In Conversation with Maxine Hart
Cornish painter Maxine Hart chats about her work, combining motherhood with a career as an artist, and how surfing, pasties and walking the dog fit into her busy life!
Where did you train?
I’m from the Wirral. I did an Art Foundation at Chester, then I went to Birmingham Art School – so very traditional. At the time it was perfect, as it wasn’t very far from home. We did painting, printmaking, sculpting and then chose our disciplines – so, for me, Fine Art. Because it was right in the centre, I used to do – still a lot of landscapes – but also buildings. Birmingham was really developing as a city at that time – the International Centre was being built. It was a great vibe and I loved it. You had to be in every day, working in the studio space – it was very much a 9am-5pm course.
So, you worked as a mural artist…?
I moved back home (after college) and worked in sales for a printing company, for a few years. I was still painting but not as much as I wanted to, so it got to a point when I thought: ‘I need to really go for this’, and I did. At the time I was doing portraits and using charcoal a lot. I had an exhibition in Jigsaw Café in Chester. Then it just snowballed. In the ‘90s, I started working as a mural artist for a kitchen company called Mark Wilkinson – very high end, and murals were on trend then. So, I used to go to people’s houses and give them a mural! My last job as a mural artist was an indoor swimming pool – just me, working on my own. I did the walls and then I painted the ceiling – a bit like Michelangelo! It was pretty hard going.
I worked for the Cheshire Arts Advisory …
Alongside being a mural artist I was working for the Cheshire Arts Advisory and this is how it started – me loving painting, really. I used to go to the arts courses at Menai in North Wales. At the time, the programme was headed by David Firmstone and Pauline Harrison, and they were an incredible influence on sixth formers in all the Cheshire schools. We’d have a week’s residential, working on huge canvases, with pots of acrylic paints, and we’d do things like dye fabric and paper, make clothes; every type of material was available. Nothing was ‘No you can’t do that’! That experimentation was really influential.
I started working for them, setting up exhibitions. We had a central exhibition space in mid-Cheshire and I headed up organising those in all the region’s primary and secondary schools. It all just evolved … and then kids came along!
How do you juggle being a full-time mum & an artist?
When you’re a mum, you’ve often just got an hour/two hours, and that is it, before you go to pick someone up. I was worried I was going to lose my creative juices, but it very much honed my skill. I produced some really lovely work in that period, when time was very limited, and to be honest, that has never stopped. It’s always been like that. It helped me get things done quicker, rather than feeling I had endless time to deliberate over something.
It’s only now, since Lockdown, that it’s my time – no, not exactly my time, but, I’m going up the priority list a bit, rather than being at the bottom!
In Lockdown, you did the Artist Support Pledge – how was that?
The Artist Support Pledge was set up by a friend of mine, Matt Burrows. Another friend showed me how it all worked, and I thought: ‘I can do this’. Luckily I have a studio at home. I wanted to do all fresh work, on paper. It’s so easy, online, and then you start selling. But the beauty of it is the buying. The idea is, you sell up to £1,000 worth (of your own work) and then pledge to buy up to £200 worth of someone else’s. I was disciplined in my practice. I didn’t need to drive children anywhere, so I had a lot of time, like we all had. And I loved that time.
I’d walk the dog in the morning, first thing, and then I’d be in the studio. I had a structure to my day, finally! And you get the bug. It feeds you – the selling was fantastic, and the buying. I feel privileged that I was able to buy a beautiful selection of work. It’s still in the corner of the studio in frames, because my walls are full! It’s such a luxury. I’ve got my work on the walls, and friends’, but there’s something about having someone else’s too. I’m still continuing with it, and will do. I think it’s been the most incredible movement that Matt (Burrows) has created for everyone, in every type of creative medium.
Can anyone learn to paint?
Yes. It’s about not worrying about starting something, making a mark, a colour! It’s simple steps, and learning to control it – controlling the drip! My favourite place is my studio. You just can’t describe it, can you? I’ve been in my studio (during Lockdown) more than I have been for a long time now. I am going back to that ‘being-at-art-school’ feeling, where I’m trying to get over the feeling of being too precious about something, of keeping going, but not pushing it too far.
How do you find your own voice as an artist?
My paintings have drawing qualities. I use charcoal and pencils in them with the paint as well. I want to create more layers, push it further … not necessarily texture, or piling the paint on, though I do love texture! You need time, and to get immersed in it to develop your work. And courage! You’ve got to be prepared to lose it, and then bring it back. Sometimes all it takes is something small to bring it back and then you love it. I have multiple paintings going on at the same time.
It’s always a fine line of who are you painting for, if your work is selling. Are you doing it for you, or the buyer? I’ve discovered and followed so many other artists since being on Instagram, and joining the Artist Support Pledge, and you take little bits; but once you’re in your studio, and you’ve got your brush or pen, you’re ‘in it’, aren’t you, rather than worrying too much about what anyone else is doing?
