In the Studio with Alice Macdonald

In the studio with Alice Macdonald, whose works are fascinated by the complexities of human behaviours, emotion and relationships. We met with Alice to tell us more about growing up in London, her greatest influences, and unexpected sources of inspiration.

When did you first begin to see yourself as an artist?

I don’t know, that’s a strange one. ‘Artist’ is a funny label. Even though in the past I did feel quite like an artist, I think it’s hard at first to call yourself an artist, because mostly when you tell people you’re an artist they’re like, ok, but what else do you do? I suppose I started saying I was an artist with more conviction after I left the Drawing School in 2017/18. Or maybe since I’ve been putting ‘artist’ on my tax return – that made it feel more official?

Where are you from and what was your upbringing like?

I was born in London, and I grew up above my dad’s restaurant in Victoria in central London. When I was 11 we moved to the countryside sort of near Oxford. My mum is a teacher. I have three younger brothers, two of them, Ranald and Angus, are also artists, the other one, Hector, is more of a writer. We all get on pretty well, I really feel really lucky to have so much in common with my brothers, I like to talk to them about my work and my ideas, about books I am reading, for advice, I trust their opinions.  

Music was a big part of my childhood. My Dad is obsessed with Elvis Presley, and Elvis was playing a lot of the time, in particular I remember Elvis tapes in the car.  My brothers are all also very musical and they can all play all sorts of instruments. Somehow I never managed to really learn any. But when we are all at home at Christmas or something we often end up singing around the piano. I think I am more of a behind the scenes person, I don’t like being in the spotlight. Ranald has a band called This Is The Deep, and my partner Mark and I paint backdrops for their live performances. 

All in all I think I had a mostly happy upbringing. I don’t know really how it has impacted my work…I do really enjoy watching and drawing people, especially in pubs, I did a whole series of prints about pubs, and I also love painting food related images.. perhaps this is something to do with my early upbringing above the restaurant?

Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. What inspired you to first pursue, and then continue to practice artistic work? 

I always liked drawing and making things as a child. My Grandma Jane is a great watercolourist, and when I was little I would go to her house and paint with her at the weekends. I was lucky to be encouraged by her and my parents. Because it was the thing I enjoyed most, it always seemed obvious I would apply for Art school. Although I did briefly consider studying languages, after school I did an Art Foundation and then I applied to Falmouth to study Illustration. I was thinking that Illustration would lead to a steady job and would make use of my love of drawing. Turns out I don’t really enjoy working to briefs and it’s actually pretty hard to make a living doing illustration, and most of it is done digitally now, which I really don’t like. Illustration wasn’t for me! So I decided to apply to the Drawing School. The intense year spent drawing taught me a lot, I think studying there was a pivotal step for me, it was the first step towards my current art practice. but I’m not sure you ever feel like you are on the right track exactly – you are always trying to do something better, there is always further to go! 

What’s the message of your work? Where do they come from? 

I don’t think there is one single message of my work. I think of my work of a collection of thoughts and observations. Most of my work starts with a drawing, either from observation, from memory or from a film still, occasionally from imagination. I am interested in people, their psychological state and innermost thoughts and feelings, but I am also fascinated by the impossibility of knowing what they really are, by how difficult it is to know someone really. 

Ideas can come from anywhere – I am influenced by all sorts of things – literature, myth and fairy tale, music, cinema and opera, and research into history, art history and feminist discourse. I am really interested in psychology and how the brain works-  I often think about psychologist Erving Goffman’s idea of role-play – everyone consciously or not, is acting a part- whether self-imposed or created by society. I also think a lot about stereotypes and archetypes, in particular in terms of gender. I am aware that the male gaze has influenced how I and society expect women to look and behave, and I question how to represent women. I often draw other women and myself in examination of female experience, my own relationship to womanhood and my received concept of femininity.

I have no idea how to describe my aesthetic. But I am as much interested in playing with the visual elements of light and shadow, colour, pattern, texture and pictoral depth and composition as in the subject matter itself. I often make several versions of a painting starting with lots of small watercolour studies and then painting larger in distemper and oil on canvas. Through this process the image changes and the resulting paintings are somewhere between reality and fiction, observed and imagined.

Who & what are your greatest influences?  

In terms of artists, I think my all time greatest influence is Edvard Munch. I love the way he painted and the emotional intensity in his work. Then I also love artists such as Alice neel, Bonnard, Vuillard, Paula Modersohn Becker, Marlene Dumas, Chantal Joffe, Sarah Pickstone, Mama Anderson, Ishbel Myerscough, Caroline Walker… and many more. 

I listen to audiobooks most of the time when I am painting, and I think listening to so many stories and different narratives from all across time and the globe has a strong influence on me.

An unexpected source of inspiration?

Sometimes it’s just something you see for a flash of a second that might inspire you to make something, I think you never know where it’s going to be or come from. So, in a way, it’s always unexpected.  

What do you want people to take from your work when they view it?

No not really. I think once you’ve painted it, the audience can think what they like. I think I just want people to be compelled look at the work, and to be interested in it, perhaps to wonder about the people I’ve painted and who they are, what their story might be? I love the idea that when you look at a painting of someone, say a Tudor portrait, you can meet the eye of someone across time and space. 

What events in your life have mobilized change in your practice?

I don’t think one event has changed my practice. It’s more of a changing gradually by small degrees. I usually work quite fast. I think I feel like I have to get the ideas on paper before they disappear. I would say I’m pretty experimental. If I have an idea about something I’ll try it out. I’m not very good about doing small scale tests or plans, I like to just go for it. If it’s a disaster, I’ll have to try something else. 

What are your ideal conditions or catalyst for creating a “good” piece of work?

 Oh I think that is impossible to say. These conditions are pretty illusive! I think mainly I need time gathering ideas – by doing things and looking at things outside the studio, and then you need time in the studio to paint them. But sometimes it seems like you have all the ingredients for a good piece of work but it just turns out terrible. It’s not a precise science. 

Tell us the inspiration behind your works?

Shaving Mirror Image is from a drawing I did of my partner and artist Mark Connolly in winter lockdown 2021. It was a pretty depressing time, I was really missing outside information and inspiration. I made loads of drawings of Mark – sleeping, eating, bathing and shaving. I needed something to do, and there was nothing else to draw! But eventually I got pretty interested in the intimacy of being stuck so intensely together. I also got really interested in the image of the image of the mirror reflection and the difference between Mark and his reflection that happened because obviously I was not fast enough to draw them both at once. The idea of your alter ego or persona. 

Something in the future you hope to explore?

I’m thinking a lot at the moment about people sitting at tables, I think a table is a very interesting space, a domestic place, a place where food is prepared and eaten. Sitting at the table with someone creates a space for conversation. I’m currently working towards a show with Paint Talk in June, the working title is “Table Talk and Other Conversations’. We will see where it leads me!