Interview Georgia Mallin
Georgia is a figurative artist working mainly in oil painting and drawing. Born and raised in London, she took a BA in English & Spanish at the University of Oxford before realising several years later that art needed to be at the centre of her life. She has recently graduated from the Heatherley School of Fine Art with a Diploma in Portraiture, where she was taught by artists including Miriam Escofet, Tim Benson, Melissa Scott-Miller, Allan Ramsay, Kate Hopkins and Fred Crayk. She was awarded the Daphne Todd Portrait Prize in 2018.
Working from direct observation has long been fundamental to Georgia’s practice, with an emphasis on accuracy, draughtsmanship and the fall of light. Making a painting or drawing is a powerful act of paying attention, and each piece of work shows Georgia’s intense preoccupation with the act of looking.
As a portraitist, Georgia hopes to convey a sense of psychological insight as well as capture the beautiful complexity of the human form. As a language and literature graduate, she is also interested in how portraiture and narrative intertwine – in painting as a way of storytelling, and creating the sense of a complete and believable world.
Georgia is now studying with Alison Harper, Melissa Kime and Dan Coombs at the Essential School of Painting, where she has been a lucky recipient of the ESOP Newman Young Artist Scholarships 2019/20, exploring how imagination, memory and feeling can be the springboard for making images. This developing strand of imaginative work sits alongside, and is informed by, her many years of working from observation - as well as her life-long love of reading stories and being transported to other worlds by works of art.
How do you describe your work to somebody who has never seen it?
Haha that’s such a good question. And a tough one. I’d say at the moment my painting is that of someone academically trained who is just starting to explore what else is possible beyond literal observation. I spent quite a few years studying from life, to hone my craft and really learn how to paint, and now I’m beginning to work more from emotion, imagination and memory.
I work mainly in oils, and my primary interests are people and storytelling. I studied literature at university, and reading is as much my first love as drawing. So I’d say I’m a figurative painter trying to create a sense of narrative, often using stories and poems or feelings and memories as a starting point. Themes that I seem to keep coming back to are love and relationships, and nature, and the idealised pastoral. So you’ll see lots of nude figures frolicking amongst flowers in my paintings!
Do you think is good to denounce social issues through art?
Absolutely, if you can find an authentic way to do that. Making art is such an intensely personal process that you can’t help but put something of yourself into your work. And if there are things happening in the world that you care about, or which interest you, then why wouldn’t you include them? I’ve found that it’s hard to make art that explicitly addresses social injustice without being didactic, or risking straying into that odd propagandistic kind of look. In my soul I want to make art that is beautiful, or at least an enjoyable, interesting aesthetic experience, but it needs to have something to say about the world at the same time.
Bringing those two things together is tricky and won’t happen successfully every time. Plus the things you’re trying to say about the world might be small, or subtle – you might just be thinking about the process of observation and perception, and the ways we construct the world in our minds as we take it in. Or you might be burning with rage at the chronic unfairness and inequality in society and want to channel that into your paint – do you find a way to depict it in your art, or do you paint as a way to escape it?
Congratulations on the prize you won recently (finalist for the Holly Bush Emerging Woman Painter Prize 2020, and longlisted for the Ruth Borchard Self Portrait Prize 2021). I would like to know how your work has been evolved these last years?
Thank you! It’s such a good feeling to have your work recognised publicly like that – being included in those prizes made me feel really ‘seen’, which is a big vote of confidence when you’re still just starting out and trying to explore what kind of artist you want to be.
My work has changed quite a lot in the last few years. Like I mentioned, I studied in quite an academic, traditional way for a number of years – drawing and painting from life at the Heatherley School of Fine Art in west London, which was brilliant. Since I graduated from Heatherley’s I’ve been studying one day a week at the Essential School of Painting, which has been transformative.
I’m slowly starting to find a ‘painting language’ for myself which is more imaginative, and my work is becoming looser, less realistic and more about emotion and atmosphere. It’s an interesting process and I do find myself trying to be two types of artist at once: the painter who is interested in direct observation and realism (who does portrait commissions and gets accepted into prizes) and the painter who is interested in expression and abstraction (who is potentially less marketable for commissions and prizes!) The paintings that get accepted into shows or competitions do tend to be the more realistic ones.
What do you like or dislike in the art world?
I feel like I’m still very much trying to ‘break in’ to the art world, so most feelings I have about it are that of an outsider. It can seem quite cliquey and impenetrable, like you have to already be in the club to get in the club, if that makes sense. What irks me the most is the sheer amount of privilege you need to have, in order to ‘make it’ in the art world. The idea of the artist as some kind of free, penniless bohemian is a myth - most artists who ‘made it’ were enabled to do so by access to private wealth: family money, patrons, connections, spouses. We don’t talk about that enough. The art market is a business world much like any other commodities market, and it would be better if we were honest about that.