I don’t worry about fitting in, or having a place down here. There’s a lot of artists in Cornwall, and everywhere. You just have to be happy and immersed in your own work. I love seeing connections in other people’s works with mine. We’re all in this big creative bubble – especially since Lockdown. I’ve been influenced, but in a nice way, and inspired (but not aspiring to be those artists) by other artists, and proud, and loving it.
What colours are on your palette at the moment?
I love cerulean blue. I love warmer colours. Raw umber is my staple – you can knock something back with it, and it’s got that warmth, and translucence. Pinks, titanium buff. I love Payne’s grey – the Winsor & Newton one. It’s a really good mix – not too muddy. I’ve been using black, and I love the greens as well. Green gold, and olive green – the Winsor & Newton one is a lovely warm green. I love Alizarin crimson too. They’re all subtle colours but then you’ve got the accent colours too.
What’s your process?
I use lines of white gloss (house) paint too – that goes back to when I was at college. I used a lot of house paint because it was cheap, and in the garage and there to use! It’s lovely, very fluid, and so you don’t really know where it’s going to go. I try to combine flat colour with texture and movement. I paint and draw at arm’s length, using the end of the pencil, using line and energy.
I’ll always use a ground on a white surface. That instantly takes away the worry of a white canvas, of making the first mark. I use warmer colours for the ground, so usually burnt sienna, and that instantly lifts it. I’ll do sketches when I’m outside walking – if I’m lucky enough and my dog’s not wanting me to throw the ball again and again! I take lots of photographs too. I use those for composition and line, and for noticing things I like – as a starting point. Then I come back to the studio and initially use acrylic, not worrying too much about what’s going down, and not controlling it too much, using the pencil to push it around and drawing with the charcoal. I do four or five images at the same time, using similar colours then I might leave them and start another lot, or maybe do some mono-printing, or some charcoal drawings. So I’m using a few media at the same time. I like working in the evening too – maybe using texture with some oil paint. I might leave it, play around and add a few marks. They all evolve.
I use raw pigments & make my own paints.
I got into raw pigments on trips to Italy. There are little shops in Florence with pots of raw pigments. They scoop them up into a bag like boiled sweets. I used to use a lot of terracotta, and we used to use them to make our own paints at art school, so that’s stayed with me. I might have a pot of that on the go and melt down some wax. I’ve never used the (ready-mixed) cold wax, but I suppose that’s what I’m doing – making my own (cold wax) by melting wax and pouring it in. I like the layering, and the scratching through and revealing colours underneath. I also use a lot of oil sticks. I use emulsion with charcoal. I’ve always used mixed media. I’ve never really been a traditional oil painter.
What’s your favourite colour?
Cerulean blue. Oh. I haven’t got a favourite. No. Hang on. I’ll go with Italian pink (oil paint) – that’s an old love! It gives a painting that special Wow! that transforms it.
Line, colour or design?
Favourite painting tool?
Back of a paint brush or pencil.
Canvas or panel?
Recently I’ve discovered canvas panels. Probably a board.
Big or small?
I’ve been working small recently, but I’m going to say big.
Sketchbook & planning or intuitive?
I’m a planner, initially … then let it go.
What marks feel distinctively you?
These fluid lines. Probably a dribble, or a drip, because you’re in control but you’re not. A controlled dribble … I feel I’m that! Yes, I’m a controlled dribble. It’s all about letting things happen, but not too far!
Who’s your favourite artist?
I love Richard Diebenkorn – his drawings, paintings, colour. And, recently, Caroline Yates.
Best thing about being an artist?
Putting down on paper what you can see, and the joy of it. You can’t beat it, or describe it. I wouldn’t do anything else.
If you weren’t an artist what would you be?
Backdrops and staging – something like that, for the theatre or film.
If someone saw your work in 100 years’ time, what aspect of you would you hope they connected to?
Oh, my goodness! That I’m someone who’s responding to their surroundings, who’s grounded.
What’s it like being an artist in Cornwall today?
When you go to St Ives, you’re aware of the art scene that was here, and still is. You can really feel it, and imagine it. It is nice to be a part of the Cornish art scene.
Pasty or ice cream?
Pasty. Oh yes!
Surf or swim?
You can’t beat a surf. I mean, a surf and then a pasty – that’s complete, isn’t it, really? It doesn’t get any better than that. Simple pleasures!
Where can people see your work?
I’ve got paintings at the Lizard Art Gallery, and at hotels (including Budock Vean), Instagram and Artist Support Pledge. But … it’s going to go bigger, and more experimental, but still me. Watch this space!