This interview is part of the Creative Catalyst Artist Interview Series and was originally published in 2011.
Anne-Laure Djaballah went to art school, but her training began when she was a child when she took classes starting at 11 years-old. Since then her work has expanded into both mixed media and installation art.
1. What is your artistic background? How did you learn to paint? Are you self-taught or did you go to art school?
I did my bachelors in fine arts, but I first learned to paint when I was 11. I took classes in acrylics at the community center, where we were taught the basics of colour theory, perspective, composition, etc, but more importantly it was the place where we were encouraged to play with paint and explore all the possibilities the medium had to offer. Later on I had classes that put more emphasis on technique, working from still-lifes, landscape and the figure, and then at university the focus was more on the conceptual side. I think it was helpful to be exposed to a broad range of approaches from which to look at art.
2. Your style is very abstracted. Have you always been drawn to abstract painting or did you style begin as more realistic and become more abstract? How has your style changed since you began painting?
I don’t really hold to the opposition between abstract art and representational art. Near the end of my schooling I began to see certain elements that were more “me”, a strong graphic element, a flattened picture plane that was more of a diagram, but I like to try out new things too, and a variety of classes were good places to experiment. I still enjoy going to life-model sessions because takes me away from my usual work, like a mini-vacation. Now, I tend to begin a painting more representationally, and then it gradually gets edited and simplified. I try to have a consistency to the work that I show, while still wanting to keep challenging myself, and allowing for the work to evolve where it wants to go.
3. Talk to me about your process. How do you approach a piece? Do you work from photos or found objects? Do you start with any sort of thumbnail or study or do you start with paint on paper? Do you begin with a concept you are trying to convey? How does the piece evolve while you're working on it?
I don’t have one set way for starting a painting – sometimes it starts with a colour I haven’t used in a long time or other times it’s a photo that I find interesting, or a drawing that I’ve done. I have a collection of boxes and found objects around my studio, and they often seem to dialogue with the paintings even though they are not consciously intended to be represented in the paintings. I’ve also noticed that my surroundings, the view from my balcony and the things I see on my way to the studio affect my paintings. I am also affected by the seasons, whether we have a stretch of bright sunny days or gray rain (for example during a very snowy period I find that I end up with more white and black with hints of colour, and during the time I lived in Vancouver I used a lot more greens).
I usually begin with acrylics, to have the opportunity to play around a bit. Then I use a layer of clear gesso, and then move to oils when I have a clearer idea of what I want. I like the contrast between thicker brushstrokes and fine lines, and use graphite, conté and oil sticks to draw into the painting. I also will sand off areas at times, and get interesting textures when what is underneath comes through. I use Galkyd mediums, and sometimes also wax medium for impasto effect. I like using wood panels but often keep them for smaller sizes, since larger panels can get pretty heavy and less easy to transport. I take pictures of my paintings at various stages and I find it helpful to go home and look at the pictures on my computer screen, even just the thumbnails. When I am not sure about something I test out various ideas with Photoshop. It’s never the same thing when I am actually in front of the full-sized piece, but it helps when I feel stuck.
4. And how long does a piece usually take? Do you let it sit awhile between sessions? How do you decide when it is finished?
I unfortunately have no way of estimating how long a painting will take. It is never according to size either. I tend to work on one, then when I feel unsure of where it should go I put it aside and work on something else. It seems partly related to my state of mind, whether I’m in the mood to experiment and play or be more decisive and focused, which is what it takes for me to finish a painting. I can have a lot of paintings on the go, and at some point it starts feeling a bit crazy, too chaotic.
For me, I am satisfied with a painting when I find a certain balance (in terms of keeping your eye wandering around the piece, not so chaotic that your eye doesn’t have a place to rest), and beyond that, some unnamed thing that makes me want to keep looking at it. (If I look at it once and am bored by it I assume that others will be bored too.)
Often it takes some time to see a painting properly. Sometimes I’m excited about a piece but when I look at it a few days later I see that it isn’t yet resolved. Other times, a studio neighbor will pass by and tell me to leave something alone, and then I’ll put it aside and come back to it with fresh eyes, happy that I left it alone. I have a couple friends whose opinions I value a lot, and their feedback helps when it feels like I can’t get enough distance from which to view a painting (this happens particularly right before a show, when I have a lot of paintings on the go and I can’t just set it aside for a week).
5. What does your day look like? Do you keep a schedule or let the day just unfold organically?
My usual workday is that I arrive at my studio about 9am, sit with a cup of tea and look at what I worked on the day before, and look through the daily paper for any photos that I find interesting. From there it depends if I see clearly what that painting needs next, if not I might work on small panels (I always have a good number on the go, at various stages of completion).
I seem to have a stubborn streak, where if I go to the studio with the determination to work on one specific piece, I’ll go and do the exact opposite, and work on something that isn’t “important”. So I try to keep things loosely focused, and know that eventually even the little projects that I do on the side, just for myself, end up being useful and help me resolve larger paintings.
6. You are also an assemblage artist. Does your assemblage work inform your painting and vice versa? How do you see a connection between the two forms for you? Or do you?
Yes, I have found the connection interesting. It’s all part of the same visual vocabulary that I’m using, whether in 2D or 3D. It happened organically, and then I started trying to find ways to show both together, because the paintings and the assemblages seemed to create a more interesting space altogether. I see both the paintings and the other objects as puzzle pieces that I can arrange and rearrange according to the space. I also like to see how a painting changes depending on what is next to it. Aside from that, I find that if I am blocked in painting, it helps to work 3-dimensionally.
7. What advice would you give to someone who wants to paint more toward the abstract? What should they focus on learning in the beginning? Are the elements and principles of design more important to understand if you're wanting to head toward abstraction?
I think that the principles of design are the same regardless of the style. In terms of composition what you sometimes find in abstract work is that instead of having a focal point you have an all-over composition, where no one area takes on greater importance than another, but I think you could do that with representational work too. Within abstract work, you have a choice between using the picture plane as a flat surface or creating illusionistic depth, or playing with both in the same painting. I find that distinction helpful. Otherwise, in terms of techniques, I remember in school doing exercises where you would begin with a still life and then distort it, or represent it from multiple angles as a way of moving away from more “traditional” representation. On the other hand playing with textures and colour mixing can have some interesting results too.
To learn more about mixed media artist Anne-Laure Djaballah's work, visit her blog.