Sally Wilford - Urban Lines and Spaces
There you are, walking through a busy city on a bright sunny day, when you pass an alleyway or a gap in the buildings. The sunlight drops down the side of the concrete monoliths and spills over the pavement. Your eyes are drawn back up the height of the building again to the bright slice of blue sky above. It is this moment that Sally Wilford captures in her paintings of buildings, this breathing space, carved between tower blocks.
Sally took some time out from her busy life as an artist and teacher to talk to Redbird about her work.
Your architectural paintings are very striking, with block colours and often painted from the perspective of looking up at them. Have you always lived in cities? What is it about urban architecture especially that you enjoy transforming into paintings?
Living in London is new to me, I grew up in a village in Yorkshire and from practically every view point I could see hills. In fact, a huge part of my childhood was spent watching my dad paint traditional, romantic landscapes. Three years ago I moved to Tottenham and to be honest, in the beginning, I was a stuck, so I started painting my surroundings. I think it’s the light and line that draw me to urban architecture. Ever since I can remember I’ve had a fascination with the way light falls onto a surface. Like most people, I love to stand and gaze at a beautiful sunset but I’m equally moved by the hard light I see falling on concrete. A shadow cast onto tarmac by a lamppost, the midday light trapped in a doorway or the huge, straight edged shadow cast by an industrial unit are all images that are quite startling to me.
As a starting point I work from a photo but the work usually evolves into something very different by the time it’s complete. My work’s quite process led, I work on board, it fits the subject matter and I need a tough surface that will take a sander. I prepare my board by making a layer using paint and a sanding machine. I struggle with a blank space and this layer eases some of the difficulties when beginning new work. I need to feel like the painting has been started before I put down the first accurate pen marks. I enjoy seeing the straight lines or solid blocks of colour cut through the random paint marks left behind in the bottom layer. Many of my paintings are dominated by solid blocks of flat colour and occasionally I try to adopt a more painterly style but usually revert back.
You also create very strong life drawings. These too have an architectural feel to them, with your use of straight angular outlines and block shading. How does your satisfaction with completing a life drawing compare to that of an architectural painting?
I’ve always dipped in and out of life drawing classes but recently it’s been a regular part of my practice. Initially, I picked it up again because I saw it as an essential discipline that I hoped would help me make the paintings but it’s become something separate. I’m more concerned about line, shape and contrast rather than good likeness and I guess that’s why they bear a strong resemblance to the architectural stuff.
As for satisfaction, it’s difficult to say. A drawing I’m happy with might take me anything between one and forty minutes to complete whereas the paintings might see me battling for three or four weeks. There’s a lot of hair pulling with the paintings and it’s great when you finish one but there’s something wonderfully satisfying about making a drawing in fifteen minutes which you know you can develop further in the studio. I’ve started to make mono prints from my drawings.
Can you tell us a bit about what you enjoy about the mediums you use for your work?
In the past I’ve experimented with quite a bit of 3-D work so I’m open to using anything. I’ve combined some collage with paint recently but it’s not working for me right now. I draw with pen and pencil and my paintings are made using pen, acrylic and mostly oil.
For the most part you keep these two subjects, human form and building architecture, very separate. Hale 2 is one of the few paintings which includes both and even then it is kept to outlines, giving the figure a feeling of transparency or camouflage against the buildings behind. Do you feel that we are lost within our urban environment or do you feel we are much more a part of it, that we are shaped by it?
I think the only way I’ve been able to successfully combine the two is not to paint the human form alongside architecture but to leave evidence of human activity. For example: the red balloons or the mattress. I think including the human form takes away the still, snapshot like quality of the paintings which I like.
Are we shaped by our environment? I don’t paint typical scenes from Yorkshire; streams, woodland and so on but I do remember being fascinated by light falling on chimney pots, the gable end of a house or reflected sunshine on a skirting board. So yes, I’m influenced by my current, urban environment, it’s what I paint but I think the real influence comes from much further back.
Your painting of Boathouse 2 is reminiscent of Ben McLaughlin’s work and Inside Out has a touch of Patrick Caulfield. Can you tell us about your influences and artists you admire?
I admire both McLaughlin and Caulfield and both have been an inspiration. McLaughlin’s work puts me in mind of Edward Hopper who I admired enormously as a young girl. I began looking at Caulfield’s work whilst studying and researching Pop artists like Richard Hamilton, Warhol and Lichtenstein. More recently, Emilio Sanchez’s architectural paintings full of light and shadow.
You also work as an artist in residence at a primary school. There are some wonderful pieces in the online gallery for the Cloud 9 project. Can you tell us a bit about the work you create with children and how does this influence your own artistic practise?
I don’t know that what I teach children influences my own work but I get plenty of opportunity to practice my skills. I constantly demonstrate how to draw to the children and make plans for back drops and wall murals.
I have to follow the curriculum so there are all the usual projects; Greek papier mache pots, Egyptian pyramids, African masks and so on but I try, where I can, to really focus on drawing and painting skills. Because children are impatient they make a drawing or a painting in 20 minutes and they’re done. For the past few years I’ve been running projects where they learn to sustain a piece of work over several weeks. They use mixed media to build up layers in their work, they have sketchbooks in which to plan and develop their ideas. It’s very satisfying when that look of enlightenment appears on their faces when they realise they’ve created something wonderful.
Many artists, have other jobs as well as being artists. It’s a real joy when your ‘other job’ is an artistic, creative one, but there is a balance required to allow you to still create your own work. How do you manage this balance?
For me, a huge part of making art is simply thinking about it, planning it out in your head beforehand. Teaching art to children is pretty full on and certainly doesn’t give you much time to think about your own practice.
I try to treat studio time as ‘real job’ time. I set goals, have a ‘to do’ list, break off for lunch etc. However, more often than not, it doesn’t work like that. You can’t just turn on the creative button just because it fits snugly into your Thursday afternoon. There are times when I’m hitting a brick wall and decide to walk away from it for a day or two but I think you have to practice a certain amount of self-discipline or nothing would ever get done.
What are you working on now / next?
I’m still feeling very excited about my life drawings and mono prints. I’ve also made a series of mono prints based on the urban paintings, this is ongoing. I think the next step is to start working with one or two models that I can build a working relationship with. You’re limited to what you can do in class as people have different ideas about what they want.
As for the paintings, I’m having a bit of a love affair with white paint. I’m blocking out sections of work from existing paintings with white paint. It doesn’t feel like I’m painting, it feels more like I’m shaping something, sculpting it. I’m not sure if it’s going to work for me. I don’t think you can decide that until you have a body of work together with the benefit of hindsight. Perhaps it’s the beginning of some new 3-D work.
I’m working towards this year’s Open Studios event at Euroart Studios on the 6th June where all artists, including myself, open their doors to the public for the weekend.
You can see more of Sally's work on her website and look out for the Euroart Studios Open Day on 6th June 2015.