A recognisable sweep of a road, the sheen of rain in the air. A lonely chair, cast in shadow, a turned head, a broken sky – a memory, fragmented on the canvas.
All of these things can be found in the poetic paintings of Sarah Shaw, an artist who exhibited in the National Open Art Competition in 2013. This year she is a finalist in the Threadneedle Art Prize, and she is currently working closely with the BBC on a project that is yet to be unveiled.
Shaw’s work hovers in the space between figuration and abstraction, and conveys above all the sense of the human condition – hopes, fears and secrets weave throughout the layers of paint, familiar objects and abstracted brush strokes.
Cass Art wanted to know more about Sarah Shaw's painterly technique, and the dialogue she has with her paintings.
Can you tell us a little about your paintings?
I tend to go through different phases with painting, though at the base of all my work is the wish to make images that reflect something of the sense of being a human – with all our passions, our fears, our loves and changing emotions. There is also an overriding theme of trying to convey a sense of time. I have always been unsatisfied with imagery that simply reflects reality. I feel the need to disrupt a simple picture plane or a single image with some kind of fracture, which seems to reveal something more multi-faceted and emotionally real than a straightforward depiction.
What are your favourite art materials to work with and why?
My favourite brand of paint is the Michael Harding oil paints. These paints are handmade using linseed oil and without the use of fillers and extenders resulting in a strength and luxuriance of colour which is hard to beat. I very rarely use anything other than oils, though whilst I am roughing out the initial stages of a painting I will use a cheaper artist quality oil paint.
In terms of my favourite surface to work on it has to be oil on canvas or linen. I enjoy the idea of making contemporary paintings on such a conventional surface, and nothing can beat the wonderful, glossy, oozy feel of oil paint.
What did you show in the National Open Art Competition last year and how did the exhibition benefit your practice?
Last year I was lucky enough to have two paintings selected for the National Open. The paintings were entitled Rorschach Head II and Beast. I felt very privileged to show work not just at the Minerva Theatre in Chichester but also, excitingly, at the Royal College of Art. The huge thing that happened as a result of being selected was that Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood bought one of my paintings... I am still pinching myself about that one! The National Open have been very supportive throughout the experience and the benefits have had far reaching consequences, not least being included in a television project to be aired later in the year.
Your work involves building up and stripping down the surface of the painting, but how do you go about this in terms of painterly technique?
I tend to think a lot about new paintings; I write my ideas down and collate imagery that I then use as reference material for the painting. I then make a kind of painterly collage to work from before I begin. The initial process is often a very speedy affair with the image being roughly blocked in, and the ideas at this stage are usually quite strong, but I allow the process of making to speak to me, to allow some flexibility within the process. It’s almost like a dialogue between myself and the painting. During this dialogue there are different tones of voice, some soft, some loud, some angry, some visceral...areas are lovingly painted in and then swept away with a big swipe of a paintbrush. My paintings change a lot during this process and I want them to retain a sense of this dialogue.
In this way your paintings seem like hazy memories, a sight or sound that you cannot quite remember. Do you recall your own memories on some level when you paint or is it purely about process?
I think for a painting to be honest it needs to connect with emotions. In this sense, yes, I recall memories on one level though I have no interest in simple autobiographical depictions. I have made paintings that have felt very emotional at the time and have not really realised why until in retrospect. I do try to let go of a need to control the process too much. I am not a slave to my ideas though I find if I let go, through one circuitous route or another, I tend to reach the same place I had initially envisaged. I'm glad you mentioned the senses as I do have an interest in conveying not just semi-recognisable imagery but different senses like sounds and peripheral vision, which is often echoed in the titles of the paintings.
What is your studio like?
My studio is a ramshackle old garret of a hut. It has a very interesting heritage being the old studio of artists such as Dan Baldwin, Chris Kettle and Simon Dixon to name a few. It's an old fire station, interestingly made of wood which tells you how old it is, and still has the hole for the fireman’s pole, though unfortunately not the pole itself! The floor is uneven, it feels like walking around on an old boat when you're in there, but the light is beautiful and the ceilings are high. I sometimes get rained on inside the studio but I have an umbrella there and I just stick on a hat and get on with it. It would not be to everyone's taste but it is to mine. It suits me and I love it!
What are you working on at the moment?
I have a lot going on at the moment! I've been working on a project with the BBC...I'm not allowed to publicise anything further about what this is, but suffice to say, it has been very nerve wracking but really exciting!
I've also just had my painting pre-selected for the Threadneedle Art Prize. I have been exhibiting on Cork Street as part of the Cork Street Open, and have two paintings in the East Sussex Open at the wonderful Towner gallery in Eastbourne. I'm in an incredible group show called Pushing Paint at the Ink_d Gallery in Brighton, another fabulous show in the Lawrence Alkin gallery in London, and have my own solo show at the Naked Eye Gallery in Hove, Brighton. I've been waiting for a bus for a long, long time and the equivalent of ten have come along at once...its hectic but amazing and I am appreciating every single second of it.
Read more about Sarah Shaw by visiting here website here.