“Every artist bares their soul in their originality”
Please meet Barbi Vandewalle, a well-established, experienced, passionate and refined artist with an exceptional dream for her counterparts….
Barbi Cunningham was born in 1958 in Malawi. She is recognised as an artist as Barbi Vandewalle, as her marital status has changed since she started painting.
Hi Barbi, please tell us a little more about yourself?
I was brought up on a tobacco and cattle farm in Malawi, my roots deeply embedded in open spaces, rural settings and big skies - which to this day are favourite subjects for my paintings.
How did your career as an artist start and what do you specialise in?
I have always been interested in artistic endeavours and have memories as a child sketching and messing about with what limited art utensils one could get at the time. Sadly my art at school was very stunted as I was terrified of my art teacher whom I perceived at the time to be fierce and a bully. It was safer to not stand out and just melt into the background.
During my nursing career, my creative spirit took a back seat but after my daughters were born I did courses in cake decorating, became involved in the wedding game and made wedding cakes for some of the top hotels and wedding venues in Cape Town. Sadly my youngest daughter developed a keen taste for anything I made and Houdini-like skills to get to and ‘test’ the beautifully crafted flowers and decorations which had taken me hours to make, not to mention the odd bite out of the cake itself, just before delivery. Bless her soul!!! The fashion changed as well and the traditional wedding cake became less favoured and was replaced by sponge cake and fresh flower arrangements. I then did courses on paint effects and murals, which became very fashionable at the time and I worked with a team of interior decorators, revamping restaurants and peoples’ houses. It was at this time that my then husband was offered a contract in Jakarta Indonesia. I have often wondered, in hindsight, if I had started painting before I went to Jakarta, I perhaps would have been happier there and the restlessness of my soul at the time might well have been quieter.
It was only on my return from Indonesia in 2003 that I started my painting career in earnest and joined the Leonie Turck Art School. Leonie is an accomplished watercolourist and taught me everything I know and perhaps the most valuable lesson was what she called ‘the value of counter-change’; the contrast of dark against light to bring impact and subtle drama into a painting. When Leonie retired, I continued to teach in her place. I also wanted to try my hand at oils and enjoyed the mentorship of Tim Johnson, a renowned portrait and maritime artist in Fish Hoek. I did enjoy the contrast of having more control in oils - the paint stays where you put it!
However, watercolours are my preference and first love. I love the unpredictability and the transparency of the colours and medium, always resulting in a certain element of surprise. The building up of layers, creating depth and texture is always an exciting process. Part of the execution is to expect the unexpected which often means the process or result is not what you intended initially. I often say to my pupils if they don’t like what they have done, walk away, look at it again the next day and then they are bound to see something new and magical taking place.
My journey in watercolours was further enriched by the late Richard Rennie. Having done numerous workshops I was invited to spend some time with him at his studio in Clarens. Besides his generous spirit and wonderful sense of humour this was a very refreshing time for me as he defied all the watercolour purists, broke every rule and encouraged me to paint from the heart rather than be bound by the conformists. As a result, my mixing palette often looks like a dog’s breakfast, I’m not so diligent about clean water and often it is tainted by previous pigments.
I am better recognised for my watercolours and my work can be found both nationally and internationally, both in the private and corporate sectors.
Were you ever discouraged? If so, how did it affect your creativity?
For some years now, watercolours seemed to have ‘lost their flavour’, for reasons which are varied and which I have never really understood. However, over the last few years, they have been making a major come-back, especially on the international front and heavily promoted by the Global International Watercolour Society with branches all over the world including South Africa. I am an active member on the committee of IWSSA, the International Watercolour Society South Africa
Galleries, too, over the years have been very reticent to take on watercolours. There is nothing more beautiful than a well-executed watercolour painting and it is recognised as the most difficult medium to work in due to the fact that the artists must manage something that traditionally only allows a certain amount of control due to the application of the washes. How do you control water on a flat surface? Some of the reasons given for watercolours not being so popular is the misconception that the colours are wishy-washy and also don’t stand the test of time in comparison to oils and acrylics. This is not true as there are many brands of top artist quality paints available, with the brightest and deepest hues and colours and as long as they are framed and behind glass the longevity would be the same as any oil or acrylic.
