London based artist Olivia Kemp on her love of the studio and deliberately drawing things too difficult to draw in Madrid…

Olivia Kemp working in her studio

Your work beautifully captures the resilience of nature (and vulnerability of man-made structures). What is it about this relationship that resonates with you?

I am particularly interested in the places where the countryside is marked with the evidence and strangeness of our presence amongst it: curious buildings and structures that can jar and clash with our perception of the picturesque. I draw these places for different reasons every time, sometimes I think they are beautiful, sometimes I think they’re funny. Ultimately you put them down on paper because they fascinate you, some of the time you’re still finding the reasons why long after the drawing is done.

Olivia Kemp - After The Wind Howled

Olivia Kemp – After The Wind Howled

120cm x 70cm (47″ x 27.5″).

What’s the story behind the location for “And Yet The Rubble Thrived” and do you have a process for finding new subjects?

I don’t really have a process for finding things to draw, I come across places and objects when out walking. There’s a huge collection of photographs on my laptop and phone, but some places stand out and I’ll be thinking about them for days or weeks.

I drew “And Yet The Rubble Thrived” after returning from a trip to Orford Ness, and went on to make two more drawings from the Ness. I had been keen to go there for about a year having read about it in W.G. Sebald and Robert Macfarlane’s books. At the time my family were living near the village of Orford in Suffolk and you can see the Ness from the top of the hill. The Ness is the site of an abandoned nuclear weapons testing plant now owned by the National Trust. It is such a surreal and beautiful place with so many strange and enormous buildings. I knew I wanted to make drawings of it and that I wanted to work on a larger scale in order to do it better justice.

Olivia Kemp - And Yet The Rubble Thrived

Olivia Kemp – And Yet The Rubble Thrived

120cm x 70cm (47″ x 27.5″).

What was a typical day working on “And Yet The Rubble Thrived” and how long did it take you to complete?

The usual I think: coffee and my headphones on. You’re always trying to get into that mood where you’re not thinking about anything other than what you’re drawing, when hours just escape. That’s what’s addictive.

Olivia Kemp drawing

Olivia working on ‘And Yet The Rubble Thrived’ in her studio.

I worked on that particular drawing for three months in all. I hadn’t drawn anything that big and that detailed before so I had no concept of how long it would take so I just let it grow slowly. My favourite drawings are the ones that evolve slowly; it’s a way of ensuring I’m not too glib or summative in what I’m putting down. I don’t even think I knew if I’d finish it, it seemed like a crazy challenge. I’m always thinking about what someone sees when they go up close to the drawing and trying to make that more revelatory than when viewed from a distance, kind of encouraging the viewer to experience it as I drew it.

Olivia Kemp - Hidden in Plain Sight

Olivia Kemp – Hidden in Plain Sight

120cm x 80cm (47″ x 31.5″).

Your style of working directly in pen without prior sketching seems to echo the organic, slow creep of nature on its surroundings. In what ways does this technique work for you?

Working like that allows me to focus on the small area that I’m looking at that day I can create tiny relationships between objects. I don’t worry about the whole. I think it stops the size of the paper from overwhelming me. But mainly I do it because in the past, when I’ve sketched the whole image out beforehand, filling it in bores me. It feels like paint by numbers, like the whole drawing is a foregone conclusion and the excitement of the unknown is lost. That’s also what is great about pen, you’re always on the edge of making an irrevocable mistake. It sharpens my focus and gets me absorbed in what I’m doing.

Has increasing the scale of your drawings to A0 led to any technical challenges?

I don’t think the challenges of it are technical. I start A0 and then if the drawing doesn’t need that much paper, bits get ripped off as I go along. The challenge of it is mainly physical actually, it’s moving around the drawings, I find myself alternately sitting down and standing up over and over while working. Then you wonder why you’re tired at the end of the day.

Olivia Kemp - That Which Flourishes Remains

Olivia Kemp – That Which Flourishes Remains

2015. 59 x 51cm (23″ x 20″). 2 Colour Screenprint on Velin Arches Blanc 400 gsm Paper.

Who are some of your favourite poets and authors who write about wilderness and nature?

I love the poetry of Edward Thomas and Kathleen Jamie, I can find myself with lines of their writing running round my head for days.

