Joanna Stone is a figurative artist and has a studio here at Westbury. During the last 20 years Joanna has exhibited in and around Bedfordshire. She has undertaken a number of commissions over the years and has various works in private collections. Joanna also runs independent art classes.
In this artist interview Joanna shares with us her artistic process, Ideas and inspiration.
TELL ME ABOUT YOUR ARTISTIC BACKGROUND AND HOW YOU BECAME AN ARTIST?
When I was as young as 4 I clearly remember watching my grandfather painting a landscape on their anaglypta wallpaper in their house in Yorkshire. He was a steel worker and painting was a hobby, it was a real passion.
I was totally inspired and fascinated with how he was painting trees, a 4 year old gazing up in wonderment. I think this was the key moment when I thought:
"This is what I want to do, I want to be an artist when I grow up"
This set the path for my artistic career and I enjoyed art throughout school. When I reached my O levels I wasn't able to take art as a more academic route was planned for me. It was a grammar school so the emphasis was always going to be on the more academic subjects.
However there was a wonderful O level art teacher, he offered to help me attain an art O level. I would go to the art room at lunchtime or after school and I would be set art homework - Through his help and support I managed to achieve my O level. I went on to do an A level in art which naturally led to going to art college. I did a degree in Loughborough followed by a teaching certificate at Goldsmiths in London.
I have carried on ever since, art has been my whole life right from when I was a 4 year old gazing up at wonderment at my grandfathers landscape.
YOU DO A LOT OF FIGUARTIVE WORK, WHAT IS IT ABOUT THE HUMAN FORM THAT INSPIRES YOU TO PAINT THIS SUBJECT MATTER?
It's definitely something that I've always enjoyed doing, Life Drawing has always been something which I've felt strangely confident about and always been able to do well.
I think it's to do with the vibrancy and the constant challenge of being able to draw the human figure. It's different, for example, to drawing a tree, if you represent a tree in a drawing and change the shape of a branch or leave a branch off it doesn't matter, whereas you can't do that to a person!
We see people as being easily recognisable, so if things are in the wrong proportion or the wrong place it's visible to all. There's also the movement and the sheer energy that comes from people. If I put a mark down and then there is a slight movement I'll see a change, perhaps in the light which could effect the colours that I'm seeing. It's a constantly moving process, an inner state of fluidity.
At art college I was persuaded to do figurative sculpture. However I wasn't really interested in following this path, I was keen to explore other avenues and other ways of expressing myself.
I was fascinated with abstract expressionists and I wanted to do abstract work. I do remember struggling for 3 years throughout my degree trying to make and explore this genre without much support from tutors. I was making installations when this was a relatively new thing. The teaching staff were "old school", that's not to say they didn't understand abstract art but they themselves were producing figurative work. So, I was left to my own devices most of the time.
It was when I started my teaching certificate at Goldsmiths that I started doing a lot more life drawing. We would have the most amazing models!
As part of this course we had to do three days a week teaching and two days working in our studio, this was the format we followed throughout the course. I've more or less followed this practice ever since, throughout my working life I've taught part time and spent the rest of my time in my studio. It's a hard balance at times!
YOU’VE RECENTLY PAINTED A SERIES OF PORTRAITS INSPIRED BY SHAKESPEARE, WHY SHAKESPEARE AND HOW DID THIS EVOLVE?
Aside from doing life drawing or doing commissions of portraits for people, I like to tell stories, I like to create portraits with a story.
It’s referencing renaissance work where there’s a huge long tradition of narrative portraits that have clues about people in them which tell stories.
I’ve been in Shakespeare plays over the years and I’ve enjoyed watching and studying them.
There has been a lot written about his female characters, how he generally makes them feeble, tragic or comic. I feel he created very strong women and although they may have appeared vulnerable, sad or mad, I've always felt that it was as if he understood the roots of womens’ issues in society at that time.
I do feel many of his characters are timeless and I'm interested in challenging the stereotypes which I feel I've grown up with. At the same time I'm looking at ways he might interpret or develop his female characters now.
One of the paintings of this series is of Juliet, Juliet is a fascinating character, she's quite feisty and wilful. I imagined her sitting at a bus stop, she’s a teenager, and I'm trying to suggest that she has the opportunity to change her mind.
She’s looking at her phone, maybe she’s texting Romeo to meet her. There’s a moment when she’s dreamily looking off into the distance and the bus stop could mean anything. She could be going anywhere, she could be going back or she could decide to go somewhere by herself.
The bus stop symbolises an opportunity to fly to go where she wants and to do what she wants with her own life.
I think that’s the teenage girl on the cusp of deciding what she wants to do.
Shakespeare put both Romeo & Juliet in a tragic situation because he wanted to point out that this would be the result of these warring families. They were star crossed, there could be no other path. What I'm trying to suggest is that a contemporary Juliet now may choose a different path.
Another portrait I have done is of Mistress Quickly who I've painted in a bar scene. Mistress Quickly is a character that provides comic relief, she featured in several of Shakespeare plays due to her popularity.
Mistress Quickly is supposed to have connections with the low life as well as with royalty, she knows an awful lot. She is very funny and can be involved in lots of plots and counter plots.
I had great fun doing this portrait, the model had worked in a pub for many years so she had this natural wisdom and wit.
There was lots of talking and lots of stories. The thing is she never kept still the whole time, which I hope is reflected to some extent within the painting. I have deliberately titled the painting “Ms” Quickly to emphasise that she’s a modern woman.
ARE YOU WORKING ON ANY MORE SHAKESPEARE INSPIRED PORTRAITS?
The series is not finished by any means; It’s a bit open ended. There may come a point when I say enough is enough and I won’t go back to it. But I'm constantly evolving ideas, I do lots of work in sketchbooks.
I am developing some other Shakespeare characters, 2020 was difficult as I wasn't able to have any live sitters, everything is on hold at the moment.
WHERE DOES A PAINTING BEGIN FOR YOU? TALK US THROUGH YOUR CREATIVE PROCESS?
For Mistress Quickly, for example, I started off drawing her in my sketch book and had some initial ideas about the composition. I decided I wanted to do a parody of Manet's “Barmaid at the Folies Bergeres”, I did go through all sorts of ideas. I even visited the idea of having the character in a fairy outfit and having
the model wear some fairy wings! (In one of her incarnations Mistress Quickly dresses up as a fairy!)
Once I'd decided to go with the idea of the Manet bar scene I made lots of sketches in order to work out the composition.
I would even go as far as to re-create the bar scene in my studio. I set up a table easel on a chair with a box where the head would be, I had to ensure that my easel was in the correct position so I would be able to see her face and the back of her head reflecting in the mirror. I spent a few hours trying to re-create this scene!
"I make lots of sketches before hand which helps me look at my ideas for composition"
WHAT'S YOUR FAVOURITE PART OF THE PROCESS?
It’s the actual sitting and doing the painting. It’s very special, I do encourage models to talk and over time you get to build a very special relationship as you get to know that person.
I've learnt a lot over the years and there's always a moment when the expression on the painting crystalises. The painting will go through lots of changes and can often lose focus, but there does come a moment perhaps with a small mark that I make and then suddenly the expression is just right! Sometimes I have to be talking to someone for that expression to appear.
WHAT'S A GOOD DAY IN THE STUDIO FOR YOU?
Every day is different, some days are about just thinking, having the space to think away from distractions. I try and draw or splash paint around every day so I can start my creative process, it gets me in the right mindset.
I may paint something related to a portrait I’m working on or I may draw the plant in the room or the tree outside or it may be just putting some colours down. Sometimes the day will consist of me reading or researching something.
I do find that drawing is a discipline and it underpins everything else, so I ensure I return to this regularly and draw exactly what I see.
It’s like an athlete, who has to keep training to keep all those muscles in a fit state in order to run a big race.
I think the best days in the studio are when I have somebody sitting for me and I'm just painting, I'm just lost in it.
TELL ME ABOUT THE MEDIUMS YOU CHOOSE TO USE – DO YOU HAVE A PREFERRED MEDIUM?
No not really, I suppose If I were to choose one it would be oil paint. But it depends on what I’m doing at the time.
I like watercolours as they are so portable. I find that with Life drawing watercolours allow me to experiment, I love the fact that they’re transparent, I love the vibrancy and how it does all sorts of almost unpredictable things. They’re not completely unpredictable but it can do all sorts of lovely things by itself. Once you know what they can do you can play with it and make those things happen.
WHEN YOURE SETTING UP YOUR PALETTE DO YOU HAVE CERTAIN COLOURS YOU USE OR DOES IT CHANGE DEPENDING ON THE SITTER OR SUBJECT MATTER?
I think it’s fair to say that I work through a certain range of colours, I tend to set my palette up in a certain order I can then go to the colour I need almost without looking. I’ll have 3 yellows, 3 reds, 3 blues and I might have the occasional colour like Magenta and sometimes something like a burnt umber so I can make black. I don’t use black, unless I’m doing a black and white piece, I'll also have white , I'll quite often have 2 different kinds of whites with oils. From that range of colours I can make any colour I want.
ON YOUR WEBSITE IT SAYS “I’M FIRED BY THE CHALLENGES OF LIFE AND THIS INFORMS ALL MY ART” WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY THIS?
I’m excited by the challenges of working from life. By this I mean the person in front of me or the landscape, anything that's in front of me.
Whatever it is is challenging to paint, that’s my starting point, that’s where I get the inspiration from.
WHAT ARE YOUR ART INFLUENCERS, TELL ME ABOUT YOUR FAVOURITE ARTISTS?
I really love the early Renaissance period and I’m fascinated by early religious paintings, there was so much symbolism. At a time when most people didn't know how to read or write these religious paintings were how people would have understood the world, paintings told a story!
We saw some early religious painting recently in Hexam cathedral, they have beautiful paintings on the ancient wood which are still preserved.
They are amazing, the figures are not quite in proportion, quite stiff looking. But these were people, nameless people, they were artists, artisans who were employed to do a job. They were trying to draw people as realistically as they could within the constraints of doing a job for the church.
Then jumping from these early religious paintings in the 13th/14th century to someone like Caravaggio in the 16th/17th century, he produced three dimensional work, almost photographic. The composition is dynamic, full of movement he was painting flesh that really looked like flesh, it’s astonishing.
I remember seeing one of his paintings, "Crucifixion of St Peter" done in 1601, and it leaving me completely speechless and stunned. It's so incredibly lifelike and dynamic!
"Crucifixion of St Peter"
Another painting I love is "Saint Francis in Meditation", 1606. A soulful and beautiful portrait. I saw both in the National Gallery in London a few years ago.
"St Francis in Meditation"
More recently I enjoyed the Paula Rego show at MK Gallery. I didn’t discover her until quite late on and to go and see incredibly powerful and uncomfortable works, really well executed, was fantastic. I think I identified with them quite a lot I really appreciated what she’d done.
I'VE SPOKEN TO A FEW ARTISTS OVER THE LAST FEW MONTHS AS TO HOW LOCKDOWN HAS BEEN FOR THEM. FOR SOME IT’S BEEN A CHANCE TO REFLECT, FOR SOME IT’S BEEN STIFLING, HOW HAS IT BEEN FOR YOU?
It has been difficult, it’s not been easy. I haven’t been able to have sitters, I haven’t been able to do my Life Drawing classes.
During the first lockdown when I wasn't able to visit my studio I spent lots of time in the garden during the summer, drawing things that I could see. I also did lots of self portraits which is something I've done my whole life as I'm always available and can make myself be still!
I did a whole lot of self portraits, most of which are just trying things out, not necessarily trying to be accurate but just trying to experiment with materials and thinking about I how I might position somebody.
I did a self portrait in charcoal which I did very quickly, I was just holding the mirror looking through my overgrown fringe. When I looked at it afterwards I thought it had caught my expression, and my feeling at the time which was - this isn’t just going to pass this is something that is strangely ongoing, there was an expression in my eyes I quite liked.
WHATS NEXT FOR YOU, HAVE YOU ANY PLANS FOR FUTURE EXHIBITIONS OR IS EVERYTHING ON HOLD?
It is quite difficult at the moment as most things are on hold. I am planning on at least two more Shakespeare characters. I'm constantly evolving ideas and have many threads that I'm currently exploring. I will, however, be taking part in the Bucks Art Weeks event in June
and I’m planning a solo exhibition at Westbury Arts Centre in November this year.
I would like to thank Joanna for allowing me to have an insight into her life as an artist. What was clear to me during the interview is how Joanna has such a deep understanding of figurative work and the passion clearly shines through not only in the work she produces but in the way she talks about it. To view more of Jo's work do visit her website:
When we're not in lockdown Jo also holds a weekly Life Drawing class at Westbury on Tuesday evenings as well as Portraiture and Beginners Painting classes.
"I sometimes think there is nothing so delightful as drawing."