Vancouver artist Gillian Richards spoke to me about her path to contemporary art making and the curiosity that continues to drive her work. Richard’s body of work including painting and drawing examines the beauty and banality of urban life. 

Was there a pivotal moment when you decided to follow your passion for art?

I’ve always been involved with art through both my painting practice and as a scenic painter in the film industry.  I suppose the pivotal moment I decided to devote myself entirely to my art came after I had left the education program at the University of British Columbia where I was studying to become a high school art teacher. At a certain point I decided that what I really needed to do, was be a full time artist. To devote myself entirely to just that and see what I could accomplish as a painter. It was a difficult choice to make as the effort to shift careers from film to teaching was a lot of work. But that work also entailed going back to Emily Carr University to finish my degree which was a great experience during which my passion toward my own art was reignited.

Can you tell me about the process of making your work?

I search out a subject that I’m attracted to. Sometimes I stop the car, or my bike, and take a photo thinking it might have some possibilities as a painting. I often have a subject lingering in my mind that I think could work. Sometimes I’ll go back to a location to take more pictures at a different time of day to see a different kind of light on it.

Once I’ve chosen my subject I might play with it on my computer by flipping it around,  or changing it to black and white so I can see the composition better. Often I’ll do a drawing of it to learn about what attracted me to the image in the first place. I project the photo onto my canvas to draw it out. I like to work on a coloured back ground so I prepare the canvas by putting a vibrant orange or pink wash over the canvas surface.

I work mostly in acrylics. I start by laying in my darkest and lightest values of colour right away so I can see the composition quickly. I find those initial shapes that start to define form can be some of my favorite parts of the painting. Because I work with very wet and washy paint and like to keep the paint “open” (wet) for as long as possible, I spend most of my time painting with the canvas on the floor so it doesn’t drip. I climb a step ladder  frequently to get some distance from the painting when it’s wet on the floor.

“… I have to wrestle with it and find a way to pull it together. It’s a difficult point in a painting, but I think that process is when the painting acquires its substance.”

Gillian Richards, “Park Gate”, 2020, acrylic on canvas, 36″ x 48″

The painting always evolves into something that I had not intended. As I work, it acquires a life of its own and I have to address what it becomes as it progresses and work from there. I continually stop and look and ask myself “ what makes this interesting” or “what can I emphasize that will make this more interesting”, or “what needs to be emphasized here to make this work”. I ask these kinds of questions constantly as I work. At its best, I discover something new in the process of painting. I experience emotional peaks and valleys as I paint. I feel excited and optimistic at the start of a painting, but there is always a point where the whole thing becomes one big conundrum. That is when I have to wrestle with it and find a way to pull it together. It’s a difficult point in a painting, but I think that process is when the painting acquires its substance.

Do you have a favourite book, film or painting, which inspires you?

I often go to art books such as the painting and drawing surveys: Vitamin P I and II for inspiration. I also look to my favorite artists ranging from Richard Diebenkorn to designers of early 20th century travel posters.

A film I recently watched Koyaanisqatsi, from the early 1980’s was the first of a series of three entirely wordless films accompanied by the music of Philip Glass. The first is my favorite. It is an emotionally moving visual journey with beautiful camera work that soars over the landscape of the United States, sweeping down into intimate portraits of faces on the streets of American cities. Neither didactic or moralizing, it is a beautiful and compassionate portrayal of the jumble of contemporary urban life. I felt while watching it that it had accomplished what I strive for in my paintings:  to portray both the beauty and banality of existence in our city.

Gillian Richards, “Court”, 2020, oil on canvas, 30″ x 36″

What do you wish every child was taught?

Self-reliance, emotional and physical. So much activity in our culture for both children and adults is passive or mediated by others. I think kids benefit from having time to mess around with materials or play outdoors on their own without adult intermediaries, computer games or apps. I think self-reliance comes with having to figure things out for one’s self. That is creativity of a sort. Confidence in one’s self comes with self reliance. The emotional self reliance and confidence to be alone for a while without the distraction of media or an organized activity I believe is important.  Allowing this to occur for children (and adults) is a form of teaching self-reliance.

Have you ever had a moment when you questioned your career entirely?

At my lowest when I have wondered what the point of art or making it is, and it all seems so difficult, I have imagined someone coming up to me and saying “Ok, you are off the hook. You don’t have to be an artist anymore. You can walk away from the whole thing” You are free to leave. Off you go!” my gut reaction to that permission is “No!” that’s not what I meant! I can’t just stop painting! What else would I do? Who would I be?” So, yes I have questioned my career, but ultimately being an artist is who I am and I can’t imagine being or doing anything else.

“… what I strive for in my paintings: to portray both the beauty and banality of existence in our city.”

What was your first work of art that really mattered to you?

I have a painting I did about ten years ago. I painted it on Hornby Island where my husband and I rented a house with a studio for six months. It was a time of creative growth for me as I worked very hard to find my own artistic voice. I had been a commercial artist for many years, honing my technical abilities but executing other people’s ideas. I had also been painting traditional landscapes for a few years too. I was looking for something more to express. I began a series of paintings of trailers that were sitting around the island. They represented for me aspects of our society in that vacated winter holiday land, possessing a poignancy that I wanted to explore. One of those paintings is significant for me as I feel it represents a turning point where I began to discover I could use my personal expression to represent subject matter that has meaning for me.    

Gillian Richards, “Field”, 2020

What advice would you give to a young person following in your footsteps?

To try to listen to, nurture and be respectful of your inner artistic voice that is truly you. Encourage that voice to tell you what you should create, even if you are unsure if what you create will have value for others. If you keep creating with this in mind you will be working with your authentic self. That above anything else, such as approval from others will be what carries your practise through difficult times. Pay attention to the “art world” and other artists, admire your favourites and even try out their techniques or styles that attract or excite you. But be courageous enough to venture beyond style to create with your own voice. Be patient with this process. Know it won’t always produce results you like or want. Proceed anyway. If you’ve created something you are unsure is “good” but nevertheless holds you somehow, honour that. That is probably the door to the treasure. Ask yourself if you are rejecting a work you’ve done (or someone else has done) because it’s unfamiliar to you – you’ve never seen something like that before. That too could be gold. You must decide. Technique is important. Work to perfect it. Technique alone is not self expression. Use it as a powerful tool to express your ideas and feelings.

Why do you love what you do?

Making art lightens my spirit. Not always, sometimes it weighs me down and I feel despair. But in the end I love what I do because making art allows me to be really me – the part that is free. That makes me happy.

To see more of Gillian Richards work please get in touch or call 604 730 9611. @gillianrichardsartist

Thank you! We hope you enjoyed the first in our Artist Spotlight series.