Talking to Emma Davies about being a painter in todays world, when not coming from an academic art background was really informative, and I think anyone who is studying art or starting out on a painting journey would enjoy what she had to say.
I am not normally that drawn to landscapes and I really loved your paintings so it surprised me. I felt the atmosphere was something I could connect to immediately. So I wanted to start by asking you why painting?
What do you think is the advantage of painting something these days when we’ve all got these super-powerful cameras in our back pockets?
For me painting is much more about the process than it is about the output. I started painting about 10 years ago when I was quite sick. I was an academic and I had a major problem with my back, and I was struggling with pain. I found painting got me in to a zone where I could deal with pain much better. So that’s how for me it all started.
Then I started doing classes and connecting with other people. I was in New Zealand at the time. I completely loved it and in particular what I love is the zone you can get in to, which I can also get in to when I write sometimes. I can particularly get in to that when I paint – not always! For me it’s a level of focus and no stress that I just love.
So for a long time it never crossed my mind that it was for any other reason than for that. Then a few people had said to me that they liked what I was doing, which surprised me and felt nice, and I got more and more in to it.
I like to travel, so the combination of trying to get the energy of somewhere I love and really enjoy, alongside playing with paint, and that zone, is for me what it’s about.
It’s really interesting that what you are describing is something that came from a very personal place instead of somewhere outward facing.
Yes, I’ve never been to art school, and as a kid I was academically able so I was always streamed out of artistic creativity really. I was moved in to writing and science, which I actually think is a real error. I think it’s a foolish way of constructing education.
This has opened up my ability to see. For me painting is a lot about seeing things.
More and more I have got in to texture and I really like Peter Doig’s work. So now it’s partly about colour, partly about texture, seeing things differently and the zone that its in. So for me the photography is almost irrelevant.
I was thinking of that word irrelevant as you were talking, and it’s nice over a hundred years after the ‘death of painting’ to hear a painter describe photography as irrelevant!
I do work from photographs to some extent, but less and less. Both Winter in New York and the Old City of Jerusalem started from just taking some photos on my camera when I was there. Then I’ll mark out some drawings from those photographs but after two or three times I put the original photographs away. Otherwise I find that they are just too powerful and I copy them.
So you only work with photographs for a stage?
Yes for a stage – playing with them. Then I try to get rid of them. With both of those two I did get rid of them. I think that’s quite important otherwise I get stuck in the photograph rather than in that zone of painting. I hope that they are still in essence accurate, and I think they are.
The Winter in New York one is where the library is and it is roughly accurate but not completely so, because I have moved away from it and then gone back to it.
Do you ever get to a stage where you get stuck with a painting and you’ll go back and look at the photograph just for reassurance?
Yes I do. I find it quite hard to let go of the photograph. My desire is to hold on to it because it’s safer, like a comfort blanket.
I notice that, especially with teaching drawing, that there is a real fashion at the moment for liking super hyper-real paintings and drawings that look as if they are right there in front of you and almost too real.
These also seem to be winning a lot of art prizes at the moment, and some of the students are really enjoying gridding up and zooming in on photos with their iPhones so you don’t even need a printed photograph.
Unfortunately they are also often really hard on themselves if what they produce doesn’t look exactly like the photograph. So I think your method of working is really interesting for anyone who works with photographs, because you are questioning the importance of creating something in paint that is an exact replication.
Well I struggle with it, but if it’s a complete replication of a photograph then it goes back to your first question of what’s the point.
Obviously there is the process of making it and skill but in terms of output… I have tremendous respect for that type of work. I remember going to look at the BP Portrait Award, and there were quite a few in there. They are incredibly skilled. I find them awesome in the true sense of the word in terms of skill, but I can’t help but think at the same time why bother.
Yes that the thing for me. The skill is amazing and I would never deny that but some people question whether aesthetic skill is the only thing that there is to art.
You’ve actually answered a question I asked myself about your art, which is why am I so interested in someone who is making paintings of photographs because I’m very material-process led. What you’ve described to me though in this conversation is how process is both the starting point and the most important thing for you, so maybe that’s why I connected to it.
