Vanessa Garwood is a figurative oil painter. She works between a mixture of her own themed series and private portrait commissions. Her paintings have exhibited four times at the National Portrait Gallery, her projects ranging from male nudes and narrative storytelling paintings to collaborations with choreographers. Recently Vanessa has been in Kenya painting a series of people who work in conservation or charity to raise awareness and funds for these projects.
Tessa Packard [TP]: What do you try and capture or create in your portraiture?
Vanessa Garwood [VG]: Ideally I want my portraits to capture what it feels like to actually be around someone, rather than focus too much on just copying their features. I so love just simply looking at life – and I want to share how I see the world.
[TP]: What do you need to get the best out of a sitter?
[VG]: It is best when a sitter can open up to me. Watching expressions change in someone’s face helps the painting to be a richer collage of multiple moments stitched together, and understanding more about their emotional life helps me to empathise with them, that empathy and compassion I think is important. So we listen to loud music and sometimes I dive in with an unexpected prying question.
[TP]: How has what you do shaped who you are as a person?
[VG]: Apart from the obvious obsession with facial details thing (I am very easily distracted by orange-nose-guy on the tube or weirdly-tapered-earlobe-girl at checkout) painting has shaped me in many ways. I think of what I do as something I could not separate from myself. Painting gets you used to being alone, but also in contrast very used to life sittings (long ‘one-on-one’ sessions often with strangers where the focus is on connecting and getting to know them etc). I am impatient in my personal life but I can spend months redoing one canvas. I travel a lot to see new things and inspire me visually. When starting a painting of someone who I don’t know I have to make a series of quite instinctive, quick judgements about them, and sadly I am not psychic but it teaches me to follow my gut.
[TP]: Your exhibition, And Is It True?, explored the moral ambiguity and conflict found in children’s literature. Why were you drawn to this particular theme?
[VG]: That series of paintings is on a theme that I am always learning about. How to navigate through a complicated life on a foundation of apparently simple truths we learn as children, the complexity of right and wrong.
[TP]: What lessons did you takeaway from this body of work? Do you see touches of the imaginary now permeate into your non-fiction work?
[VG]: That exhibition gave me more confidence in building larger compositions of multiple characters which I then took into my portraits. It got me to see the canvas as more of stage, building elaborate sets and imagining new elements to the narrative turning me into a story teller which I want to do more of.
[TP]: You have expressed a concern for the future of books in a world which is becoming ever more virtual. Which three books and which three paintings do you feel have shaped you most as an artist?
[VG]: 3 paintings that really shaped me:
-When I saw Goya’s black paintings, ‘The Fates’ in particular, I fell in love with how an artist can express something terrifying and beautiful at the same time.
-Walking around Niki de Saint Phalles empty ‘Tarot Garden’ in Italy, just before it closed with a bright sunset, really got to me. The single-mindedness, wild imagination and dedication needed to spend 30 years building her own world left me awe struck.
– There is a portrait of ‘A Dwarf holding a Tome on his Lap’ at the Prado which I remember staring at for a particularly long time – there is such compassion and honesty in the way his face was painted that I feel I met him myself.
3 books that really shaped me:
– Always fascinated by the macabre in Struwwelpeter by Heinrich Hoffman who puts twisted morality stories for children alongside perfectly created illustrations that really contribute to the narrative.
-The Brown Sisters by Nicholas Nixon is a book of photographic portraits showing sisters who have their photo taken together, every year, for 33 years. As you turn the pages their lives and all their experiences pass in front of you.
-Edward St Aubyns Patrick Melrose novels really show how a writer can craft words – expressing something that you’ve always known but never been able to vocalise. I guess thats what I think good painting should do too – put emotions into another medium and express something you find hard to pinpoint.
[TP]: Your series of male nudes is both refreshing and brilliantly contemporary. Can you tell me a little bit about the idea behind this series and your own personal reflections on the finished portraits?
[VG]: I realised how few of the nude male portraits that came to my mind, were painted by women. I wanted to see more about what it feels like for a woman to look at a man.
It started off being about the female gaze but it’s more than that now. I’ve painted about 12 men, and spent time with all these models, talking to them about what they feel about being nude, and why they want to do it. Their reasons for posing are all very very different and I’m more sensitive now to their individual vulnerabilities. I always stupidly imagined that women feel more body shy, but now I don’t think that’s the case.
People can be prudish about male nudity which is so unecessary, not only because it is about the most natural thing there is, but because of the shame connected with it. In Grayson Perry’s book ‘the decline of man’ he talks, amongst other things, about how in Britain men are 7 times more likely to commit suicide than women are. Numbers like this suggest that there is something wrong – an idea of masculinity which makes so many unhappy.
Painting a male nude is my way of discussing this. These days there is a lot of explicit and sometimes aggressive nude imagery online. Unfortunately children see nudity in pornography at increasingly young ages, and it seems to me impossible to stop or avoid. What we can do is create something to counterbalance it, and this is my attempt to make positive and celebratory nude images about male beauty. My art teacher brought me along to my first nude life class when I was 8 years old so I learnt quite young not to be shocked by bodies, and to see the beauty in all our differences, which I think has helped me as an adult.
[TP]: How were the male nudes received by the critics and your peers? Were their reactions as expected?
