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Interview with Chloe Cheese

Chloe Cheese is an artist and printmaker, working from her house and studio in Forest Hill. After leaving the Royal College of Art in 1976 she began working as an artist and freelance illustrator. She is known for an informal style, which gives the impression that the images are drawn directly onto the printed page.

How did you first become interested in art?

I grew up with art. Both my parents were artists and I lived in a small village where a lot of the other people that my parents knew were artists. It seemed like a very ordinary thing to do, like being a butcher or a baker. It’s a very engaging thing to do. I never came across anything else that seemed like a nicer way of living. It just came very naturally and I never changed my mind on my direction.

So were your parents very encouraging of you being an artist? Did they assume that you would also be one too?

I think you enjoy doing the same thing that your parents do. I found this the same thing as with my own children, because you enjoy them making work you talk about it a lot with them and you put their pictures up on the wall. You’ve also got the art materials there. I remember my daughter when she was little, describing drawing as work. You take it seriously.

A lot of your work is based on drawing or line and observation. When did drawing become something that you naturally did?

I think it was very young. My mother described a drawing I’d made of my grand-mother’s kitchen which had the detail of an umbrella hanging over the light switch and all the little taps on the gas stove. I was always interested in detail, in looking closely at objects in my environment. Where I lived in the small village there were a lot of very interesting artists’ houses with people who collected various objects or arranged then in various ways. I was a sponge, noticing all these different things and collecting them together in my mind.

Were you always drawn to the small details of people’s domestic lives?

Up until the first part of my working life, it was all still lives because I liked the abstract qualities of the way that you can put things together in a picture and the history that objects have, the social meaning of them. I hardly ever used to draw people but in later years I did start to include people. I think after I had children I became more interested in the relationships between people and people within the environments that I was drawing.

What was the appeal of being an illustrator when you first left college?

I rather unimaginatively did the same thing as my mother, who was also an illustrator and a print maker (Sheila Robinson). I love reading and was always very interested in words. It’s very engaging trying to make your own version of a written word and make a visual narrative. I enjoyed doing that.

I thought I would never make a living as a fine artist. Having grown up in that environment, I was very aware of the practicalities, which perhaps made my view less romantic.

I think I was also lucky enough to leave art school at a time where, the way that I illustrated, which was primarily through drawing, was something that people were very interested in. It fitted together nicely.

Were the things that you were illustrating when you first left art college, the food for the cookbooks, were they naturally the things that you wanted to draw?

Yes they were, first maybe from visiting Paris, the studio in Paris when I was a student, that the Royal College of Art had, just seeing how food was culturally totally different in France and becoming interested in the meanings of food, that it symbolised lots of different things. I like drawing the things that people made, and how you made a particular kind of cake, which would be eaten on a particular kind of occasion and looked a particular way.

Can you describe your process of working? Do you for example still sketch a lot, do you take a notebook around with you, are you always generating ideas like that?

I always draw, maybe make two or three drawings first and then I will translate that into a print. The print will probably look quite different from the drawing because I’ll simplify it a lot. It always starts from the drawing. For me it’s the best way to work because you’re taking out the thing that interests you about what you are looking at and then you’re looking at it and then defining it again. I find that works well for me.

Occasionally I sell the drawings as images in their own right but it would be very unusual for me to draw something and then use that as the final image.

What made you stop doing illustration?

I couldn’t really change my work to fit in with the current trends in illustration, which was moving away from using drawing at that time. Then I found that I also was moving away from it myself anyway, in that I was more interested in doing work for its own sake or because I was just interested in making a whole body of work about something and not just the odd thing that you would get to do as an illustrator. So it was a natural divergence.

There are recurrent themes in your work that have always been there; the domestic scenes, the buildings, the objects and now you’ve introduced figures that you didn’t use to draw. What are your absolute favourite things to draw?

I think I always like drawing things that are often used. I like things that have a sense of being used, that applies to buildings, or objects in the home, it’s that sort of sense that they are almost disappear because they are so familiar and it’s nice to reinvent them in a drawing. So for instance, very beautifully designed buildings or objects are hard to draw because they are very self-conscious. I like the unselfconscious object or building that’s really old and well used. That’s why places like Venice are nice to draw; not because you’re concentrating on the architecture, but because you’re concentrating on the way that people live there. It’s an everyday environment, people have been there for hundreds and hundreds of years, which makes you think of all the other people who have passed down the street. Then there’s this little old lady with a shopping trolley, walking in front of these amazing buildings. I like those juxtapositions.

Your style is very loose and quite informal. Is that the way you have always drawn? You make it look so easy.

That’s what I hope. I mean sometimes they take a really long time, there could be a lot of layers of colour or say lots of little individual stencils of colour. Sometimes the drawings I make are very complex and more realistic and then I’ll remove that. My work has a range from quite detailed and more realistic to being very impressionistic and simple. I mean that is purposeful, I mean to do that. I find the realistic quite problematic as an image. I want to be able to see something as something else, in order to relate it back to what it really is.

How do you think your work has changed over the years, or would you say that it hasn’t?

I think it’s evolved quite slowly. I think it is freer now than it was to start with. It was very exact when I started and that’s partly to do with scale. Illustration is quite small on the whole so as it’s got bigger, it’s freed it up. I’m pleased it’s gone that way because sometimes people tighten up as they get older but I haven’t. I’ve managed to keep that sense of freedom, which I try to protect in my work.

How does your studio work within your home? Is this important to the work you are doing?

When I had small children, I obviously had to work at home in order to be on hand. I had a room where I shut the door, but I wasn’t far away. And then later on, when I moved to this house, which is quite small, I was thinking of having an outside studio but I discovered that all the things I draw are in my house. So I stayed here and have just adapted my work round my house. There are various rooms where I do things. It’s very much part of the way I live. That’s the way I enjoy working. Also my work isn’t really large scale so I can manage that within a small space. Printing is quite messy but I have a routine which works.

How many times have you been involved in Artists’ Open House?

I haven’t done it before. I’m having work in a friend’s studio because they’ve got quite a big studio in Peckham. It seemed like a nice thing to join in with because as an artist you know the people you know, but then round about there are obviously a lot of other artists. So it seemed very nice to join in with something that’s a local thing and it’s our community.

What are you looking forward to?

I like the idea of local people coming to see my work. Some of the pictures will be of places that they know or recognise. I’m looking forward to meeting other people and having exchanges with the others artists about their own work, how they’ve done work about local subjects or how they find the area. It seems like a very good idea. When I was small my parents used to do an open house.

What work will you be showing at the Artists’ Open House?

I’m hoping to have a few sets of different things that I’m doing specially for the Dulwich Festival. I’ve started doing a set of work about the objects that I own that are in my kitchen. And then I’m going to do some drawings of the friend I’m doing the open house with. There will also be some of my work that has been in recent exhibitions.

What do you like about living and working in south London?

I’ve lived in south London for quite a long time now. I’ve always enjoyed it because it seems like more of a community of people that actually live somewhere. In other parts of London, it seems like a more shifting, impermanent community. South London is very lively, it has quite a young population of people and you really notice that, people are quite friendly and there is a lot of green space. I really love it here. I’m a great supporter of south London. When I first came to live here from north London, people in north London were snobby about it, they wouldn’t deign to cross the river. Actually I think it’s nicer.

There are a lot of little galleries springing up. It’s great to have the South London Gallery and The Stage and Bow in Forest Hill, where a lot of people are starting to sell their own work. I think it’s exciting.

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