Sadly watercolours demand a lower price than their contemporaries, which is also a travesty. While it is true that a watercolour painting can be completed in a few hours, what is often overlooked is the expertise involved, it is a difficult medium as explained previously, there is very little room for error and quality materials are expensive. Besides the obvious framing costs, a good quality paper is paramount. In fact in my opinion, paper is the most important investment, my priority. The ‘heavier’ the paper the more you can ‘work’ it before it loses its transparency and light, but it does come with a cost. My personal preference is Arches, cold pressed, 300gsm paper, and Daniel Smith paints.
So yes, many times I have felt discouraged as the market, particularly for watercolours, appears to be ‘stumped’, and so many watercolourists have moved away from this medium to explore others. For me I just can’t!!!!! there is nothing more exhilarating than putting that first wash down on the paper, dropping in the colour and watching and waiting as magical things happen , some so unexpected and very often the result thereof depicts the mood and direction of the final result. A certain amount of planning must be there, as there is little room for error due to the transparency of the paint, but that is part of the excitement and adventure.
What subjects or topics inspire you?
I love to paint landscapes and often that is my ‘go-to’ when I am feeling uninspired and ‘blocked’. Big skies, open spaces - we are surrounded by that and it takes me back to my childhood. I love big skies and often that becomes the main focus of a painting, the landscape itself becomes the support.
Do you strive to be unique in your creative endeavours?
To be honest, I consider myself to be fairly versatile, it often offers a challenge and I paint anything, birds, people, rural scenes, flowers, animals, but I do feel constricted by still-life.
|Goats do Roam|
I work a lot from my own photos, not necessarily taking the whole photo as a reference, but picking out certain aspects and making my own composition. I will often pick out a tree, the way a shadow falls, a particular capture of light, a figure that evokes a memory or a movement and use these either in a composition or as a focus for a painting.
|Solitude on Klip|
Do you do custom artworks and commissions?
I do a lot of commissions, and enjoy commissions because often it forces me out of my comfort zone, and I love the interaction with the client working towards their expectation of the end result.
What if you’re not inspired to create?
If inspiration is being elusive, I don’t try to paint just for the sake of it. There’s really no point. I rather go into my studio and ‘plitter’ around, organise my work space, check my supplies and go over any references that I might have collected. The internet is a great source for getting new ideas, trying different techniques and styles and normally a light bulb comes on. I always have left-over bits of paper to test new skills, experiment with new colours, and if it leads to something productive, that’s great and if not, it’s just a piece of paper.
Could you please share some of the techniques you are using to apply focus, texture, colour, etc. in your artworks?
Having a focal point in a painting is very important and I always stick to the 1/3 ruling in any composition. Often it means more detail in whatever the focal point might be, or a contrast in colour or a shadow but something that draws the eye into the painting itself. It is very easy for me to get caught up in over-all detail, but I have developed my own system which helps me maintain the focal point of the composition. I normally lay down the basic and background washes, often keeping the white of the paper as the lightest areas, and then paint what I want to be the focus, keeping the detail for this area. Once I have done that I then work ‘backwards’, completing the rest of the ‘support’ for a painting, being looser in the application and being mindful of balance , depth and perspective. When the painting is almost complete I might then come back and pop in a few darks or shadows where necessary.
In watercolours it’s not that easy to add texture to a painting as one never uses the paint straight from the tube, but rather is always mixed with water first before applying, the consistency depending on the depth of the colour required. The darker the hue the less water is mixed with the paint. Although there are various methods to add texture to a watercolour, i.e. using wax, bleach or alcohol and also by imprinting different materials when the paint is wet, I myself prefer to keep the paper free of additives and rather use brush strokes or the ‘tooth’ of the paper and dry brush method to give the impression of sand, water sparkle etc. Some paints, e.g. French Ultramarine, have a natural tendency to flocculate, [a word that should not be attempted after too much wine!!!], or granulate in the drying process and often these will lend a lovely natural texture of their own. I quite often do apply salt into a wet wash, knowing that it doesn’t damage the fragility of the paper. The salt as it dries absorbs the liquid and can be brushed off once completely dry and leaves a granulated mottled affect.
