ROBYN LITCHFIELD: LIMINAL WILDERNESS
16th June 2020 by Clare McNamara
Robyn Litchfield won the Landscape/Seascape/Cityscape category prize in Jackson’s Painting Prize 2020 with her painting, The Hollow Place. To look upon Robyn’s work is to be transported back in time to visions of primeval forests and waterways in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Here, we discover the fascinating process she has developed in mining for these landscapes and the familial sources she uses to navigate her way there
Clare: Can you tell us a little bit about your artistic background/education
Robyn: I studied Fine Art at college in New Zealand but daunted by the notion of the artist as a solitary genius I went on to study Fashion and Design and worked in the fashion industry for many years. After my son was born I began taking art classes and gradually realised that was where my passion lay. I studied at the Sir John Cass School of Fine Art, Architecture and Design graduating with a BA Fine Art in 2012 and I graduated from the City and Guilds of London Art School with an MA Fine Art in 2017.
Clare: Where does a painting begin for you? Can you describe your process?
Robyn: Most of my paintings begin with a photograph. I’m particularly drawn to the possibility of the place having been untouched by humans such as the primeval forests of New Zealand. I make drawings in my sketchbook and usually crop and enlarge areas to create a composition with a variety of visual elements which I find exciting and move me. I also make colour studies and experiment with combinations of various coloured pigments. The alchemy of paint and medium combinations is endlessly fascinating. Small watercolour or acrylic and oil paintings on paper are then made before scaling some up into larger works. The choice of placement for the amorphous shapes is an unconscious act. I use the remnant shapes from previous all-over stencilled paintings such as ‘Let Time Be Still’, enlarging them into paper or mylar stencils for the larger canvases.
Above image: Mahinapua Lake, 2019, Robyn Litchfield, Oil on linen, 120 x 95 cm
Clare: Can you tell us about the red amorphous shapes on your paintings, such as The Hollow Place and Mahinapua Lake?
Robyn: The dark red forms placed within the paintings are derived from remnants of stencils developed for some earlier works. For me they are symbols of loss; of past life, of primeval forest, the biodiversity that it supported and represent a lament for this loss. Their intrusion into the picture plane is a metaphor for a kind of otherness, creating an unsettling ambiguity of surface and depth.
Clare: Where do your reference photos and documents come from?
Robyn: Most of my sources are photographs; predominantly personal archival images of late 19th Century New Zealand and more recently contemporary photographs of primeval landscape taken mostly by myself. The catalyst behind much of the research which informs my practice were the photographs taken by my great grandfather, Ernest Edward Bradbury. I inherited Ernest’s glass plate negatives and postcard album from my grandmother. I also have my own collection of early postcards and travel literature which I draw inspiration from.
Let Time be Still, 2016 Robyn Litchfield Oil on linen, 65 x 80 cm
Clare: Can you tell us about your use of a mostly monochrome palette?
Robyn: Generally I work with a restricted palette of 1 or 2 colours on a solid ground colour. This process came about through the interpretation of my main source material; archival glass plate photography and early postcard images of New Zealand which are black and white. The reductive objective is part of a strategy to create a clarity, simplicity and stillness, allowing the essence of the work to be conceived. I apply transparent paint in expressive brushstrokes and work back into it using various implements and processes such as scraping, layering and erasure to reveal the luminous ground below. The paint mimics the emulsion on the glass plate negatives of early photographs whose images were revealed by light shining through them.
Clare: How has the lockdown of the last couple of months affected your practice?
Robyn: I’ve been very lucky to be able to access my studio during lockdown though the pace of my practice has slowed considerably. After the initial adjustment to the tensions of living amongst coronavirus I haven’t found it too difficult. I work best in isolation but I’ve missed the stimulus of exhibition events, meeting other artists and the access to London’s amazing galleries. I started by working through ideas in small watercolour works on paper alongside finishing larger paintings already in process. I always find preparing surfaces to be very therapeutic and satisfying, so I was pleased to have stocked up on materials and to be able to do so. As time has flown by in a blur I’ve begun to think of the crisis as an opportunity. It has been a time to think in the present, not planning for an unknowable future. We are like monks suspended in our existence with a chance to ponder ourselves and our lives. In that respect I can see that my practice and its research into the experience of the migrant or explorer travelling into the unknown has a correlation with this period of uncertainty and turmoil. As we transition through this liminal space I aim to create paintings of wilderness that induce a stillness and contemplation and gesture towards what the anthropologist Victor Turner termed, the “realm of pure possibility”.
Clare: What are your most important artist’s tools? Do you have any favourites?
Robyn: I love the Jackson’s Black Hog brushes, particularly the larger sizes. They are tough and hold their shape. I use various types of silicon blades for scraping and mark-making and plenty of cotton buds and rags. I wouldn’t want to do without some R.G.M. extra large palette knives and large pieces of toughened glass as palettes. For my preferred surface I stretch my own linen canvases and prepare them with rabbit skin glue and oil primer.
Clare: What are your art influences? Who are your favourite contemporary or historical artists & why?
Robyn: Some of my favourite historic artists are Edvard Munch, Titian, Sidney Nolan. There is an emotional authenticity to the work and the scenes feel haunted by a symbolism that taps into our unconscious. There are so many contemporary artists who I admire that it’s hard to choose; Mamma Anderson, Peter Doig, Hurvin Anderson, Lisa Brice, David Hockney: it’s often about their exciting use of colour and paint. I managed to see the exhibition ‘Radical Figures’ at the Whitechapel Gallery before lockdown. What a sensational and stimulating selection of painters.
Clare: What makes a good day in the studio for you?
Robyn: The best days for me are when I have made solid progress on a painting or I’ve worked through some ideas in sketches and I leave feeling excited to return the following day and continue. Ideally it’s a sunny day and as the late afternoon light reaches my studio, the magic and luminosity of the paint is revealed. However there are many less satisfying days when I’ve been reading and formulating ideas or bogged down on my computer. But I know that one doesn’t happen without the other.
Clare: You have an exhibition on at the moment, is that right? Can you tell us about that and where can we go to see it?
Robyn: I have a few paintings showing with the Oxfordshire gallery, Darl-e and the Bear. I post images of some of my work on Instagram @robynlitchfield_studio and more can be seen on my website www.robynlitchfield.com.
Robyn's beautiful 'forest portal' was shortlisted for the Jackson's Painting Prize 2021: Jackson's Painting Prize 2020 Shortlist