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Interview with Annette Hamley-Jenkins

Annette Hamley-Jenkins is a painter based in East Dulwich. Trained as an illustrator, she makes landscape paintings which originate from drawings of local parks, often set at night. She is interested in the way the sub-conscious works and makes drawings she calls ‘Archetypes’ which explore these ideas. She also creates the maps in the Artists’ House booklet, plotting any new addresses by going out on her bicycle to double-check their location.

How did you first become interested in art?

I’ve drawn and painted since I was a child. My grandmother was a painter as well, an amateur painter in the Victorian style, so my Dad always encouraged me to paint. After art college I ended up going into packaging and became a mock up artist. I was trying to set myself up as an illustrator and would take a year out to try to get things going, then go back to having another job. I more or less stopped when I had kids but promised myself that when they both went to school I would do what I really wanted to do, painting. After they did, I also began attending a life drawing class run by Alex Cree. He turned out to be an absolutely phenomenal teacher and he encouraged me a lot. I did his evening class for about 3 years. He taught me how to think about the concept of drawing itself, not just what you are drawing in front of you.

How important is observation and drawing from life for you?

I’ve always drawn but it’s been what’s inside me, drawing for emotional reasons. Alex encouraged me to read “Drawing on the right side of the brain” by Betty Edwards. That made an interesting distinction concerning the way our brain functions. I began to understand that you could look at drawing and painting in two ways; one is the mood that it gives you and the other is the structural, logical side – the sense of proportion, tonal range and things like that. I wanted to incorporate those two sides.

How did you start working at night and can you describe the process of making your nocturnal landscapes?

Because of Alex’s influence I was going out and drawing what I saw in front of me but it became night-time landscapes because of the mood and atmosphere that you find during the night in the city. I was brought up in Cornwall in a rural area so coming to a city was a different experience for me. I absolutely love it and thrive on it but there are times when you want to retreat and go to a space that’s quiet and more contemplative, and actually that’s quite hard to find in London.

The nocturnal paintings started after a visit to Grangewood Gardens, near Crystal Palace. It was an extraordinary night because it was a full moon. There were these beautiful moon glades, the light dappled on the ground. I started working out how I could paint it – because of course it’s dark, you can’t see your paper! The day before the full moon, the day of and the day after, if it’s a relatively clear sky, there is actually enough light to see what you’re doing. You can’t take a torch with you because it ruins your night vision. So there is a very limited amount of time and if it’s overcast and there is no moon, that’s it for the month. There are potentially only 12, and with the night before and the night after, 36 nights of the year that you can actually get reference for this. Now every single month I’m aware of when the moon is and can I get out there to draw – is it too cold, is it too wet? I now have a snowsuit that I put on because even in the summer in Britain, it’s incredibly cold to sit still outside. I’m a really reluctant landscape painter because I don’t like the cold!

I start out by drawing the scene during the day because then I can do the logical, rational part in full light, which is the proportion and the composition. Then I go back and do the tonal. I think I will manage to sit for about 45 minutes and I’m working in charcoal, which is a very fast medium. I will often go back to have a look again for colour reference as well. I then work on the paintings in my studio. My colours were quite wild initially because I use acrylics, which is a very bold medium, I’ve been teaching myself how to use it over the last five years.

What are you trying to achieve in these landscapes?

The process is not necessarily a straight line. When you start painting you have your vision that you are constantly striving towards and trying to obtain it. Often you don’t quite make it and you make a painting that’s actually different to what you had intended but because it expresses the atmosphere successfully you stop working on it.

I love the English language but I’m aware that there are other things that I would like to express more fully and they can only come out via images – even down to mark making it’s all sub-conscious. If it’s too tightly controlled there are some aspects you miss out on expressing. So they come out in the way that you wield the paint, rather than the concept that you might initially have. You have to be willing for those things to come to the fore and relinquish control of it to a certain extent.

You have talked about mark making and your interest in the sub-conscious. Can you tell me about these ideas come out in your work?

I’d always used charcoal drawing as a way to express my emotions so when I would get frustrated I would have to get out a big piece of paper and a big piece of charcoal and work it out just by drawing something. Then I would be able to look at it from a more removed point of view. I call these drawings ‘Archetypes’.

What I’m trying to do is to tap into the other side of my self, the side that doesn’t communicate with words and has to use other means. It’s not meant to be a photographic interpretation, it’s not meant to be three-dimensional. I do a lot of life drawing and you do tend to pull in from other aspects of your life – I used to do martial arts, Tai-chi and yoga and I would often find that I would start by doing figures that were in those kind of postures. You produce a lot of work and then have to edit down before painting them.

I find that the interesting ones are figurative. Because they are not from life, they are completely surreal. When I was younger I used to really enjoy Salvador Dali and Magritte and medieval art as well. You read medieval drawing in a different way – if somebody was larger they were more important, there are these simple rules. It means that you can communicate differently, and that’s fed into my landscapes now: I often split my landscapes horizontally, which is useful because it emphasises the flat nature of landscapes, the width, so you feel you are in a wide space but also I started to use it to indicate conscious and sub-conscious; it’s conscious above the line and sub-conscious below the line.

This happened quite naturally in a painting I’ve done of a tree in the gardens of Dulwich Picture Gallery. I wanted to draw a tree because I thought it was a challenging subject. I picked an oak tree in the Dulwich Picture Gallery gardens, which is in front of the gallery cottage. Whilst I was there one day, a very hot day, this man came and lay down and fell asleep and so I had a lovely life drawing opportunity for two hours. He was underneath the natural horizontal line that was formed by the hedge, so for me he indicated this sub-conscious figure – and there are all sorts of poetic references to King Arthur being buried underneath and this idea of the tree, which is directly above him growing on top of him so there is that aspect. It’s not a side that I can talk about much without sounding incredibly pretentious!

What do you enjoy about showing your work as part of the Artists’ Open House?

I began exhibiting a year after I started painting, and my landscapes developed partly because of Artists’ Open House and the way that visitors have related and responded to them. One of the first things I learnt during Open House was that people have their own interpretations of your work – the nocturnes were so exciting because they were so ambiguous. I really enjoyed talking to people about them and asking them what they thought they were about. Suddenly I had these extra narratives to my paintings, and it brought an element of play to it that had been missing from my art before Dulwich Open House. I’m always on the look-out for what people are responding to in my work.

I think it’s an unusual show because there are so many people in the region who go and visit the artists and they relate to you on a different level; they talk to you with respect to your actual skill and craft but also on a level playing field which means that they feel they can offer an interpretation. As a visitor to the Tate or to a professional gallery, you feel as if you are meant to be just receiving. The Dulwich Open House promotes a dialogue between the actual piece itself, the viewer and the artist. People can often personally invest in the art because they can relate to the location or see places they recognise.

For the artists obviously it’s also a commercial enterprise, and there’s a whole range of people that do it who don’t regard themselves as artists, but they produce work that they wish to sell in order to carry on producing. It is part of the human spirit to be creative, and actually appreciating somebody else’s skill and looking at an object and it pleasing you aesthetically, or being able to invest in it in that way because it’s someone from your area that’s made it, I think that’s quite special and I think people often buy things as souvenirs from a lovely day out. I really believe in it and I believe it should happen, that’s why I show in it and it’s also why I volunteered for it.

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