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In the Studio with Lucy Whitehead

British artist Lucy Whitehead explores the visual representation of the human form, where the subjects in her paintings are bodily masses dissected with geometric structures. We met with Lucy to tell us more about her journey, upbringing and artistic practice.

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

For as long as I remember I’ve been drawing. I got my first easel when I was 6 years old, which I still use now. Although it has needed quite a bit of repairing since! During my GCSEs I had a really inspiring art teacher who really made me want to be an artist. I really loved the sciences as well at school, which I think comes through my work now. I’ve never considered doing anything other than being an artist. I don’t think it has ever been a conscious decision to become one because I’ve never been able to think of anything else, because I’d spend all my time drawing and painting.

Where are you from and what was your upbringing like? How has this impacted your work?

I grew up in Liverpool right by the sea. I have family in the Lake District and the natural landscape has always had a big impact on my work – probably more so now than ever as my memories of the fells and valleys often come through my work in how I view the body as a landscape. I have always been surrounded by strong women, which has also had a huge impact on my work.

Paint us a picture of your artistic journey. Have you gone through the traditional route of art school and what was your experience?

Art has been present throughout all of my education. I took it for GCSE and A-Level, and then went to Loughborough University to do a foundation in Art and Design. After that I nearly applied for Fine Art at Central Saint Martins, but after some thought and the advice of some of my tutors in college, I applied for the Drawing BA at Camberwell College of Arts, which was the best decision I’ve made. The focus on one aspect of Fine Art really suited my practice and honed my thinking. During that time, I also took an elective in an Anatomy for Artists which has had a massive impact on my work and tied in my love of science, which I hadn’t had a chance to study since school. After that I had 7 years out where I lived in Germany and worked as part of a collective in Leipzig. I have had a lot of part-time or temporary jobs, working as an artist assistant and in scene painting. But I always knew I wanted to do an MA in painting at the RCA but it would require a lot of work to get a place. I always continued making work either at home or in a studio. I’m now finishing my first year at the RCA where I also was awarded the Basil H. A.lkazzi Scholarship to help fund my studies which has been a huge honour. Despite what is happening now, I still feel my practice has developed more in the last year than my whole journey before then. I’m really excited for what my second year brings!

What’s the message of your work? Are there themes/narratives/purpose?

I am interested in the social constructs surrounding the masculine and feminine. Whereby breaking up the image into the perceptual qualities of line, colour and form I can highlight the preconceived ideas around this topic which have been embedded within the social psyche and artistic representations.

Where do they come from? How would you describe your aesthetic?

In my paintings I treat the body in the same way I would as a landscape and so I’d say the aesthetic is best described as a semi-figurative abstract landscape…

Who and what are your greatest influences?

My influences have changed quite a lot over the years, but my staple artists who I always refer back to are Picasso, Lee Krasner and Willem De Kooning. I’m also looking a lot at the work of Cecily Brown.

Cecily Brown, Where They Are Now, 2013

Are your works planned? What do you want people to take from your work when they view it? Do you have the audience consciously in mind when you are creating?

My works are never planned. They evolve as I am working on them. The process of painting and finding the balance between colours, line, shapes and light is a huge part of my work. I usually begin with a few rough charcoal lines which mimic ones I would’ve made from any life drawings I do in my sketchbooks. Then gradually, from adding in colour, texture structures emerge which I then build on until everything is balanced.

What events in your life have mobilised change in your practise/aesthetic? How has your art evolved? Do you stick to one medium? Do you experiment? Do you see any parameters to your work?

I’m currently working with acrylic paint because I work quite intensely and fast so I need something which dries quick enough so I can keep building up layers. I also use soft pastels and charcoal as drawing is a really important part of my work. I’m beginning to experiment with dying and stitching as a way of replacing some of the drawn line, which is pretty exciting.

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

My work is very dependent on my mood or thought process at the time which is equally affected by the kind of music I am listening to whilst painting. Some works are more serene than others and this probably happens when I am listening to calmer music. Others are more intense made when I’m listening to Marilyn Manson or rap or something.

What are your goals for the future?

At the moment I am focusing on my dissertation I am writing as a part of my Masters. Unfortunately quite a lot of the group exhibitions which I was going to be a part of are on hold for now so I’m just focusing on continuing making as much work as possible for when things start up again.

How has your art practice been affected by self-isolation?

I’ve been really fortunate to have a garage where I can work in whilst my College has been closed. As the space is a lot more confined, the work I’ve been making has been a lot smaller than I usually make, which has been interesting especially when space and composition already play such huge part in how I work.

Are you creating new work while social distancing?

Yes, I have been lucky to have access to my studio while social distancing and it has been the one “safe” place apart from my home that I’ve been able to frequent. Right now, I’m thinking less about a cohesive series of works and more about showing up without a limitation placed on the sizes, surface types, and approaches I’m utilising. There are a lot of things in process, from prints and medium-sized drawings to quick, small paintings and larger scale works that take months at a time. Amid their independent qualities, the paintings start to speak to one another either subtly or overtly over as they develop. 

How are you staying creative?

I’ve been playing a lot of the piano and drawing more. This has meant the drawn lines have become much more prominent and frequent, so my work feels a lot more gestural and fluid which I really like.

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