The artist Mari French

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Can you tell us a bit about you?

I’m a visual abstract artist painting in mixed media. My main inspiration is landscape, but I’m more interested in expressing my response to a place than creating a recognisable image.
I was born in 1957 in Manchester and grew up close to the brooding Pennine hills in the northwest of England. I later spent 15 years living on the mountainous Isle of Skye in Scotland, eventually moving to north Norfolk with its vast coastline, reed beds and salt marshes, so dramatic landscape has been a constant presence in my life.
I trained and worked as a graphic designer for many years, but always painted and sketched in my own time and although I had to wait till middle age I’m thankful I was eventually able to make the change to working as a full-time artist.
Lately I’ve been working on a series of paintings based on my local coastline, but I also have ongoing series of works connected to the Venetian lagoon and the rugged coast of Cornwall.
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Illuminated coast (i), 100x100cm

How did you find your voice as an artist?

My earliest memory of art is of my first day at school, I would have been 5 years old, intently drawing marigold flowers in a work book. I can still see myself pressing the vivid green and orange crayons onto the page, forming the petals and stems. As I grew up I sketched objects and pets around the house and studied art at high school. My parents weren’t particularly artistic, although my dad did some sketching, but they were very encouraging. I got married young and had a family so I wasn’t able to go on to art school. After that, apart from a small number of commissions, I mainly painted as a leisure interest.
Then came my career in graphic design, which channelled my creative impulses for over a decade. I was good with Photoshop and often created painterly collages for various marketing uses including music cd covers.
Once I moved to the Isle of Skye the urge to paint seriously became compelling and I discovered I was more interested in evoking the effects of wild weather and moody light on the landscape than depicting actual places. Visitors to my studio, used to seeing typical paintings of the island with blue skies and green fields, found my work more effectively captured the essence of the place.
Over time my work became more abstracted and energetic, the strokes more gestural, the surface more complex and I developed my own visual language of marks, patterns and colour palette. But it’s always evolving, I’m always learning.

Can you describe your typical working day?

My studio is in an old hayloft above a stable quite close to my home. In the summer swallows nest in the space below and I can open the large barn door to let the sun in. It’s a good size space but as I’m a prolific painter it does gets rather full. While I’m working I listen to dramas or documentaries on BBC Radio 4 or to classical music.
I start by laying out my palette, then studying the pieces I’ve been working on. I don’t refer to sketchbooks or photographs, I prefer to let my subconscious take over. I often begin by loosening up with mark making exercises. Sometimes I’ll ring the changes by printing monoprints using a gel plate, but they’ll usually be connected to the series of work I’m painting; both prints and paintings feeding into each other.
Painting is a very physical process for me, I always work standing at the easel, whatever the size of work, using large gestural movements and pacing to and fro to check progress. When I need a break I’ve got a comfy chair to relax in next to my shelves of art books and magazines.
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A fine balance, 70x70cm

Has anything changed about your working processes during your artistic career?

Well I paint much bigger than when I started out as an artist and my brushes have got bigger too – I use sizes between 25mm and 100mm. I’m much more confident in my gestures and my work has got much looser and more expressive. When sketching (usually on location) I work very loosely with wet-in-wet watercolour overlaid with scribbles and marks, whereas my sketches used to be very tight and controlled. When I first started painting I used oils, but I’ve been using acrylics for a long time; I prefer their faster drying time and the fact that they work so well in combination with all the other media I like to employ. That’s another change – I use a much wider array of materials than I used to – paint pens, oil pastel, ink sticks, gouache, acrylic, ink – basically anything that works.

If you had to live inside a painting forever, what painting would you choose?

It’s a strange thought, but perhaps ‘Summer fields’ 1961, by Joan Eardley. I love this Scottish artist’s work. This joyous, sun-filled painting evokes the landscapes of my childhood; you can almost hear the bees and feel the sun’s warmth. Her works were also influential on my own developing style.
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On arrival, 70x70cm
The website of the artist: http://www.marifrench.com/

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