In this week’s ‘Spotlight’, I’m talking acryllics, aspirations and all things Parisienne with talented and successful artist, Melissa Sturgeon. Melissa’s work has already had me counting out my coppers to try and get the funds together to buy one of her evocative, alluring and whimsical French cafe scenes. Her art literally tempts you to visit and frequent the subjects she paints….and one would and can happily get lost in them!Melissa Sturgeon
It is evident from your work that you are inspired by street scenes and buildings! How long have you been painting these settings and what aspects of a building or street draw you in to the point where you want to paint it?
I started developing a love of painting buildings and street themes when I was studying illustration at Falmouth School of Art back in the mid 90’s. As part of the course we were encouraged to develop our own work with one of our part-time tutors (who happens to be a very well-known Cornish painter called Rob Jones). I developed lots of sketchbook work based on the town, looking at details such as the architecture, bunting and tiny windows tucked into the eves of crooked rooftops. It was the first time I remember really enjoying my craft and exploring what mad me tick. I was looking at everything differently and realised I had up until then been blind to everything around me. The aspect that draws me in is the feeling you get about the subject, of how it invites your senses and you want to find out more, beyond the walls and doorways. You get a sense of mystery, of another time perhaps and wonder about how much life has taken place where you are standing. People often find they question what is happening beyond the doorways in the shadows, discovering the stories that might be unfolding.
Do you paint from memory, photograph, sketches you’ve done previously or at the scene itself?
When I travel, time is of a premium (unfortunately), so as well as a sketchbook I always have a camera with me. It is incredibly handy, especially when time is a big factor.
Mostly what I find I do is to sit somewhere, either at a café table, on the curb perhaps and just spend time watching the world around me, absorbing everything, using all the senses. You cannot bottle the atmosphere; it isn’t something that is tangible, you can only convey a feel for a place from your memories, from your own experiences, and try your best to translate that in your work.
There are a lot of Parisienne cafes and shops in your art; what is it about Paris that you love so much?
Where do I begin? Whenever I am in Montmartre I have this weird sense of belonging; perhaps I was a dancer at the Moulin Rouge in a previous life, who knows!!! In all seriousness, every time I get out of the Metro at Abbesses and take the short walk up the hill to the Sacre Coeur, I feel like I’ve come home. I’m entranced by it’s beauty, it’s sense of history, how it still feels set apart from the rest of Paris as it used to be a hundred years ago. It’s as popular to artists now as it was then, for all the same reasons: it’s rare that such a small area could be so inspirational to so many.
I was last there in December ’08, and spent hours under the canopy of a small piano bar drinking mulled wine and listening to Edith Piaf, as the rain was falling. It was late evening before I had to bring myself to leave. The wild horses had to drag me away, else I would no doubt still be there!!
What feelings or reactions do you hope to arouse in people who view your paintings? Do you aim for a certain reaction and if not, are you ever surprised by reactions that you get?
I would like to inspire in others the same feelings and arouse the same senses. I would like to invite the viewer to join me in those experiences. Many of my paintings have a very subtle idea of a narrative unfolding, using figures in my paintings to allow the viewer to connect with them and be a part of the storytelling.
What I love the most is hearing people talk about the honeymoons, the holidays, where they met and fell in love, even being born in the same streets as those I have painted and stirring up memories and moments in time for others – I find that sort of thing the most rewarding of all.
I love Paris and looking at some particular paintings made me want to either go back there or buy the painting! Do people who buy your art tend to have visited the locations that you paint or do the paintings conjure up such lovely images that they have to buy them, regardless of whether they’ve been near there or not?
It’s true that many people who have bought my paintings have been to these places, re-iterating what we were talking about before; many have wanted to keep their happy memories alive. But that is not always the case; a lovely reporter for the Oxford Times who was reviewing an exhibition of mine singled out a particular painting. She described how she longed to sit at the yellow and white check table, to drink a cup of coffee with an absinthe chaser and to watch the world go by. I loved that so much, and it’s probably no surprise she later bought the painting.
Do you look for new locations to paint or do you only paint locations you’ve stumbled across which have touched you in some way?
I essentially paint places I stumble across, and don’t set myself any missions to find them; they seem to find me if I’m honest!!
You work with acrylic; why is this your preferred method and have you worked with other methods? What made you choose acrylic?
Acrylics are a fabulous medium to use for so many reasons. I used to use watercolours many moons ago – at school I guess – but was using them too thickly and consequently spent a lot of money on paint. Then I tried oils which I couldn’t get to grips with at all; smelly, took forever to dry – hated it! With Acrylics you have all the benefits of water-based paint with no nasty smells. You can use them thinly like a watercolour, or very thick like oils. I use system three and I would never go back; the strength of colours is brilliant. My new best friend is the impasto gel from that range. It helps to create layering effects, giving a great sense of depth. I couldn’t live without them now.
You used to work for a publishers but left because of the strict briefs which you felt stifled your creativity; what advice would you offer to artists starting out who may be taking work where they have to meet the requests of others rather than explore their own creativity with total freedom? Is it a good thing to do for a period of time anyway?
I did briefly work as an illustrator, but I wasn’t fulfilled at all. I knew it wasn’t for me and it showed. However there is no harm in trying out many facets of the art world even if they merely help you to decide that’s not for you. For many, illustrating is the perfect combination; you love drawing and painting but you like the guidance and direction of others. But it wasn’t for me!
How is your career coping with the current economic climate? Do you feel that artists are being badly affected by the credit crunch or have you not noticed much difference?
I actually haven’t noticed a big difference actually. Art and the love of art is as vital to our world as needing a car or a refrigerator. I hope!!!!
Do you exhibit? How important is getting your work out there as an artist? Do you feel the need to get into the public domain or do you only use your website for that?
I do exhibit yes; you need to gain wider audiences and to build up your network. Private views are a great way for people to meet the artist behind the work. It’s also great for meeting other like-minded people but I appreciate it can be a scary business too.
What is in the pipeline for you at the moment? Any new projects or paintings on the way?
I’m working on a series of smaller paintings at the minute all about the fun fair, incorporating lots of colour, light and movement. It’s something a little bit different and I will see where they lead me!
What has been the high point of your career so far?
Hard question really, it’s all been good so far. It’s all a journey of self-discovery, much like life.
Any general advice you can offer to artists who may be starting out on their road?
Always be honest with yourself and others – your work will benefit from this. Don’t try too hard; you don’t need to make a profound statement to impress people. Remember what Hopper said, your work must reflect you, you are the work!! Above all stick with it, and don’t ever lose heart.
I would like to thank Melissa for her time and her thoughts…..you can get a better insight into her work on her website: