As we gear up to that time of year when the theme is to be joyous – and say bye bye to 2016, broadly considered to have been shaky from the moment the David Bowie news emerged (in January!) – lets explore the work of artist Holly Frean, currently on show in the Paul Smith flagship store in London. It can’t fail to raise a smile. Holly’s work is diverse, but it’s her paintings of often huge groups of one type of subject that are especially engaging, whether its packs of dogs, pigs and polar bears or Old Masters and British kings and queens. Sometimes the subjects are rendered in a single colour group – tones of blue or brown for instance – and sometimes they feature many shades. We spoke to Holly about her approach to the work a few days after she opened her latest show.
On choosing subjects: “I find one body of work follows on from another. Keeping religiously to a client’s brief is tricky and rarely yields my best work. I love a commission and I don’t mind being given guidelines but when they then ask for something ‘a bit more pink’ I start to rebel.
I don’t necessarily paint what comes easily to me, I paint what grips me. And what began to grip me towards the end of last year was the idea that all of the faces I was painting might be self-portraits. All the old masters in their studios that I’ve been painting, all the polar bears and monkeys, looked exactly the way I felt. I was unwittingly expressing – for example – my inner orangutan! In hindsight they do all look a bit rabbit-in-the-headlights, a bit eyes-wide, which I feel a lot of the time.”
On background and training: “I grew up in a house full of textile designers and graphic designers and had an extremely tough art teacher at school who had been to the Slade School of Art during Paula Rego’s time there. I was convinced I should be an architect and went to Camberwell College of Art for a year before Oxford Brookes School of Architecture. I knew in my heart that I felt most at home standing in front of a piece of primed hardboard with my paints and my favourite paint brushes in my hand. I switched to City and Guilds of London Art School to study Fine Art and in my first year there I had a relentless first year of drawing from life, day in, day out. I also did short courses to supplement my degree and at the Slade School of Fine Art was taught how to translate what I saw under the light in a room into colour and how to arrange paints on the palette. A solid foundation in drawing is hard to get these days – I thank my lucky stars I started out that way.”
On painting: “You’ve got to practice, practice, practice. Sometimes it can be painful to get a piece of work out – excruciating – but more often than not I try not to think too hard about it. I paint regularly, usually every day, and I paint fast and cover a lot of ground. I only show a small proportion of what I paint though. It’s not all good and I have to edit! It’s a challenge to get all the ingredients to line up together – shape, light, colour, texture, composition and so on. I sometimes use gouaches but oil paint is my preferred medium. You can move it around and wipe away mistakes, to an extent, so it’s a bit like having a delete button. I like to see decisions and mistakes in my work and in other paintings too. When I look at other people’s paintings I feel I am there with them.”
On colour: “There is no real choice when picking colours. It has to be a certain way. Ask me why something is that colour and I will say ‘because it is’. It’s about looking and drawing what you see. Painting is just drawing with colour. It’s also about colour relationships. Increasingly I think about how these relationships affect people and how they affect me. I spend a lot of time in paint shops surrounded by tubes of paint.”