We travelled to the lovely village of Piddington, Oxfordshire to meet the lovely Francesca Darby and find out what inspires her art and to learn why a 'spirit of place' is so important in her work. We chatted over a mug of tea, overlooking her beautiful garden, and surrounded by a menagerie of very friendly pets. We wanted to find out what media she uses and all about her artistic journey.
Read on to find out more
When and how did you start painting, Francesca?
I gave up art at the age of twelve and didn’t pick up a paintbrush again until my late forties. I’ve fortunately had a creative life, as my working life has always been innovative - I’ve been a fashion and furniture buyer in London, and then I had my own interior design company but, I didn’t think I could paint or that I was artistic. Then, I found myself at an Artweeks event where I saw an advert for a local art school. I phoned up on the off chance saying I didn’t know anything about art. They had one place left on their foundation course, and I started the following week. It was a two year course and the rest, they say, is history. I was hooked. I didn’t put any restrictions on myself and so learnt lots from as many different media types as I could.
What is your favourite medium and why?
Experimentation is key and should be considered part of a big journey. I started off, and was very comfortable with acrylics, I also played around with pastels for a while. However, I’ve found that it’s all about confidence - acrylics are a lot easier to use in a home environment. I’ve now started working with oils, and there’s parts about it that I like and parts about it that frustrate me, like how it takes so long to dry! I would say I’m now 50/50 acrylics to oils now, and you get a completely different flavour from them both.
Where do you create your work, and do you ever truly finish an artwork?
I am very fortunate to have my own studio space, but this was not always the case. I used to be in the spare room, but my husband hated the mess I created so we put in a garden office which is my sanctuary. Now, I find there is a huge difference between creating your work in a room in the house to having a designated studio space, including not having to clear up! You can just leave something to stew, and I think mentally that has an effect, because I’m not putting work away it gives me an opportunity to keep it in sight as I work on other pieces. This enables me to work on two, three or even four projects at the same time, where I can have paintings out all of the time and be surrounded by them.
I’ve also got work I produced two or three years ago that I wouldn’t want to touch, because they’re of a moment. They have an intrinsic value to me because they were painted at that time. If I were to go over them in any way, I would be altering that connection. However, I’ve definitely got some paintings that are still sitting there, unfinished, because I can’t quite get to the bottom of what I’m trying to achieve with them. And that’s the beauty of it. I’ve recently had a painting that I loved so much I decided to try it in a different medium and style. The picture itself I didn’t want to alter but I wanted to move it on and make it a bit more abstract, so I started a new artwork. Exploration and experimentation!! We’ll just have to see what happens!
How did you choose the subject matter for your work?
I’m very much drawn to the concept of ‘the spirit of place’, which for me is the countryside around where I live and that I love and walk with my dogs. It could also be places that I have visited or holidayed where you discover a special connection between it and you – it doesn’t have to be the whole country! It could be a lane, a field or woodland, but something keeps drawing you back. I’m lucky to have such precious places around my home. I’ll take lots and lots of photos, which is the beauty of having a phone with a good camera on it. Together I hope they capture something of the spirit of the place and the moment. This might alter visually with the seasons but still has the same essence. I keep them stored on my phone but also print some for my studio wall. I’m not very good with a sketch book as I’m usually chasing after a dog!
So, what inspires you to paint and when do you feel most inspired?
Originally painting was purely for relaxation. We had two businesses, and for me this was 'my time'. Now, if I haven’t painted for a few days I find myself getting antsy. There’s something about the moment you get the paintbrush in your hand again. The colours are amazing this time of year, too. The greens are just remarkable in the Spring. A lot of my early paintings were experiments with making different greens, because I just love the lushness. It’s just awe-inspiring.
What inspires you and where do you get your inspiration?
Mother Nature, what greater inspiration is there? As for myself, I think the thing I truly want to get across is my love of the subject matter through capturing the mood of the place that I am painting. I think we’ve all been to an awful lot of art classes that only require you to sit and replicate a photo. If people wanted an accurate depiction, they would buy the photograph. I’m just trying to convey the love of a moment in a beautiful setting, and how fragile it all is. I haven’t always had time to notice, but it resonates more than ever with me now.
Do you have any formal art qualifications or are you self-taught?
Other than the two-year foundation course at an art school in Thame I’m mostly self- taught. The course covered things like colour theory and tone appreciation, it also enabled us to try different media such as drawing, acrylics, oils, pastels and print making. However, I love going to workshops. I think it’s really important to find tutors whose approach you really admire, or whose art you really love, it’s great to get yourself on to their workshops if you can, and just try and be involved with other artists. But really, I have no formal qualifications, only a love for it.
Which artists (well known or otherwise) do you admire?
There’s a couple of artists whose work I admire. I love Soraya French and Claire Wiltsher; really encapsulate the idea of the 'spirit of place' in their work. Claire’s art is very sensual, and she includes bits of poetry which are hidden in her work. Whilst Soraya’s use of colour is breath-taking. They’re both abstract landscape painters, but in completely different ways. I’m not saying that’s where my art’s going, but it influences me, because one can pick up on their visual elements and cues. Looking to other artists for inspiration encourages you to keep trying, to keep developing your own practice.
How do you maintain creativity?
I don’t put any restrictions on myself. The best piece of advice I got was ‘don’t throw away anything’, whatever you create is something you have created. If it doesn’t feel right now, come back to it. Keep your rough doodles and even work you don’t like, because you never know when you might get to use that idea later. I don’t think I’ve ever met an artist who sits still or stays in one place. They’re always experimenting, always open minded. There’s no right or wrong.
It can be really good to have more than one thing on the go, too. If you just fixate on one painting, you can have off days where it’s not going well, and then you won’t be able to get anything done and you’ll convince yourself you’re useless. But when you’re working on more than one project it’s difficult to fixate. I’ve also been encouraged to be more playful with my preparations which is really useful advice. Loosen up.
Every artist thinks that they should have a style, but if you look at some famous artists histories, you can see that their style/approach altered over their lifetimes. That’s as it should be. It’s important not to limit yourself. I think you sometimes have to walk away from the idea of having a definite style, because it puts reigns on you. Boldly go wherever your art takes you, especially if it’s out of your comfort zone.
Do you listen to music when you are creating?
Yes, classical. I find music very visual; what you listen to often brings different elements into your work. One of the most interesting exercises I’ve done was to listen to ‘The Planets’ (Holst), and to paint/doodle what I felt listening to each section, without thinking about it. In fact, it’s not even important to look at the page, just 'mark make'. It’s phenomenal to see the influence that the music can have on you. This is why I don’t really listen to modern music, to be honest with you. Classic FM is pretty much on 24/7 in my studio.
Looking back on your work, what you do think about it now?
I try not to give myself a hard time about work. I look back at some of my earlier stuff and I think, that’s actually not that bad! Before I might have given myself grief. I try to recognise that it was work produced from moment and that life has moved on. Anyway, with so many ideas in my head I tend not to look back as much. I’m just experimenting and playing with different techniques, trying to have fun and we’ll see where it goes.