I first saw Sarah Jane’s Moon paintings live at The Mall Galleries in 2012, the year before she was awarded the Bulldog Bursary. She has been painting portraits professionally since 2011, and they are powerful. The features, and the layers of paint with which she depicts her sitters are a true statement of personality. When contemplating her paintings you want to know more about these peaceful, happy, defiant, melancholic people. You want to spend some time with them, to share a cuppa. Leo, Nick, Amanda, Jam, Emma, Louise, Hayley, Rachel, Eleanor, Alice, Brian; they all populate her life and her paintings.
Sarah is a modern Renaissance woman: an acknowledged portraitist and painter, she has also worked in exhibitions and events management and has a degree in art history and theory. She got her Diploma of Portraiture from the Heatherley School of Arts in Chelsea. This woman is definitely an adventurous multitasker.
She has lived in Japan, Malasia, Australia and the UK. She is now producing a book that will profile leading contemporary portrait painters in Britain.
MX: Sarah, thanks so much for having us today. It is a pleasure that you open your studio for us and to have a look at your wonderful work. I’d like to start by asking you about your attraction to art. Was it always a constant in your life?
SARAH: Yes, definitely. Particularly when I was a child I was always drawing and making things, and as a teenager as well. Academically I was interested in lots of different subjects, but I was always in the art room during breaks and after school. It was somehow a very magical place to be.
MX: Have you always been the artist in the family?
SARAH: My sister paints a little bit and my grandma also paints. She does crafty things too, quilts and sews. My mother is also very creative. But I’m the only one foolish enough to paint for a living.
MX: Please, can you help us understand what kind of emotional journey your paintings are for you? Can you please explain us a little bit more about it?
SARAH: Sure. I think painting is definitely very emotional. It is a very emotional thing to do in terms of process and subject, which is part of what I love about it. It is also very psychological and it can be an academic and formal exercise in technique too. But definitely for me it is an emotional process primarily.
When you start a painting you have a blank canvas and it’s full of potential and it’s going to be the best painting you’ve ever made. You have a lot of aspirations and ambition for it and then as you go along certain things happen that maybe aren’t expected. I don’t really work with a plan. I work more intuitively mostly, which I prefer. It is a process of revelation that can be quite surprising sometimes. The things that end up happening are always interesting to analyse. And then of course along the way you inevitably find disappointments in what you are doing. One day is different to the next and it is a real emotional journey. You are working with images quite closely and consistently. That can be tough sometimes but is also a really exciting process.
MX: It is great that you let everything happen.
SARAH: I think you have to. You have to try to. You have to stick with it even when it’s not going well.
MX: Like a kind of mindfulness exercise through painting?
SARAH: Exactly, just sort of trust that something will happen.
MX: Do you ever try as an experiment to paint with your other hand, with your left hand?
SARAH: When I was at painting school we used to do that as an exercise in life drawing. Sometimes we would be asked to draw with one or both hands. I found it very interesting and quite good to loosen up. You can’t be too controlled or careful while doing it and all sorts of lovely accidental lines happen. But when I’m working on things like this (pointing to a portrait in progress) I wouldn’t work with my left hand. I would always work with my right.
MX: Which painters would you say you admire and are inspired by? You talked a bit to us before about Paula Rego.
SARAH: Yes, yes. I love Paula Rego. There are so many, actually. There aren’t many painters that I wouldn’t take something from even if it is what not to do. But I really like Paula Rego for all the narrative aspect in her work and also for the way that she handles the medium. People like Frank Auerberch and Lucian Freud obviously. Alice Neel I really love, the American painter. Sylvia Sleigh too. There are so many.
MX: Do you think you are also influenced by the impressionists to a certain level?
SARAH: To some degree, definitely. I love oil paint and I like to work with the medium. It is such an organic, rich, free medium. When you can be loose with it, it’s really quite beautiful.
MX: You have lived in many different countries before moving to the UK. Do you think this vision of the world has this influenced your painting?
SARAH: I think so, yes. I remember when I first started to make prints they unconsciously came out with a Japanese aesthetic. And I didn’t realise until somebody asked if it was intentional. But when you live in a culture for a number of years I suppose you unconsciously soak up certain aesthetic and pictorial influence. Many people have commented that my work looks as though it is from New Zealand, something to do with the light and colour. And I never really painted in New Zealand apart from when I was very young, so I think that must also be something cultural perhaps.
MX: It might be something that is within you, and it is great that it comes out through your work.
SARAH: I studied New Zealand art history for a while too. I think you do build up a visual language that you fall back on when you’re making things and it comes out somehow.
MX: I think you have such a renaissance approach to art because you are a painter but you are also interested in curating. You know how to speak another language too. So there is such a wide range of things that you are juggling, that makes such a great context.
SARAH: I think it definitely helps when you are making work. I could have gone straight into fine art in my twenties but somewhat accidentally I ended up in Japan and doing other things and working in the arts. I think that was part of the process of finding my way back to painting. I started working with art galleries and dealing with people’s art, probably because I wanted to be painting myself. I had a lot of trouble letting myself work figuratively, because all through my University education it was all very conceptual and contemporary, painting wasn’t really the thing to be doing. So it took me a while to say, “Actually I can paint and I can draw. I can draw the figure, and that’s ok”.
MX: It sounds like a fantastic journey.
SARAH: It was quite liberating actually, to realise that.
MX: What is the exhibition or award that is closest to your heart?
