Inside the Artists Studio: Aisling Drennan

by Cass Art

In this series of blogs we’re looking beyond the artwork and into the artist studio. They are often seen as mysterious creative hubs of liberation and creative endeavour but we want to go inside and uncover the environment in which they work in, to unwrap the mystery and speak to the artists. Discover tips on how to be inspired, find their ‘flow state’ and uncover what the studio means to each artist and how it influences their practice. For the nineth edition we’re delighted to speak with painter Aisling Drennan.

Aisling Drennan is an exciting Irish painter whose works have featured in prizes and exhibitions across the UK and Ireland. Her work is primarily rooted in abstract expressionim and explores the consequences of mark-making on canvas and the variable properties of oil paint. Each piece offers a visual dialogue about the delicate balance between chaos and structure, resulting in an overall artistic signature that boasts boldness, uniquenss energy and vision.

Hi Aisling, thanks so much for taking the time to speak to us. Firstly, could you tell us a little bit about your journey through this industry and what inspired you to be an artist?

Thanks for inviting me to be part of the Cass Art blog! Hmmmm my journey so far, well my mom is an artist so she was my introduction to the art world. I feel quite lucky to have another artist in my family as sometimes such a career path can be considered too ‘other’ however growing up painting and drawing were always encouraged. 

I knew I wanted to go to art school but before I entered the world of fine art I first had a career as a professional dancer with Riverdance. I was allowed to defer my place at Cluain Mhuire (GMIT) art school in Co. Galway but to keep my ideas flowing while on tour I always had my sketchbook in my suitcase and made a point of checking out the museums and galleries of each city I was performing in. 

Eventually I had enough of touring life and felt ready to begin my studies. I spent four years completing my Bachelors in Fine Art at Cluain Mhuire and it was a superb painting programme. I realised when I began attending art history/ critical thinking lectures I had seen most of the major art collections internationally through my dancing career which was a bit surreal. I had great tutors who shared a lot about their own art practices, experiences of the art world and overall it was a very encouraging environment which I feel lent a great start to my career as an artist. After my BA I applied for a Masters in Fine Art at Central Saint Martins and that's how I came to be in London. I’m here nearly 8 years now and over all London has been very good to me. Thinking back over my time at art school where your graduate show is viewed as a launch pad for your work but really the hard work begins when you leave art school and start finding your way through the art world, especially in a city like London- that's when the fun begins!

Along the way I worked service jobs to support my career and gradually was able to support myself through sales of my work. I’ve also won awards, bursaries and received funding which have obviously been a boost from a financial point of view but also its been great to have the support from organisations that believe in the work I’m making and the growth of my career such as the Royal Dublin Society and the Arts Council of Ireland. I think a lot of artists feel there's no point in applying for financial support because it's quite competitive and writing proposals takes a lot of time but really it is worth it- like everything once you get into the habit of doing so it becomes a lot easier.  

Similarly last year I applied for and was offered a residency at Cill Rialaig artists centre in a converted famine village that was purpose built for creative retreats- an amazing place. The village is situated in a very remote part of west Co.Kerry, I didn't see anyone for the first three days! It was just what I needed though, time out from busy London to sit back and examine where I was with my work and plan the next steps of my practice. That time had an immense effect on my painting and I’m currently still drawing ideas from research made there. I was hoping to apply for another residency this year but Covid-19 has delayed this idea until next year- well hopefully residencies will be an option again next year!

Blind Ambition, oil paint and charcoal, 40 x 40cm, 2018

You grew up in Co. Clare and  as you mentioned above had a career on the International stage with Riverdance which must have been an incredible experience travelling the world for nearly 10 years. Looking at your work there seems to be a wonderful energy and fluidity to it and I wonder do you find your previous career on stage has had an influence on your artistic practice at all? 

Yes, it was an amazing experience that I will never forget! My career with riverdance has definitely had an influence on my painting practice. Initially when I began to study fine art I rejected dance as part of my work; I wasn't  interested in making anything figurative as I felt it was too cliche plus I clearly remember a tutor of mine dramatically stating “Aisling, you are either dancer or artist” this gives me a chuckle now, what an odd thing to say because most of the arts naturally cross pollinate from one form to another. 

Certainly now, as a more mature artist I can see and gladly accept that there's a clear fluidity in my work that I credit to my background as a dancer… movement, gesture, musicality…. this may sound a bit odd but sometimes when I’m really stuck into a painting I sort of dance back and forth to it gauging the composition and perspective. I've a habit of holding my arm up, almost in a Grande Pose, to make those final brush marks where I know the marks have to be lightly applied but still maintain a sense of conviction, the physicality of movement in painting- same theory applies to arm positioning in dance! 