How do you know when a piece is done?
It is important not to over-work a watercolour painting. It doesn’t matter how good a quality paper you work with, it can only take so much and when the absorbency has reached saturation point the paper loses its translucency and glow. Ideally you want to make every brush-stroke count and not scratch away at the surface of the paper. Generally I like to keep my washes to a maximum of three layers, it’s just enough to give the painting interest and depth and still leave a lee-way to add to the focal point if necessary. I’m never 100% sure when a painting is finished and often I force myself to ‘down-tools’ , walk away and only look at it a couple of days later.
Are your artworks easy to care for?
A watercolour artwork without any protection is very vulnerable. An accidental droplet of water or moisture can ruin a whole painting. It is very rare that I will sell a painting straight off the board and either will have it framed, especially for exhibition purposes, or I have a mount board put on and then covered in a plastic film. The latter works well if there is postage or transport involved.
How important are titles to your artworks?
I do give titles to my artwork but it’s more for differentiating between paintings. My titles are more literal and affiliated with the content or a place, if applicable. I don’t like to give ‘ethereal’ titles. I believe everyone sees something different in a painting, a painting can ‘speak different languages’ and by giving it a name can subconsciously block what the viewer’s perception might be.
Can I see your studio?
My studio is my happy place. It’s separate from the house, the size of a single garage and attached to the garage. I have plenty of space and at the end of the day I can just close the door and walk away. I also teach from my studio but like to keep my own work space exclusively for myself, a section in front of a large window, lots of natural light and surrounded by my organised chaos. I teach in the afternoons so most of my creativity happens in the mornings. Living on a plot and having livestock there is always lots to do but I try and organise my day, get the chores done and then escape into my studio.
What should artists do these days to market their art?
Many years ago I participated in an art auction while I was still living in Cape Town. There were quite a lot of well-known artists participating and the results of the auction were pretty dismal especially for the artists and we were all left feeling very disappointed. The auctioneer was Dale Elliot and he gave us all a little pep-talk. What he said is artists are the worst marketers of their own work, we’re too right-brained and the most successful artists work through an agent. That was a long time ago and before social media. The tools that are available today on social media allow us to get exposure without having to sell our souls, traipsing from one gallery to another begging for recognition. Facebook has been a wonderful platform for me both from a sales and commission perspective, [Paintings By Barbi Vandewalle] but it takes time, commitment and discipline to be constant. Exposure is so important and all artists should take every opportunity to promote themselves, get their name out by participating in exhibitions, art markets, festivals etc.
Another marketing tool is to run workshops, do demos and be available for interviews and media publications. It’s hard work and does take courage, but it is a wonderful way to boost one’s self confidence while at the same time getting recognition.
What are your personal viewpoints on art?
What a sad place this world would be without art? Art and the appreciation there-of are necessary for the upliftment of the soul especially in these times of hardship and stress. Sadly though, I have noticed that there are fewer of the younger generation who are interested in and appreciate original art. I’m not sure whether this is due to a gap in the education system or whether life has become so busy, pressurised and achievement orientated so that the artist is becoming over-looked and slowly losing his place in society.
Impetus is also given to the absurd and often politically motivated art, making a statement which is based more on impact rather than beauty and appreciation. Every artist bares their soul in their originality and that leads me to my dream, albeit quite idealistic:
My dream is to have a space, somewhere, where people can escape the hustle and bustle, rest their minds, take time out and replenish their souls in a safe and pleasing environment - a place where artists can exhibit, run workshops or just paint!
Phone: +27 0823739355
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