Our interview for this month’s Artist Focus is with British painter Karen Griffiths, whose extraordinary oil and acrylic paintings feature solitary figures against abstracted backgrounds. By removing each child or woman from a realistic context and placing them against a swath of color, each person she paints assumes a new impressionistic identity.
Each personality bursts through the canvas as their clothes melt into the background in a stylistic dichotomy that's perfect for each unique figure.
Who's the first person you can ever remember painting?
I think the first person I ever painted was a 'portrait' job whilst I was still at school doing my A-levels! A guy had commissioned me to paint his young daughter…thankfully it all worked out well and he loved it. I remember the first painting I painted in my beachfront studio in Brighton that I sold really clearly as it was my first 'proper' sale as an artist painting what I wanted. I painted a rice stall from a market in Hanoi, Vietnam. It was acrylic and mixed media on board and about 60 x 50cm. It went in my first open studio exhibition down on Brighton seafront and a local guy bought it on the first day …I couldn't believe someone had chosen to buy something I had painted, it was a great feeling that I'll never forget. I still feel a buzz when someone buys an original even now 15 years later.
What do you like about separating the figure from the setting?
I think I get so intense with the face/figure and the details and feelings I have from that moment in time that the background is more of a mood for that painting. Each background represents something about the place and usually contains words (thoughts, quotes or sayings related to the piece/country). The figures need space and the background is as important a part of the painting as the subject.
What sort of moods do you work to convey in your paintings?
I'm not sure I am ever conscious of doing this when I paint. I think the mood just evolves from the expression of the face or the colours….it obviously does come from me but I'm not aware of it but I do see a real strong emotion in some of my pieces.
Do you have any specific routines or habits necessary in the creation of your work?
I always have a pretty clear idea of what the figure is going to be like but the backgrounds are something that evolve in time. I always sketch, in pencil, the face in quite detail before starting any painting work. Sometimes if I just can't get it quite right I try go away and leave it for a day or so and start with fresh eyes.
Out of all the places you've traveled, if you had to choose just one to visit again, which would it be?
That's a hard question as I've loved so many places I've been, but I think India has a very special place in my heart. The people and colours are amazingly kind, warm and interesting. It's magical. I have painted more pieces on India than anywhere else… China is a close second as that was like no other place I have ever been and really wonderful.
How does traveling so much translate in your work?
I love to bring other worlds and moments in time from other worlds into my work. Even if it's the view from my home here in the French Alps it's still a magical different world to someone else. There are so many truly amazing moments whilst traveling that I can think of nothing more evocative to put into my paintings.
What is it about a person that particularly inspires you to paint them?
90% of my paintings are of people - most of which I do not know… faces and expressions intrigue me more than anything on my travels. There's beauty in everyone and everything if you look hard and I just love to study faces and translate that into my work.
What do you like about the inclusion of words in your work?
I have always liked words in my pieces. I think because I used to do a lot of sketchbook work - my degree was a series of 'sketchbooks' from travels and so words featured a lot in those alongside the images. I think it just continued and sometime there's more to say than I can put into the painting sometimes!
Who are a few of your art idols and would you say they play a role in the formation of your own work?
I don't really have an influence that's obvious but David Hockney is one of my heroes. I'm sure he influences me somehow but it's not apparent! Travels inspire me and words and reading.
If you had to give one piece of advice to students just graduating art school, what would it be?
You have to really want it to survive as a professional artist. It's tough and can break your heart when you paint your arse off and no one buys at an exhibition but then another month you could sell out and it's the best feeling in the world. Stay true to what you want to paint and believe in, but always remember that if you want to survive from painting you have to be a little flexible at the start and get your work out there. Most artists are rubbish sales people - I know I am! - so that's hard too and you need good galleries to take you onboard and do that part for you.