As I travelled so much, some of what I was exposed to was bound to sink into my subconscious. For example, I was thinking about my palette from last year the other day and wondering how I came to work with such strong blues, reds and mustards and it reminded me of visiting Frida Kahlo’s house in Mexico City. She had this amazing garden, if I remember correctly it was designed by Luis Barragan, with bold block walls coloured in cerulean blue, crimson red, and ochre so yeah I still have memories from tour that I can relate to my work.

Also, you know dancing has had a major impact on my career as an artist because creative professions can be difficult to navigate. If I didn’t have the training and application I learned from a young age through dance, I’m not sure I would have come as far as I have as an artist. I owe alot to dancing, particularly the self-discipline I learned because no one else is going to do the work for you!

Could you take us through your process of production, when you’re presented with a blank canvas, what comes next?

Blank canvases are my worst fear, I tend to splatter paint on them straight away to remove the stark whiteness! 

Painting demands a particular type of concentration and that is the most absorbing thing for me. A close second is the sheer physicality of paint as a medium; there is something very indulgent about mixing large swathes of oil paint. My process is quite ritualistic really, I always begin with studies in my visual diary and see what emerges. These initial studies inform each body of work but the constant within my practice is the malleable qualities of paint and its mark making abilities.

Citified, oil paint, oil bar and charcoal on primed fabriano, 2020

It’s a very empirical process that sometimes drives me mad! I’m intrigued by the idea of letting the paint do the work and palette-wise all you need to pay attention to is light over dark- Sean Scully talks a bit about this in his Wall of Light series. 

I find that preconceiving the agenda of a painting removes its spontaneity; instinctive visual decision making is the backbone of my work. I have learned not to labour my decision making in the studio (or I would never get a painting finished!).  Sometimes this goes catastrophically wrong but I believe failing gloriously is part of the process; it’s how I learn to trust my decision making. There’s a realisation that a lot of finer work is derived from failings. 

Your work is immediately recognisable as yours which I think is really the key currency in an artist’s work. You seem to explore the conventions of colour and each brush stroke seems to be an exploration of passion almost. How did you discover this unique style?

Thank you! That's a lovely compliment to receive as it's really important to me that my work has its ‘own voice’. That's part of the reason I decided to do my Masters degree at Central Saint Martins, I wanted to execute my style and felt that CSM had an alumni of artists who did just that such as Peter Doig. 

I spent a good chunk of those 2 years just making marks, learning how to better load my brush with paint and just being playful really. Playfulness plays a big part in my practice- to be playful is to be curious and being curious about paint and painting has consistently held my interest. I guess curiosity leads me to contradictory visual conversations and playing with opposites on canvas such as construct/ deconstruct and hard lines versus soft lines. I like the paint boundaries these relationships build because I’m interested in solid structure against gestural marks. 

Sky Writing, oil paint, oil bar and charcoal on primed fabriano, 54 x 63cm

This interest began in my undergrad with drying, cutting and shaping acrylic paint and positioning the shapes in and around gestural oil marks, then for a couple of years I admired the graceful structure of staircases and abstracting their typical form to work against fluid paint marks during my Masters degree and now currently I’m a bit obsessed with stone walls at home in Ireland. That developed while I was doing my residency at Cill Rialaig. The cottage I stayed in was traditional in its style with stone walls and a thatched roof plus Skellig rock formations (of recent Star Wars fame!) are native to the area. I felt really drawn to the solidity of the stone walls that surrounded me, the heaviness of their form yet the lightness of appearance, curve of shape and surface cracks. I made lots of rudimentary as well as detailed studies of these and currently I’m using those drawings and etching the marks into paintings.

Colour wise I have a consistent obsession with blue in all its tones, hues and variants and like to play with colour matching for example put french ultramarine against a cadmium red background and the violet tones in the ultramarine will pop right out! I’m comfortable with blue like it has a calmness for me whereas painting with green is a real challenge or orange, yikes I can’t bare orange on my palette! I’m not sure if other artists feel inclined ( or have an inclination ) or distaste for certain colours but its something very true to how I select colours for my work. I think this fascination with blue has something to do with growing up in the west coast of Ireland very close to the Atlantic ocean with skies that can change from cerulean to prussian within a couple of hours- how dramatic and exciting!

 I think another attribute to my style is that I’m a ‘do-er’ meaning I get stuck in. I don’t sit and wait for inspiration, I feel my way into a painting until something clicks and creative flow starts to unfold. If it fails, I’ll still have learned something.