I really enjoyed Tim Dee’s book Four Fields it made me want to see so many of the places he did, particularly from the way he wrote about Chernobyl. I find The Peregrine by J.A.Baker just full of moments of genius. He’ll be writing about birdwatching but some of it feels like he’s writing about art, about writing, about making work in general. It’s searingly insightful but at the same time beautifully poetic in the way it’s dripping with metaphor. But I also enjoy reading Sara Maitland, Nan Shepherd, Roger Deakin and others.

Olivia Kemp Studio with books and drawings

Home to some of Olivia’s books in the studio.

What’s one of the most difficult things about being an artist and what do you love most about your life as an artist?

I love being able to shut myself away in studio and get on with my work. It’s something I always feel really grateful to be able to do and that doesn’t seem to wear away. I moved out of a shared space last summer and into my own studio and that was such a positive change for me. Being wall to wall surrounded by all the things I’ve collected and drawn over the years is so exciting and just makes me want to push myself further.

Olivia Kemp's studio walls

Shelves of source material and inspiration.

I think maybe one of the hardest things is being able to switch off. Going home and getting on with cooking dinner and winding down is really difficult. I’ll have photos on my phone of what I’m working on and I find it really hard not keep looking at them. I think in some ways I have to be obsessed with it in order to draw it but that has its down sides too and you can lose sleep over the most inconsequential things.

Olivia Kemp drawing Cranach

Olivia studying from a Lucas Cranach painting at the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid.

Winning the 2015 Richard Ford Award gave you the chance to study from paintings at The Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid. How did you find the experience?

I realised recently that it was one of those experiences that you take very much as it comes at the time. But now it’s over I keep coming across new things that it taught me and I feel like that will continue to happen for a long while.

Olivia Kemp after Cranach in progress

Olivia Kemp – After Lucas Cranach

Drawing in progress at the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid.

It was really overwhelming at first; I had no idea where to start and was surprised by how few landscapes there were in the collection. But over time I felt like that was the best thing about it. I had to choose paintings for every reason other than the subject matter. I was looking at detail, pattern, texture and it forced me to think about all the other reasons I chose to draw certain things in my own practice. Any painting I saw that I thought would be too difficult to draw; I then knew I had to try, it being too difficult felt like the worst excuse to me.

Olivia Kemp - After Rubens

Olivia Kemp – After Rubens

Drawing in progress at the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid.

The drawings I made feel so important to me because they challenged me so much but at the same time I still have to keep telling myself that I drew them, because they feel so wholly unlike anything I did before.

It’s left me full of questions for my work.

Any tips for moving through creative block?

I normally have so many things that I want to work on at once that I’m less likely to feel a block and more likely to feel overwhelmed. After completing something big and before I go onto the next thing it has become a kind of ritual for me to go to The National Gallery and draw from the paintings. I have been doing this ever since I moved to London about 5 years ago and it still feels like a treat to myself. I find this very rewarding, you come away with something but don’t put as much pressure on yourself as you might with studio work. You can work out a lot of things for your own practice when working from paintings like this. It’s less about the drawing itself and more about what making it teaches you.

If I’m really questioning what I’m doing though, then I go for a walk. Nothing clarifies things faster for me.

Olivia Kemp - Though The Way Is Lost

Olivia Kemp – Though The Way Is Lost

100cm x 60cm (39″ x 24″).

Which artists have had the biggest influence on you?

Incongruous to my own work as it sounds I think I would have to say Rembrandt and Lucian Freud. When I was about 11 I started plastering the walls of my bedroom with pictures, articles and postcards of their work. My grandmother would stay in my room when she visited and would complain about “all the faces staring” at her. I remember crying in front of a Rembrandt in the National Gallery on a school trip when I was about 15, I just thought it was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen. I was obsessed with both these artists and, growing up on a farm, I and used to steal planks of wood and bits of cardboard from my Dad’s barn to paint portraits on, drove him mad! Then I’d dry them over the Aga…driving my Mum mad.

Now the pool of artists to think about is so much wider it’s hard to choose one or two. A certain work will grab you for a while, then something else.

Thanks again to Olivia for being so generous with her time and providing such a great window into her creative process.

You can buy Olivia Kemp prints at James Freeman Gallery and enquire about availability and purchasing original work through Olivia’s website.

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