[VG]: Generally well received but a surprising number of people are weird about pensises in art! I hope that these portraits make people think more about censorship and nudity in general. Why do Classical nudes all have miniaturised penises? I’ve had very a mixed response to these paintings, totally different responses to female nudes I’ve painted. And there seem to be a lot of rather Victorian Instagram trolls out there. Which in general I just find all incredibly fascinating!
[TP]: How has your style of painting changed over the last decade? Do you feel it has become braver? Looser? More emotionally entwined? And is this true for all disciplines or something more acutely felt in your portraiture, for example?
[VG]: Over the last decade my taste in painting has hugely changed. I am moving away from representational work . Now I enjoy looking at art which uses paint in more of an individual way, as its own language, to make social commentary or show dreamlike invention and imagination. This is slowly reflected in my work as I use a broader palette, get distracted less by detail and more trusting of my instinct. I am less drawn to technical ‘likeness’ and more to interpretation and expressing myself.
[TP]: More recently you have looked to the Royal Ballet in London as a place for inspiration. Can you give us a bit more detail about your collaboration with them and what you achieved?
[VG]: Painting dancers is quite personal for me as its connected to my past, I used to dance every day until i was 15 when I got a knee injury. Now I can see all these connections between figurative painting and ballet dancing. They both have a strong backbone of technique and history, they both use the body to tell a story, express emotion, character or an individual. I continue to be inspired by dancers as they are the best at using their body to express something wordlessly, in a similar way to figurative painting.
The collaboration I did at the Royal Opera House with The choreographer Valentino Zuccheti was about connecting painting and dance – fusing the two together somehow. I was so lucky that Valentino is experimental and happy to be inventive – we both had to step outside our comfort zones to make this a reality. He choreographed an 8 minute long work – where the dancers would hit and hold a pose to be drawn every ten seconds or so. I observed and painted them during this performance from behind a 6m long perspex wall. We also had a live piano and violin.
The idea was that the line I was painting would become part of the choreography itself – in the moments where the dancers bodies were paused my painted line would echo and continue their movement.
I rehearsed by drawing on huge rolls of paper in the ballet studio floor, also doing these morning drawing workouts (!) on my studio wall to help familiarise myself with the gesture, timing, choreography and scale of it.
Painting from behind a Perspex wall was the only approach I could think of which would allow the audience to see both the dancers and my painting of that scale (without me having to turn my head back and forth around/over a canvas as you do on a conventional easel). Seeing though the surface (the idea inspired by Picasso’s imaginary line drawings he did on glass) was necessary to make a fast and seamless observational drawing.
[TP]: What do you find most frustrating about your industry? What would you like to change if you could?
[VG]: I think that my industry can be frustrating as it can be very pretentious! If I could change it I think I would try to encourage people to make their own mind up about what they like looking at rather than following a trend.
[TP]: How important is social media as an artist? Has it changed the way you approach painting? Do you feel it forces you to be more creative or present yourself in a different way than before?
[VG]: I use social media as a tool to share imagery of my paintings, as its obviously useful to get my work seen! I don’t like to let social media algorithms shape what I look at for inspiration – as that feels majorly depressing – I want to feel more active and independently curious in finding my ideas. Sharing ‘work in progress’ shots takes the anxiety of a ‘big reveal’ exhibition moment away which is good but apart from that I don’t think it’s changed the way I paint at all.
[TP]: If you could organise your dream exhibition what would it look like? Please include as many details as possible, such as the art you would showcase, the location of the exhibition and what sort of structure you would use, who would be there, what everyone would eat and drink, and how you would celebrate the occasion.
[VG]: My dream exhibition – imagine if…. Edward James surrealist Mexican project ‘Las Pozas’ had a baby with Niki de San Phalles ‘Tarot Garden’. I would design and build my own elaborate labyrinth of rooms and sculptures around my enormous paintings and murals (depicting timeless characters and stories from different cultures and ages all interacting) with rivers and trees living between all the exhibition rooms. Everyone would be dressed in capes or costumes corresponding to the paintings and they would move through the exhibtion becoming part of the paintings. Slightly ambitious but manageable.
[TP]: What advice would you give someone who wanted to be a professional painter?
[VG]: Paint what you love!
[TP]: You have chosen to represent yourself, as opposed to having representation by a gallery. Why is that, and would you ever consider changing your position on this?
[VG]: Representing myself gives me a lot of freedom, but yes if I found the right fit, I would like to work with a gallery interested in the same things.
[TP]: What’s next?
[VG]: I am saving up to leave London for a year and just focus on being creative and coming up with new projects. Not quite sure what I’ll come up with but my recent trip to Kenya was hugely rewarding and inspiring so perhaps more along those lines.
ON THE SPOT
Town or Countryside? Half half
Favourite city? Mexico City
Your perfect dinner guest, dead or alive? Velazquez
If you could time travel to any era? Italy in the early 1500s
The best meal you’ve ever eaten is? Crab claws on a beach in Kenya
The one essential you can’t leave home without? Forgetting 5 things
Pet hate? Name dropping
Biggest extravagance? Weird coats
Favourite book? At the moment I’m loving anything by David Sedaris
What would your gravestone read? Maybe I’d have a sculpture. Some sort of female figure made up out of animals.
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