 In this series of interviews we really want to delve into artists’ studios to tap into how they work. So could you tell us a bit about your studio and studio habits at all?

Sure, I love going to other artists' studios- it's like getting to know someone through their working space; a visual interpretation of inner thoughts. There's a great book on this called ‘Inside the Painter's Studio’ by Joe Fig where he interviews artists and makes miniature reproductions of their studios. 

I have a studio at Delta House Studios in Earlsfield. I've been there just over two years now and it's an integral part of my work because it's a very comfortable space to tune into my painting. I've come a long way in terms of studio rentals as my first studio post my Masters was an old kebab shop on the Holloway road that stank of oil and old chicken but it was free!

I cycle to my studio each day which takes about 40 minutes. Once I arrive I just sit and look at work from the previous day, piecing together where I was at and what I was thinking about. I stick a lot of post-its to my wall to remind myself of different thoughts but sometimes I can’t even make out my own writing or what I was trying to convey as I write quickly! I’ve got into a habit of keeping these notes though and sticking them into my visual diary- a nice written narrative of what I’m thinking about week to week, year to year. My studio’s not particularly tidy- my floor and walls are paint splattered and there's a lot of old dried paint and general studio debris hanging around which is funny because in my home I like everything neat and tidy but this would be too clinical for my work space.

Useful Mistakes, oil paint and charcoal, 76 x 76cm

After taking time to review yesterday's work I’ll tend to admin and a couple of my friends at the studio will pop in for a chat about work or whatever's going on. I really appreciate having progressive, talented artists around me because it's a great support network. I generally don't start painting until after lunch as I don't like to be distracted when working as once I find that creative flow I need to tap into it- it's not something that always available hence my previous comments about being a ‘do-er’ in the studio even if I’m having a crap day I'll just start painting- paint anything to get my mind focused. Music is playing when I paint or sometimes a podcast. I’m currently a big fan of the Blindboy podcast. Blindboy is an Irish social satirist with a very creative mind. I’ll keep working till 5 or 6 then cycle home contemplating the marks I made and wonder how I can tease them out, play with them to make them more entertaining for myself. 

What can you not do without in the studio?

My painting overalls which I've had since my first year of art school. There's a little bit of every painting I've made on them- they've a look of a Philip Guston fashion statement (his early work)! Also my visual diaries as I’m quite meticulous about their format. For example I only use A4 black hardcover books. They act as intimate reminders of my thought processes and what has led me to this point in my practice. I regularly flick through these to recap on the visual vocabulary I have developed. 

 If we were to drop by your studio what materials are we likely to find and what are key to your practice? 

Oil paint which I’ve been using for years, oil bars which I got into about 4 years ago and my current studio favourite are gesso boards which of course I source from Cass art. I'm enjoying working on this new surface, it totally changes up how I approach a painting and apply paint. 

We’ve been speaking to quite a few artists over the last 5 months about how lockdown has affected their creative production. Some found it quite productive, some it found it great time to reflect over their entire practice and others said their creativity was diminished by it. How have you found the last 5 months since lockdown hit?

You know, it's really gone up and down for me. Initially it was very difficult to watch 2020 work being postponed or lost but then you have to accept the situation and make the most of it. I decided to think of lockdown as a residency and began making work in response to my home which is something I had never done before. It's rudimentary work but I can already see some of this playing into my studio work. I also took part in #artistsupportpledge which I think was a fantastic initiative that showcased a practice of supportive creative commerce. From reaching my own sales pledge I was able to make return purchases of work from artists I admire and wouldn't normally be able to afford.

I was lucky in that I was able to get back into my studio in late April. I've had down-time before within my work when nothings really happening and what I learned from those times is that it's the right time to be proactive and get stuck into your practice so that when things do turn around you will have work you are comfortable with because you haven't put any pressure on yourself to make it. If I had a few exhibition deadlines to meet then the work may not necessarily be as calm and structured because there's a time pressure- time and timings, this is what it's all about, right? 

Finally, what has the rest of 2020 got in store for you?

So 2020 is starting to build some momentum, which is great! My painting ‘Leap, 2019’ has been selected for the Royal Ulster Academy’s annual exhibit and I’m the recipient for the 2020 arts bursary award from the  Women's Irish Network in conjunction with the UK Irish embassy. I’m thrilled to receive this award and to have an association where the onus is on women supporting women plus it includes a solo exhibition for 2021 which means for the rest of this year I’ll be busy making new work for that show!

Congratulations on the bursary, thats wonderful news! Well thanks so much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to speak to us and the very best of luck with the Royal Ulster Academy show.

To see more of Aislings work check out her website here and follow her Instagram too.


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