Angela Bell won the Portrait/Figure category in the Jackson’s Painting Prize this year with her oil and graphite painting, Dunk. Angela, who was also a 2017 runner up in the competition, paints from a collection of vintage photographs, mostly of portraits, to explore surface and muse on the identities of the subjects. Here, she discusses pushing her colour palette, using the tools you have at your disposal and the impact of the pandemic on her health and work.
Above image: Tom in the chair, 2020, Angela Bell, Oil on gesso, 12 x 17 cm
Clare: Can you tell us about your artistic background/education?
Angela: I studied a BA Hons in Fine Art at the University of Ulster and an MA in Fine Art at the Norwich School of Art and Design. I thoroughly enjoyed both experiences and having the opportunity to focus solely on my practice was a real luxury. I specialised in sculpture during my studies as I was completely taken with creating something that required physical effort and practical skills to bring it into being, something that had a physical presence and took up space. After a break in my studio practice for a number of years I returned and as painting was something that I had never really explored it held the most interest. The sculptural element is still very much part of my practice despite the working taking a 2D form. My current body of work is looking at combining the 2D and 3D elements and I’m very excited about the direction my work is headed.
Clare: Where does a painting begin for you? Can you take us through your process?
Angela: I have built up quite a collection of vintage photographs and often the ideas for a new painting come about from looking through my collection and seeing what’s of interest. It may be that I have a specific theme I want to explore or a technique that I want to develop. For example, with Dunk I knew that I wanted to push my colour palette and the original photograph caught my attention as it had the blasted light and vibrancy that I was looking for. I then draw out the elements in rough and transfer it onto a gesso panel. The boards I use have an almost shell like surface so every mark is evident which is why I am so particular about my drawing. I then work the painting up in layers. I aim to create depth and movement through my mark making and for each section of the painting to offer something to the work as a whole. The process of manipulation and subtraction is a crucial aspect of my work.
Clare: Do you ever paint old family photos or people you know? Does it change the experience to paint someone you have met?
Angela: I enjoy the places I go to, the stories I conjure up and the curiosity that comes from painting anonymous people. For me that’s a source of light within my work. Having said that I do paint my kids and I’m always snapping photos of an expression or the way the light travels through their ear or something random like that. They are very patient indeed. The photos on my phone are quite different to most parents! Painting someone you know and love is a very different challenge and I never quite achieve what I want, I know their wee faces so well, I never feel I do them justice.
Clare: Can you tell us about your palette? Are your colour choices guided by the original photos or do you have another approach?
Angela: Over the years I have become more comfortable with my colour palette and now have a core of Raw Umber, Prussian Blue, Alizarin Crimson, Cadmium Red, Yellow Ochre, Cadmium Yellow, Titanium White and Buff Titanium. I absolutely adore Torrit Grey by Gamblin which is made as a special edition every year from the pigment dust collected from the air filtration system. The result is always a surprise and a fun addition to my palette, I really appreciate the thought and care that they put into the paint they produce. Usually my palette for a particular painting is developed from my source of reference and then as I work it expands from there.
Clare: What kind of tools do you use to make marks on your work?
Angela: Everything and anything, blades, protective tubes from paint brushes, palette knife, rulers, fruit mesh netting, you name it and I’ll probably have a little piece of it in a drawer waiting to be used! A number of years ago I taught a mature student art class and many had disposable incomes and were able to buy the best gear. Now that is a real luxury and of course if you can afford it then why not. However often people think that they can’t paint unless they have all the right tools and that should never be a barrier to creativity, use what you have and what you can afford.
Clare: Do you have a drawing practice? If so, how often do you draw and what materials do you use?
Angela: To be honest drawing in order to produce a finished piece is not where my focus lies at present. It has always played an important part in my practice whether planning a sculpture or producing a portrait but my drawing of late is purely practical, marking out shapes, tonal shifts and serving as structural basis of a painting.
Clare: How has the lockdown of the last few months affected your practice?
Angela: The pandemic has had a massive impact on my practice in a number of ways. Firstly, I was unfortunate enough to contract the virus in the early days and I was very ill and well below par for the first few months. After that I had a number of commissions to work on and I also took part in the Artists Support Pledge scheme created by Matthew Burrows which was a really fantastic initiative which provided both a focus and an income which was wonderful. I have been as busy as ever during lockdown and I think more people are investing in art and realising the joy it can bring. Having the kids home 24/7 and dabbling in home schooling alongside providing entertainment has certainly kept me busy and while I haven’t been producing gallery work I have been able to paint a great little series on vintage library cards.
I have also taken part in the Portraits for NHS Heroes developed by Tom Croft which is a project to honour our amazing NHS workers. I have been truly touched and humbled by the levels of professionalism and compassion our NHS workers have displayed, they really have been exemplary and I wanted to do my small part in thanking them.
Clare: What are your art influences? Who are your favourite contemporary or historical artists and why?
Angela: Goodness, what a tough question! I have to say that seeing the work of others as it develops on Instagram is a great source of inspiration. Seeing artists at all stages of their practice working through challenges, exploring their subject matter and developing their techniques is a great motivator. The artists that been influencing my practice and approach to my work both from a technical and conceptual angle of late are Ruprecht Kaufman, Hernan Bas, Conor Harrington and the amazing Nicolás Uribe whose Our Painted Lives YouTube videos have been a source of sanity and inspiration during lockdown. There are so many young artists out there producing amazing work, Rae Klein, Carlo D’Anselmi, Adela Janska, Ruth Murray and Fran Mayor Maestre to name but a few. They remind me to keep pushing my work forward and to reassess and re-evaluate and focus my energies. While historical artists like Velazquez, Rembrandt and Singer Sargent are important and are at the core, my focus is much more on the now as there is so much going on, which is very exciting indeed.
Clare: What makes a good day in the studio for you?
Angela: I usually get to the studio with a cup of tea in hand and switch on BBC 6 music which is a good way to kick things off. I try to clean down at the end of every day, although I am by no means religious about it, so if I arrive to a space that is ready to go I consider it a treat! Lighting is so important as I prefer to work by natural light, so a clear day that isn’t too sunny is my preferred setup. The time I have in the studio is precious, especially as my main working hours are while the kids are at school (although lockdown has impacted upon this considerably). While this time constraint can be frustrating it can also really help to focus my thoughts and energy. I do a great deal of prep and planning outside my studio time so that I can maximise the time I spend in the studio. A good day usually consists of a solid block of time, no disturbances and plenty of tea! I try to see the positives in whatever I’ve been working on. It can be capturing a likeness, working and developing a certain colour palette or the results of experimentation with mark making. Mark making and the manipulation of the surface is the aspect of my work that involves the most risk, but when it works, is often the one that gives me the biggest buzz! I feel so privileged that get to develop my practice every day.
Clare: Where else can we see your work online or in the flesh?
Angela: Instagram is the best place to see my most recent work. I try and update a few times a week and post some process videos too. I also sell smaller pieces direct which given the situation with many galleries and exhibitions this year, is the way forward for both artists and collectors. Instagram is a great way to contact me to discuss commissions or just say Hi! The Contemporary British Portrait Painters exhibition Perceptions is still available to view at Cass Art Islington and can also be viewed digitally at https://thenetgallery.com/cbpp/ I have a few more exhibitions lined up for later in the year but for now it is unclear whether they will be situated in galleries or take a virtual form.