My guest today is De Gillett, a career artist and painting teacher based in Brisbane, Australia. With a particular interest in portraits, De makes art for income, for fun, for a hobby and for her mental health. As well as selling her own artwork—she has a particular interest in portraits and often takes commissions for them—De also teaches art online and in person at The Arts Tree, the studio classroom she runs with her husband Graeme.
What you will learn in this episode:
• De’s journey from career artist to art college to teaching
• About her technique and style
• Top tips for a novice artist
• Her process for approaching artwork
• De’s favourite creative tools and resources
De’s journey from career artist to art college to teaching
De says she has been “a pretentious twat” about making artwork since her childhood. Like most people, she grew up being told that she couldn’t make a living from art, so it wasn’t until her mid-30s that she got serious about it. After being very ill with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, she picked up a piece of clay and over the next 12 years she sculpted her way through 10.5 tonnes of it! She has also worked with bronze sculpture, as well as drawing in pastels in black an white. About 15 years ago, De discovered colour and became very interested in painting and that’s been her obsession since then.
In 2009, once her children had grown and after the dissolution of her marriage, De went to back to college to get a Bachelor of Fine Arts, which she completed in 2012. She absolutely loved it: having already been making her living selling art for more than 20 years at that stage, it was an astonishing difference to be free of the pressure to make sales. Although the university didn’t teach her how to paint or draw—something she found her way around by taking animation subjects—doing the degree taught her how to think. She knew she’d reached the pinnacle of what she could achieve by herself, and she needed an educated mind to immerse herself in.
About her technique and style
De is mostly self-taught as far as technique goes. The scholarly techniques of drawing are mostly reviled in the contemporary art world, where an idea is king. With the advent of post modern thought, it became believed—and is still believed today—that it doesn’t matter how well you paint or draw, the only thing that matters is the idea or concept behind the work. There’s also a heartfelt belief that something cannot be beautiful and also meaningful. De struggles with that approach and spent much of her 3rd year at university arguing against it, making work that was at once beautiful and deeply meaningful. She believes the development of concept must go hand in hand with the development of technical skill, so that’s how she teaches.
She has several techniques that are the bones of what she teaches. She uses ink in a way that involves throwing brilliantly coloured inks on a very textured surface. She also has a technique that she calls Gesso Soup, which involves floating transparent colour on top of a textured surface. De has come up with these techniques through a process of experimentation and evolution over the last 15 years. Very into mixed media right now, De has also developed another technique where she draws on tissue paper, and then pastes the very fine line drawing down into the painting; the tissue paper disappears and you’re left with lovely fine line work on the canvas.
Developing a style has come accidentally for De; her signature style is layering and her signature feeling is exuberance. As an artist, she always wants to be developing and growing, and to make viewers have a smile. She’s much braver in her artwork than she used to be, because teaching has occupied the financial imperative for her and she’s therefore able to be freer in her own practice.
Her process for approaching artwork
Counting herself an expressionist, for De it’s all about how a subject makes her feel—she wants to make a viewer feel the same way when they see the painting. To start with, De will look at what is exciting her, and then dig down into why something has attracted her, whether it’s the colours, a movement or the sense of simultaneity (where it is, where it was and where it will be). She will go somewhere along the abstraction journey and only put in to the painting the elements that really attracted her in the first place. Quite known for her paintings of birds in flight, De likes to paint the sounds of things—like palm tree leaves in the wind, or the screech of lorikeets (Australian parrots).
When doing portraits, De likes her work to look alive. Although it’s important to get a good likeness in portraiture, she also thinks it’s important to get the energy of the person. That proof and authenticity is something she pushes hard for in all her work. There’s a very intimate quality and connection to the attention an artist gives their subject, and De finds herself with a high regard for each person she paints.
Top tips for a novice artist
A lot of people have a belief from childhood that you must learn to draw before you learn to paint, however, De teaches that drawing ability and painting ability should be developed hand in hand. She believes it’s also important to understand that we’ve been taught to colour in between the lines, but we need to unlearn that, which is often a continual process for the rest of our lives!
De advises students to be careful of othering; make sure there is authenticity in the work, so that it’s an expression of what you know and love and feel. Only do things that you’re really interested in and have a personal experience of. For example, if you’ve never actually been to Venice, don’t paint it from a photograph, because it won’t have that sense of authenticity.
A big sketcher, De believes it’s very important that everyone learns to draw quickly from life. Although she doesn’t sketch every day, she does go to life drawing every week. If you can’t draw well your painting practice is going to be held back. At university, De was required to sketch every day for 15 minutes and over the space of 6 months her skill improved greatly. She suggests everyone continue to draw regularly, because it is a use-it-or-lose-it type of skill.
De’s favourite creative tools and resources
In particular, De loves palette knives. They are a key part of her Gesso Soup technique, and a visual diary, because she has so many ideas!
She says she’s never really experienced artists block, but when she feels she needs inspiration she will visit the Queensland Art Gallery and spend some time with the masters. As well as the Australian impressionist Arther Streeton, she’s also inspired by the American painter Richard Schmid, Austrian artist Egon Schiele, and Klimt’s decorative work ‘The Kiss’.
Where to find De
Find De on social media at facebook.com/degillettBFA