I knew you were an academic but thought you were an art academic actually and not a scientist! I remember streaming at school that led me to some strange choices, and I wondered what advice you have got for people who are interested in exploring their creative side but they fear it is not academic enough or it won’t lead to a job? Or what would you have done differently.
For me, I’m not sure I have any regrets, but if I did it would just be that I didn’t do this earlier. A lot of people will say, “I’d really like to do that but I can’t do that,” or “I’m no good at that, I’m not good at that sort of thing and you have got to be really talented.”
I think I would encourage them to be brave enough to care a bit less about whether they are good at it, or not good at it, or whatever that might mean. They should just do it.
That’s really good advice – that actually comes from an art academic! You know what you are talking about.
It’s very recent for me. This is actually the first time I have ever entered anything like this. It never crossed my mind before.
How I got there was that I live in East London, and not long moved back from New Zealand. So I am doing a Saturday morning art class with a guy who is absolutely fantastic. He teaches Fine Art at Coventry and I think it is unusually good for a local art class; I am just stunned.
It has been very good for me. Each person does what they do in the class, and it’s a very diverse group in the class, in a whole range of ways in terms what they choose to do draw and paint. It is all fine art but what they choose to do in terms of subject and culturally how they operate in the work. It is a really energetic, well-connected class and a group of people who probably wouldn’t come together in any other space except for that class.
In that class they do an exhibition every 6 months, and I’d never done anything like that before but that’s what this group does so I entered my things, and at the open exhibition somebody who had never met me came along and loved something I did and bought it! I have had loads of stuff published in journals etc but I have never been so excited! It was such a buzz and that started me thinking that if she liked it maybe somebody else will.
My son was encouraging me, and my partner, to set up a website, which I did. That got me thinking, so what do you do… I entered an art trail in Wanstead and again somebody bought something that was up in a café. So that was my second one and I got excited by that.
Then on my email came Curator’s Space, which is how I got to you…
That’s just been in the last year, which has got me thinking about what you do. I like the balance of the paid work that I do – and I’m not expecting to earn in art what I earn in my working life. I also enjoy students, and teaching and research but I would shift the balance a little towards art in terms of time if I could make a little more money out of it.
You’ve done a couple of things and sold a couple of paintings which is a really, really high rate of success! If you want to do that it must bode very well for you as I know people who have done some really beautiful work and have struggled for years and years exhibiting and never sell a thing.
I definitely understand about keeping the balance and having all of these things that you love still in your life but I think it was almost an assumption when you said that you didn’t think you could earn as much in art as you could in another job. I think that is a really big assumption of people, which in some ways we wanted to set out to address with the Refresh Art Award by getting involved in the other end of the business as artists.
I was reading a government report from 2017 the other day showing the creative industries to be worth £92 billion pounds and growing at three times the rate of the rest of the economy, which arguably might not be difficult right now.
Yet I think from a very young age, and I think that it is ingrained generationally, we’re taught that you don’t really get to make a living wage from art.
That may well be true. I would love to learn more about how to do that. There are elements of luck and skill and what you choose to do.
Although the other side to it is that I would hate to get in to a position where I was doing something because I thought it would sell, rather than doing something because it appealed to me.
It’s just started though, and very recently I have started to develop more of a style. One of the things that I love about it is that there is this endless journey of earning that I find exquisite. There is this endless path of seeing things differently and learning different ways of doing it.
Looking at your site, is all this work oil paint?
Yes. I really, really enjoy the texture and feel of oil, so that won’t change. I have had a play with collagraph, which I have enjoyed. I do enjoy playing with texture and colour on that. I usually know what marks will create what in oil now, whatever I paint with, but with printing when you put it down and lift it up… I like the unpredictability so I might go back to that.
I think there are endless amounts to do though in oil paint. I love it. I have tried watercolour and acrylic but I am in love with oil paint.
As well as seeing Emma's work on our gallery page, you can buy some of her other paintings at https://www.emmadaviesart.com and see the range of beautiful images she's been working on.