SARAH: I really enjoyed the opportunity earlier this year to show some of my larger paintings at the Mall Galleries. It was a show that ran as an adjunct to the Royal Society of Portrait Painters’ Annual Exhibition. They let me have a room in the Learning Center, a new area there. And I put up six large paintings of mine, none of which were commissions, they were all paintings of friends of mine. They were paintings of friends, of people who are in my life and it’s work that I made because I wanted to make it. And that all happened because of the Bulldog Bursary that I received from the Royal Society of Portrait Painters in 2013, which has been really helpful in facilitating my own work. As a portrait painter you survive through commissions and through making work, and that’s a joyous thing to be able to make the work and also get paid for it, it’s brilliant. -But it’s another thing to be able to have the financial resources to find the time to make the work that you want to make “just because”. It won’t necessarily be exhibited or be sold, but to have the time, space and financial resources to produce it anyway is really important.
MX: Your portraits are about the sitters, and yet, there is so much detail in the paraphernalia that surrounds the central characters in your paintings: pieces of furniture, upholstery, decoration, textiles, food. This makes them richer and more 3-D. Is it a conscious choice to paint all the items in your paintings in full detail?
SARAH: Generally it’s quite a conscious decision, yes. I work primarily from photographs these days. So I will have a photoshoot with my sitters first. I really like people to bring their own identity, their own sense of themselves to the portraits. I encourage sitters to choose what they want wear if they are so inclined. And also to choose objects that they might feel close to or have an affinity with. Books, things that are important to them. And sometimes it’s just the paraphernalia that is around. But I do like to set people in environments that are particular to them and that reflect something of their identities. Because I think we are so much more than our physical appearances, and I really like that narrative aspect that makes a painting much richer. And also there’s so much more that is interesting to paint from my point of view. I really like painting different objects and textures.
MX: This year 2015 seems to have been an especially prolific one for you. What projects have you been busy with and what do you expect from 2016?
SARAH: Well, I’m still trying to get my head around 2015! It was a great year. I exhibited in 10 different group & solo shows, including a few at the Mall Galleries that I hadn’t showed in before such as The Royal Institute of Oil Painter. I won the Arts Club Charitable Trust Award at the New English Arts Club Exhibition, which was a total surprise and very flattering. I had a lot of things on, and it was really nice to have the work and be busy and have that momentum.
There are several things scheduled for 2016, including ongoing and new private commissions. I am also organising and taking part in an exhibition of twelve women artists which will be at the Menier Gallery in Southwark from February 22nd – 27th.
As well as that I am continuing work on a book project with photographer Christa Holka that profiles members of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, teaching a few workshops with The New School of Art, donating a painting to The Terrence Higgins Trust for auction at Christie’s and exhibiting in my hometown Wellington for the first time ever (as part of the Adam Portrait Awards at the New Zealand Portrait Gallery).
MX: After having a look at your astonishing art production this year, we have observed your palette is a bit brighter than before and the use of dark, black colours is less present. Do you think you are moving into a different colour stage?
SARAH: Possibly! It’s interesting you mention that. You make work yourself and it’s difficult to see these transitions. But definitely I think I am using much lighter colours. I think that’s a function of producing portraits where there is a lot of stuff in the background, a bit like this one (gestures) and definitely like “Harriet and Anoushka”. I guess it’s my way of trying to manage the relationship between the background and the figures, and not becoming overwhelmed by all of the elements that are present in a portrait,- and having them really stand out as people. That’s something that I find quite difficult sometimes; the tension between figure and other elements in the painting. I’ve observed that my work is definitely becoming more graphic and simplified in a conscious way. From my perspective, as far as I’m aware of what I’m doing, it’s about clarity and making a figure read against the background.
MX: I am curious to know a bit more about your way of working. Is there anything that helps the painting muse visit you? Do you listen to your favourite music tunes, for example? Is there any specific routine that helps you dive in and keep your flow?
SARAH: I definitely listen to music a lot, -if not, Radio 4;- I sort of go between the two.
I find that I work best if I can have a chunk of time, a week or two weeks, where very little is going on socially and I can focus on the painting. So if the day goes well, I can carry on and I don’t have any other commitments outside the studio. I find that best. It helps you really get into a painting. Coffee helps! And I have a lot of breaks. Also trying to find a balance between having creative input and producing work is crucial. I find it difficult to go to exhibitions when I’m making work because is almost too much input. I really want to focus and have less outside distraction, which can be difficult in a city like London.
MX: What would be your advice for the artists-to-be out there in the world? How can they better cope with rejection and also with success?
SARAH: I’m not sure I’m an expert on the latter but I find it depends why you are painting, really. Success is a wildly different thing for different people. There is the external success you receive from tutors, or art societies or from gallery dealers, but there’s also the success within yourself as a painter — if you feel like you are making progress and moving forward and also being able to achieve what you set out to within your practice. If you’re able to grow. For me that’s the biggest thing and I feel that if you are prioritising that, everything else will flow from it. I hope that, anyway. In terms of anxieties about competitions, exhibitions and external judgement, well; we all receive rejections. I enter a certain number of shows every year and of course I’m not accepted to all. In many ways it’s a numbers game; you just have to keep at it. If you have a commitment to your practice, and you’re in it for the long haul, then things will inevitably happen. You’re bound to get better as a painter. And if you have a good deal of patience and tenacity you’re halfway there. So I don’t think anyone should be discouraged.
Sarah’s next curated and exhibiting show will be at Menier Gallery 51 Southwark Street London SE1 1RU Monday 22 – Saturday 27 February. I would say a must in our art diaries.
All paintings in this blog section are copyright@ of artist Sarah Jane Moon. http://sarahjanemoon.com/home.html
All photos in this blog section are copyright@ of Lorea Zuasti and María Xoubanova