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Creative problem solver, animator, mother, painter, artist, lover of all things Victorian and Gothic. These are just a few ways in which to describe Sarah Dolby. A woman of great work ethic and practicality, the shadowy, otherworldly paintings she creates are nothing near her real life experiences – but intrinsically connected nevertheless. Her work, often done with oil paints on linen or aluminium panels, is unique, with a distinct focus on her subjects’ facial expressions. The eyes in particular are mesmerising, and Sarah herself admits that she could paint them all day. Although her journey to find her true calling in this medium has been tough and filled with adversity, she has come out on top, stronger, better and wiser for it.
I had the privilege of interviewing Sarah Dolby for beautiful.bizarre, where we touched on balancing family and work life, how she found painting to be her first love, and her stint as an animator for twelve years…among many other things.
Let’s start at the very beginning. How did you find and grow in this particular art form?
I can’t remember a time when imagination and art weren’t a huge part of my life. As a child I loved anything magical and tried to live somewhere between reality and my imagination, which often resulted in being slightly removed from what was going on around me or as my sisters would say, ‘away with the fairies’! To be honest, I am not sure much has changed. When young, these same sisters and I would, on a Sunday night as a treat, sit huddled around a small TV eating sausage rolls and tomato soup while watching Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson movies. These stories were often cruel and some downright creepy. But these are the ones that I found myself as a child being most drawn to. So began my love for the fable and the often darker side of human nature that these represented.
I continued exploring these ideas through illustration mainly, but couldn’t quite find the right balance between the ‘fine art’ that Art School expected and what I wanted to create. My paintings were terrible and even ripped up by one of my tutors. After Art School and after several years of travelling around Indonesia on a motor bike, I moved to London where I had a chat with a friend of mine who was studying animation. Here was an art form that required both technical and creative skills – so I came back to New Zealand, went back to Art School for two years and taught myself 3D animation and computer graphics. After graduating I went on to work for a successful animation company and stayed there for twelve years, doing everything from concept work to art direction, where my imagination was given free range.
Eventually I began to feel frustrated at the transient nature of my work and wanted to create something that I could hold in my hands; put on the walls. So in my spare time I began the task of teaching myself to paint. I started with very simple bright stylised figures inspired by South American art. I continued this way for several years focusing on the female form and creating some nice work and some dreadful work! It took many years before I felt confident enough with my technical abilities to move into the genre that I am in now. I think my 2008 solo show was the beginning of my exploration and love of the darker narrative. My recent work has been described as ‘Magic Realism Meets New Zealand Gothic’, which I think sums it up beautifully.
What exactly about painting captivates you?
I love the challenge that painting brings – that we can always improve both technically and conceptually. I want to move my figures closer to realism, then take them a step further with elements of the fantastical pushing those traditional boundaries. I am captivated and curious always by what is next: what character will speak up and need to be bought to life or what new direction my work will take.
You pay so much detail to expression in the faces of the women in your paintings. Why is the face, and especially the eyes, a focal point for you?
If I could paint eyes all day I probably would. The detail and colours in that area of the body alone is astounding, and I am always looking at ways to understand the underlying form. To me the eyes are where the emotions settle.
How do you create the emotions you want people to see in your work?
I don’t consciously try to convey a particular emotion. I think they come about as part of the process. I usually know how I want the painting to feel, then slowly, through each layer, the emotions will surface on the face, through the colours and body language, and finally through the background environment, which is an extension of her narrative.
I like to refer to the emotions behind each painting as a ‘distillation of state’. This is due to the sense of stillness I experience when I paint – one that is sometimes hard for me to achieve in day to day life. I think this comes through in my work almost like a diary entry, reflecting my own feelings and emotions at the time.
Take me through your process. Where do you find inspiration for your art, and how long does it take to do one piece, or does it vary depending on what you’re busy with?
Influences and inspiration come from personal experiences, literature and film. Aesthetically I am drawn to Victorian and Gothic imagery and costume. I love to travel, as this exposes me to a visual feast of people and places. Just simple old people-watching can inspire a series. Even politics factored in this past year – particularly after my trip to the US.
A lot of ideas come from within, sometimes from my crazy dreams which are like epic length blockbusters. Many of these ideas percolate away at the back of my mind for months before they are ready, and then sometimes I have one of those exciting lightning bolt moments where I am struck with an idea so resolved that I can almost see the finished piece. I also read a lot and listen to audio books while painting. This is a great way to feed my imagination so I tend to match my novels with whatever I am working on at the time.
Each piece varies in time – the large pieces can take up to three months – I usually work on a couple at once as I feel this keeps them fresh, and depending on my mood, I can switch between…also it gets cold here often, so drying times slow over winter.
Tell me more about the paints and products you prefer using and why.
Last year I moved from painting on linen to aluminium panels. This has produced a different, almost velvety finish that I am enjoying. I use Schmincke oil paints and linseed for glazing. This brand of oils has an incredible colour range and blend together beautifully. I think my favourite colour is Prussian Blue, which when used well is luminescent.
What’s a typical day in the life of Sarah Dolby?
A typical day for me always starts early with a good coffee and cuddle with my dog Milo. He won’t let me away with anything less than ten minutes! Because I am up before everyone else, I have this lovely time in my studio where I get to settle into my work and think about what I want to achieve that day or any ideas that need fleshing out.
