Guilaine Veneziani was shortlisted for the Jackson’s Painting Prize this year with her work Meet the Villagers. With no formal training, the self-taught painter creates vibrant, sensitively observed cityscapes from her time spent living in Shanghai. Here, Guilaine explains her painting process, what this series means to her and why she defines herself as a painter, rather than an artist.
Above image: Lone Figure, 2017, Guilaine Veneziani, Oil on paper, 50 x 64 cm | 19.7 x 25.2 in.
Clare: Can you tell us about your artistic background/education?
Guilaine: It is simple, I have none. As a child I was not particularly good at drawing and so I thought that art was not for me. At university, I tried again with watercolours, but watercolours require the same confidence that drawing does. With both mediums, you cannot rework too much or you end up with a real mess, well I always did! Much later in life I tried painting again. This time it was a revelation because I skipped the drawing stage by tracing my subjects onto the blank canvas, and because I chose the forgiving mediums of oil and acrylic – mediums that can be reworked many times. Suddenly, I did not need confidence in my hands. I could go over and over until my eye told me that a stroke or a colour mix were right. It worked much better for me. I realised I could manage oil and acrylic with patience and tenacity rather than with talent or method. I was hooked! I certainly do not mean that I would not benefit from formally learning to draw and paint. But up until now I have managed to keep happy on a trial-and-error basis and so far, that is enough for me.
Clare: Where does a painting begin for you? Can you take us through your process?
Guilaine: It is always something I see around me, something I find beautiful or interesting and that I would love to capture and take with me forever. I use photographs as reference and work hard to get the composition right on screen before starting painting. I seek quirks and angles to highlight the scene. I very often need to cut and paste elements from different pictures together to get what I want. Once I am happy with the composition on screen, I use the classic grid technique to reproduce the image onto the paper. But I tend to forego the pencil. I much prefer to outline my subject roughly with a brush and diluted paint. I really have an issue with pens and pencils. My handwriting is rubbish! Then, as soon as possible, I paint.
Clare: If you don’t mind me saying, you weren’t too sure about doing an interview because you said you had “no real artistic vision to share” but still, you make so much work. So, I’m really interested to know what draws you to painting?
Guilaine: It is remarkably simple, because it makes me happy. I cannot be more eloquent about it. I paint for myself because my paintings are a never-ending source of good feelings. And I paint because I love the process of painting itself, mixing the right colour, applying it. I am very literal in my approach because abstraction is the hardest thing. I would need to take art classes to learn to free myself from pure representation. I cannot create directly from my imagination onto canvas. Thus, I see myself as a painter and not as an artist.
Clare: Can you tell us about this series of works from your time in China? What drew you to depict this particular cityscape?
Guilaine: I lived in Shanghai for eight years and I cannot be grateful enough for that experience. The city, its people, China and Asia at large have been bottomless sources of amazement and fascination. I paint Shanghai because I want it imprinted in me forever. I lived in the shadow of the Wukang Mansion (also known as the Normandie apartments) for five years. I always admired it. Knowing I had to leave one day, I had to find way to take it with me. And I also needed to take Dongtai Road’s flea market (now sadly replaced by modern buildings), and take the “Green Tunnels”, Shanghai’s cooling canopy of plane trees. It is always very personal.
Clare: Do you have a regular practice of drawing? If so, how often do you draw and what materials do you use?
Guilaine: As you know by now, I cannot draw, and I have never been inclined to learn as I am not particularly attracted to dry mediums. Come to think of it, I perhaps would want to learn using a brush and paint. I guess I will have to learn if my enjoyment of painting is vastly hampered by my lack of skills.
Clare: What can you tell us about your colour choices and how do you set up your palette?
Guilaine: I love to get the brightest hues because it is quite easy to muddy or dull them if you need to. Since I painted most of my painting life in China, I used paints widely available over there (such as Marie’s). I am now in the process of learning about what is more available in Europe. With oil I particularly like Rembrandt’s paints, I find their texture creamier than others and I like that. I have not tried all their colours but I am a big fan of Sevres Blue, Cadmium Orange and Payne’s Grey. I also like Winsor & Newton paints, though I feel the ones I bought in China might be different than the ones I find here. I keep reference swabs of all the paints I have ever bought to see how they age and decide what to buy again or not. I am still looking for the ideal (creamiest and whitest) Titanium White, currently testing Michael Harding’s (No 102 series 1) and Winsor & Newton’s too. I use acrylics much less often than oils but when I do, I really love Sennelier’s Chinese Orange (and that is not a bias!) as it brings so much light to anything you mix it with.
Clare: What are your most important artist’s tools? Do you have any favourites?
Guilaine: As an amateur who has yet to make a sale (granted that I have never advertised my paintings for sale) my approach is low-cost. I mostly paint on paper (Canson Figueras). It takes less storage space than canvases and it is much cheaper. I can also crop the paper to size to fit the dimensions of the scene I am painting which is handy regarding composition. However, because they are unframed, my paintings tend to languish in folders. So last summer I started making DIY frames using light strips of wood from the hardware store that I cut to size with a mitre saw. I staple and glue the cuts together and fix the painting onto the resulting frame with Kraft paper tape. I was amazed at how such simple framing enhances the paintings. Since the resulting frames weigh almost nothing I can just hang them with removable hanging strips, no holes required, total flexibility. It is incredibly rewarding to finally be able to put my paintings up on my walls. Friends and family are even starting to notice them and pick up their favourites to take back home (to my husband’s delight!). I guess I am more open to share now.
Clare: How has the lockdown of the last few months affected your practice?
Guilaine: I am an introvert so the lockdown kinds of suits my mood, and we are a household of just two, so I never feel crowded. Lockdown or not, I still have access to the spare room where I isolate myself to paint in.
Clare: What are your art influences? Who are your favourite contemporary or historical artists and why?
Guilaine: As a child I remember liking a poster of Le Port de La Rochelle by Bernard Buffet hanging in my grandmother’s lounge. In this and his other works I adore his confident dark contrasting lines and colours. But I owe a lot, if not all my painting life, to the internet and social media because they thrust the painting world onto me. That universe became accessible to me and I could see people like me doing it. Instagram is now my source of daily delights and motivation. I look at people’s posts and I am filled with the desire to paint. Yes, it is also a ‘compare and despair’ exercise but I am glad that the talent-envy I develop watching other people’s work is not the dominant emotion I am left with. It is the desire to pick up the brush to see what I can do next. Instagram provides me with a bottomless source of new artists to admire, too many to name really.
Clare: What makes a good day in the studio for you?
Guilaine: A minimum level of interruption and being able to enter ‘the flow’ when there is little thinking going on but hours of reacting to gut feelings. Gut feelings that guide me to mix the right colour, to achieve the right texture, to make something pop into 3D, to straighten and crisp a line, to fluidify a curve etc. Simple pleasures really. And finally, when a painting is right, no matter how much I look at it, it always gives me some sort of butterflies in the stomach. It is addictive!
Clare: Can you tell us where we can see more of your work online or in the flesh?
Guilaine: Up on my walls and on Instagram @huilinshanghai. I cannot imagine any other outlets for now, I never think about that. Marketing yourself is a job in itself and I much prefer concentrating on painting. But a huge thanks to the Jackson’s Art Blog for this opportunity of sharing my humble painting story.