22 Apr Frances Watts – Interview with the artist
When did you first think of yourself as an artist?
I always wanted to be an artist, but I didn’t quite know how to get there. I felt like there was an artist inside, but I hadn’t met her yet. When my third child came along I finally figured it out, it was a now or never scenario. Maternity leave is a gift for women, it gives you a moment of breathing space, to step away from what you were doing before. I felt that I had finished bearing children and I had always wanted to be a painter.
Have you always painted landscapes?
At art college, I loved painting people, skin tone, expression, but I realised to be a portrait artist you had to be a people person in a way that I am not. My husband Dave is a portrait photographer and is addicted to talking to people. I love watching him, he makes it look so easy.
Four years ago I met a woman who had decided to be a Plein Air painter. She bought an easel and a box of paints and just went out and did it. I was really inspired, I realised I could do the same. The first painting was rubbish, I left it in the back of the car and the dog trampled it. The second was a little better, the third I was happier with.
Do you ever work from photographs?
When I go out I take a few boards, I usually stand in one place and paint the view in several directions. I take photos along the way, but if it’s been a successful session it’s still all in there. I do a bit from photos but it doesn’t really work unless I’ve felt that place. To me it’s definitely a multisensory scenario, I feel the wind on my face, hear the birds, hear workmen in the distance, the sounds echo around the landscape, you can hear them all really clearly.
I dial up the colour saturation in my work, but that’s genuinely how I see it. As a whole, the landscape is more muted, but the intensity of looking comes out in the painting, in your focus. The intensity of the focus dials up the saturation.
Do you come from an artistic family?
My father works in antiques, specialising in ceramics and porcelain, he has a deep knowledge and appreciation of things that humans have made in the last five hundred years. He was always impressing that on me, but I generally drifted off because I thought it was boring, but I realise now that I did take it in. The house I grew up in was full of colour and pattern, I think that had a more profound effect on me than I realised.
When I was younger I worked in a fabric shop in Portobello Road in London and in vintage shops. I’d done illustration work as a sideline but didn’t really love it. The city was too much, too overstimulating, I couldn’t see how I could respond to it as an artist.
I always knew it was drawings and painting I wanted to do, I also enjoy sculpting in clay. My art degree was quite anti painting, it was at the end of the Young British Artist thing, I think I interpreted it that my tutors didn’t want me to paint but I should have just painted anyway, they would have respected me more. It’s so easy to be discouraged when you are young, by people in authority, I’m really conscious of that as a parent.
I don’t think I would have been able to be an artist without the parameters of being a mother. I procrastinated when I was younger, I had fun, but I didn’t necessarily use that time the best way I could. When Kit was going off to nursery and I had three hours a day, going off to paint on a hill seemed doable. If I have an endless amount of time to do a painting it will be endless. If I go out painting and it’s really cold the quick paintings happen, I prefer the quick paintings, they are more of a response to something that’s going to change. If I labour over a painting for four hours it loses that.
I feel that being a landscape painter sums me up, I always take the wider view and gloss over the detail. My oldest son is very much the opposite and he reminds me to focus on the detail now.
What’s your medium?
My medium is oils. They are so delicious to use. I paint Alla Prima, wet on wet, in one sitting, except for the big paintings in my studio which are layered. But the fast paintings feel more honest to me.
Where do you like to paint?
I really love the local landscape. I feel like it belongs to me because I’ve painted it so many times. I love seeing how it changes, I do keep going back to the same places. It’s also anxiety about going somewhere else, where people might come past. I can spend hours driving around looking for somewhere to paint and nothing is quite right. I’ve got a bike, so I stick to the same places that I can get to on that, every day is different. it never gets boring.
I like immersing myself in a landscape, during lockdown we walked the same places every day with our children, so now they have another layer of resonance in them. Since the pandemic, I’ve just wanted to repeatedly document them.
I’ve become particularly obsessed with Haddon Wood. The Woodland Trust planted it about a decade ago, it’s a young wood and they put a big pond in the middle. It’s incredibly exciting to stand beside that place, there’s a real intensity of wildlife. Millions of toads will start appearing soon, you can’t walk anywhere without stepping on them, the sound is amazing. I love the fact that a decade ago it wasn’t there. It’s the only woodland around us. We’ve lost all of our orchards. So the show (at the Heart of the Tribe) will have a lot of Haddon Wood in there.
My work depends on restriction and solitude. Most of my paintings are probably about solitude, which is quite hard to find. It’s the other side from my family life in a family of five which is incredibly noisy and messy and chaotic. I get to impose my own version of order on a rectangle.
The paintings in the exhibition are mostly of two views I’ve painted repeatedly. There’s a lot of water – the pond in Haddon Wood. I don’t even think there are any with houses in, I’ve become even more solitary in my painting.
Hadspen is a perfect little village between Bruton and Castle Cary. I’ve painted the houses there a lot. I keep imagining that one day one of them will be mine, but painting them is probably the closest I’m going to get. If something in the landscape doesn’t work visually I just leave it out, I can just pretend it isn’t there!
Do you ever paint Glastonbury?
Glastonbury Tor is so symbolic, it means so much to so many people, I’m anxious about painting the Tor, it can end up looking cartoonish. I love the view of the Tor from Wells Road. I love the Avalon Marshes. Perhaps I’ll make that a project. My son is passionate about nature and loves the reserves. Most of my kid’s first sentences are ‘what a beautiful view’, my youngest often says ‘Mamma, are you going to paint this view?’
What’s your relationship with the Heart of the Tribe Gallery?
It’s been great having my stuff here but I haven’t engaged hugely, partly because of the pandemic, partly shyness. I have an annoying habit of not wanting to go to places where I don’t know people, but perhaps doing the exhibition will help with this.
I’m not very good at the business side of it, I’m very disorganised, I do struggle with it. Instagram is a really encouraging space, I posted my paintings and my friends were really supportive, they liked my work. There’s a great online community of Plein Air artists. I wouldn’t have sold anything without Instagram, but it’s a monster that you have to feed. I get really worried before I post anything, perhaps it’s that fear of being ignored. But you don’t need everyone to like it, you just need one person to love it. If they want to buy it, that’s wonderful because I can keep on doing what I’m doing. I really paint for myself, but I have to sell them because I want to keep on doing it. It’s always nice to see them on people’s walls.
You can find Frances on Instagram @franceswattsartist
Who inspires you?
I feel like we didn’t really get taught anything technical at art college, we just got given a studio. My training came from people I was inspired by. Like my friend at art college, Lydia Millward, who is a fantastic painter, I lived with Alice Begg of Humphries and Begg who is a fashion designer, a real colour person. My husband Dave is a master of classical composition and explains to me why a photo works or doesn’t. so I feel he taught me composition. Then there are artists like Spencer Gore, Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell and the Bloomsbury set, John Nash, John Piper.
I just want to keep doing it, it will change, I love learning as I go, I learn something new every time I go and do a painting.
Frances was interviewed for Heart of the Tribe by Vicki Steward from normalforglastonbury.uk