind - those first layers go down without too much thought. Usually beyond that, the fascination with what’s happening on the canvas takes over quite quickly – the interaction between colours, the play of volume and space; but also the sheer pleasure of the paint – it does still fascinate me all these years on.

 

Thanks so much for speaking to us today, lastly can you tell us what we can look for in 2022 from you?

I have a show up at the moment in New York, at Miles McEnery Gallery, my second solo exhibition with them, which is on until 12th March. And I’ll be showing work in May at Arte Fiera Bologna in Italy with Luca Tomassi gallery. I am also currently in discussion with Vigo Gallery in London, with a view to a solo exhibition later this year, so that’s what I’m potentially working towards in the studio right now.  

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You can see more of Erin's work on her website and be sure to follow her on Instagram too.

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