I come from a middle-class family in London; I was able to go back to art school after years of working full time because I had moved back home with my mum, and I was able to go full-time at work. I could make it work financially for a while because I was lucky to get a bursary and a scholarship, and my dad gave me some money too. That’s pretty cushy. It’s also unsustainable. For comparison, at a talk I attended on understanding tax for artists, some of the advice given included thinking about whether you might want to re-mortgage your house to free up funds for an art studio. If that’s the thin end of the wedge for surviving in the art world, how does anyone without that kind of capital ever make it work?
On a more positive note, what I really like about the art world is the friendship and real support I’ve found during my years of study. I guess a community can look cliquey from the outside, but once you’ve found some people you connect with, it’s like a warm embrace. I’ve been very lucky in some of the great people I’ve met, both fellow students who’ve become friends and tutors who’ve absolutely gone above and beyond to support, critique and champion my work. There are lots of people out there trying really hard to create opportunities for artists, particularly emerging ones, as they know how hard it can be. I love to see that.
Who are your favourite contemporary artists?
I always love seeing the early work of artists known for their push towards abstraction, like Picasso and Bridget Riley, who started out with a classical figurative education. I used to think I preferred that early work – like it was proof that they could ‘really’ paint and draw. Now I’m starting to appreciate how it was the underpinning of their later practice, as they moved away from the literal.
My favourite contemporary artists are Michael Armitage and Cecily Brown. I think they’ve found a way to make truly contemporary figurative painting and it’s so exciting – seeing Michael Armitage’s work for the first time was like a lightbulb going off in my mind. He’s found a painting language that brings together incredible draughtsmanship and a true appreciation of paint and colour, with imagination and social commentary in a way that’s completely inspiring and incredibly beautiful. And I love how Cecily Brown is moving into this space between figuration and abstraction, there’s so much energy in the way she paints.
Other contemporary painters I really admire include Flora Yukhnovich, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Alex Kanevsky, Hughie O’Donoghue and Fanny Nushka Moreaux. I’m also a big fan of Dan Coombs and Melissa Kime, two fantastic – and very different – painters who I’m lucky enough to be taught by at the moment at the Essential School of Painting! They’re really helping me push out of the box I’d put myself in, and I absolutely love their work.
Which other kind of art would you like to learn or explore?
Ooh! I’d love to spend more time learning how to sculpt – I really loved my forays into that at Heatherley’s. I don’t really have any musical talent but I enjoy singing and always wished I could have learned the piano when I was younger. I love theatre and was quite into producing/directing
plays at school, but I was too intimidated to try and get into that scene at university. Perhaps designing scenery and costume for theatre or ballet would be fun – there’s a solid tradition of fine artists making that crossover!
What are you working on at the moment?
I’ve been focussing on a few portrait commissions recently, which has been an enjoyable challenge - it feels like a lot of responsibility when someone trusts you with the likeness of their loved one! It’s a very personal and meaningful project: if your sitter is the client, you need to try and account for the way they see themselves; if you’re painting someone close to them, you ultimately want them to see in the painting what they see and love in that person.
At the ESOP I’m working on a larger piece based on the Tennyson poem, ‘The Lady of Shalott’. I’ve loved that poem since I was a child and I’m trying to find a way to represent it visually without being too literal or illustrative. I’m not sure I’m succeeding at that so far, but it’s fun!
What is your process from initial idea to final?
To be honest, it really varies. For a portrait – whether working from a photo or from life – I might make some preliminary drawings or at least a sketchy under-painting, to map out where everything is and to start understanding the structure of their head. I do work quite quickly but there are usually enforced gaps between painting sessions as the layers of paint dry. I’ve recently returned to glazing as a technique, and am remembering how much I love it – it’s like magic, watching these thin layers of transparent colour bring the painting underneath to life.
With my more personal projects, I’m trying to work more intuitively. I always need something to spring from, or kick against: a prompt, an image, another painting, a story… Finding your subject matter is half the battle! I try to remind myself to jot down initial ideas in my sketchbook, to return to and expand on later. Literature is a real source of inspiration for me, and there are whole series of paintings I’d like to make in response to particular writers, when I have the time.
Recently I’ve been working over the top of old paintings, which is really fun – I find myself incorporating elements of the old piece as I go along, adapting and repurposing the colours and shapes. I’m always trying to become a more ‘painterly’ painter, less controlled and more expressive. I thought that was a recent thing, but I dug out one of my A Level sketchbooks and found that I’d been saying the same things at the age of 17! Telling stories and ‘loosening up’ - my two long-running quests…