We built my studio last year and it has been such a luxury after several years of being jammed into a one-metre square space between our kitchen table and window. Because my son was young at the time, [and still is] and I preferred to be handy to his school, I didn’t want to travel in to a studio in town. We are lucky to live out of town on the Otago Peninsula, where we are surrounded in Native bush, and are minutes away from the beach. I look out the window and see alpacas, cows and yes…sheep. Anyway I just made do with what we had. I put together some of my favourite shows in that tiny space full of dog fur and dinners!
I usually fit in a walk in the morning after a few hours of detail work to clear my head. I try to address anything that requires intense concentration and fine brush work first thing. After school I hang out with my son Benji. He is eight and a great kid with artistic talents of his own. I usually try to squeeze in some painting time after dinner but never attempt anything too demanding.
What’s the best part of your work, what do you enjoy most about the art you create?
The most favourite part about my work is the challenge of turning that initial idea from something nebulous into something solid in front of me…sometimes the journey to that point can be quite fraught and challenging, so when you see it coming together and know you have it nailed, it’s pretty exciting.
Which artists have inspired and influenced you to date on your journey, and whose work are you intrigued by currently?
I am a huge fan of the Dutch masters, for example Van Eyck and Rembrandt, the American realists and contemporary surrealist artists from around the world. When starting on my journey as an artist, I was inspired by Frida Kahlo, John Currin, and John Singer Sargent. More recently, filmmakers like Tim Burton and Guillermo Del Toro have had a huge impact on my work.
Justin Cronin the author of The Passage also inspired me when I heard him speak recently at a seminar. Joseph Campbell’s ideas around myth and archetypes also have been influential. Currently I love the Dutch artist Chris Beren’s work and also Christian Seybold’s portraits.
What are some of the challenges you face in your career? I know you have a long exhibition repertoire – and it can’t be easy balancing your art and family life. How do you make this work?
I have a very strong commitment to my work – I wouldn’t be able to do it otherwise. I have an eight year old son who obviously requires lots of time and energy. I learnt through having him that there is no such thing as the luxury of ‘being in the right space for painting’. I just grab what I can, when I can. This means getting to my studio as early as 5am and getting a few good hours under my belt before the family wakes up.
My secret sauce is a passion for what I do and a desire to keep pushing my own boundaries. The main challenge I face is time. My paintings take as long as they take and can’t be rushed. With dual roles as both an artist and a mum, I am always trying to balance both and give each 100%.
Another big challenge is being okay with the fluxes both creatively and financially when being an artist. It is a very different climate now than when I started exhibiting in 2004 – a lot tougher.
How healthy would you say it is being a creative, an artist, in the 21st century, especially with things in constant flux? What would you say to someone who wants to try their luck in the art world?
I think to be an artist in the 21st century is great on many levels. The world has opened up through the internet and we can now participate in global communities and exhibitions. We are also exposed to so much more visually, which is great, but I do think it is also important to unplug sometimes and focus on what it is that you as an artist want to say.
When in LA a year ago, I had a conversation with a gallery owner about the closure of many galleries on his street. He said to me that it is a really tough time and that he tells all his artists to ‘just keep painting’ and I think that’s all you can do – focus on your craft, and things will change and when they do you will have a studio full of art.
I would tell someone who wants to be an artist that if you want to paint then paint. Paint what you love and what you would want to buy…what you would want on your walls at home. The rest will follow…and also to understand that it is going to take time but it will be worth it.
Let’s go back to your paintings. Which works of art are your favourite, which were the biggest accomplishments, or milestone creations for you?
More often than not my favourite paintings are also the ones that feel like milestones. This can be for several reasons but usually they mark a developmental change – stepping up a level aesthetically and technically. I have learnt to let go of paintings, but some that I wish I had kept are ‘Sophia’s Lament’ (2008), ‘The White Rabbit’ (2015), ‘Snow Goose’ and ‘Queen Bee’ (from my 2012 ‘Spindle’ show that explored fairy tales) and most recently, ‘Masha’ and ‘Ms Havisham’.
What are you working on at the moment?
Currently I am working on two sister pieces for the ‘Bitter/ Sweet’ beautiful.bizarre curated group exhibition in March this year on the Gold Coast, Australia. I have approached these works as if they will hang like portraits on the walls on an old Victorian home. I see the characters as sisters who have taken different paths. The ‘Bitter’ piece is called ‘The Girl With the Lost Dreams’ and portrays a woman standing before, yet being part of, a large painting of a stormy sea filled with discarded dreams. The ‘Sweet’ painting is still in early stages as I write this, but will have the same haunted quality – but with a more serene feel. I am trying to bring together all that I love in these paintings: Victorian Gothic costume, carnivalesque themes and haunting narratives.
For the remainder of this year I will be working towards a solo show in Auckland at OrexArt Gallery. I am still undecided about the theme of this show, but I am interested in weaving birds and animals into my work – leaning more towards nature and realism…with a surreal flavour. I also have a backlog of ideas from recent trips to America that I need to explore, so I am really looking forward to seeing what comes from these.
Studio shot of Sarah’s latest WIP for beautiful.bizarre’s ‘Bitter | Sweet’ show.
The ‘Bitter’ WIP for beautiful.bizarre’s ‘Bitter | Sweet’ curated exhibition.