Smithson talks to Clare Halifax about her wealth of creative influence, her transition from freelance textile designer to full time professional artist, how she sustains her painstakingly detailed practice, and the deep value of art!
Hi Clare, we are so excited to sit down with you (albeit remotely) and delve further into your intricate practice, but to start we’d love to hear a bit about your background, and how you got to where you are today?
I grew up in Somerset with my mum and sister, we lived there for most of my childhood, with a small period of living on the Isle of Man, where I developed a love of the sea and it’s eternity. There is something different about the sea air which has its own background melody. I then went to Loughborough for my undergraduate in Printed Textiles, so this is where the surface pattern element of my work developed. After graduating I worked as a freelance textile designer for several years, and then decided to do an MA in multidisciplinary printmaking at UWE in Bristol. That is how I got into the Fine Art printmaking side of things, which led me to where I am now.
Were you surrounded by creatives growing up?
Growing up I had a lot of creative influences within my family, especially my great-grandfather, a headmaster and design teacher, who although was no longer around left a variety of examples of metalwork and woodwork. He made lots of furniture and copperware, plus had a passion for photography, so there have always been lots of things around me created by people in the family. There was always a lot of art on the walls and photographs everywhere, as well as artifacts my great aunt would bring back from her travels as gifts. My mum wanted to do art, but hadn’t been allowed to pursue it into further education as it wasn’t considered a ‘proper’ career back then, but was as a consequence very encouraging to me. I was taken to lots of museums, I remember the V&A and the Natural History Museum, and we visited a lot of gardening centres, national trusts and public gardens because of my grandfather’s love for gardening, these places definitely influenced me.
You are now based in London, what brought you there?
I used to spend a lot of time in London when I was freelancing, I had a lot of friends living here, as well as my agent, and a lot of the textile houses are based in London too. Once I was in a position to be able to support myself I moved here and I discovered the studio I still work in today, Print Club London. Having lived in Bristol for a few years before moving to London, it was a huge step in terms of rent and living costs. London is one of those places that pushes you to expand, there is always such fear about how expensive it is, and I think this really pushes you to work hard, that is my experience anyway. You have to constantly challenge yourself to be more productive in order to sustain your lifestyle here.
That feeling and sense of professional focus is certainly tangible in London
Particularly for artists having to generate their own salary, it is insane how much you have to push yourself to be able to afford basic commodities, your productivity immediately elevates as a consequence.
So what was it that catalysed the transition from your freelance work in textiles to becoming a full time artist?
When I first started doing textiles at Loughborough the digital element was only just coming in to play. So everything was still very drawing based. Samples were hand drawn and painted with designs being submitted on paper rather than on fabric. As technology evolved, people with access to the design software were capable of going from producing what had been the standard of two or three pieces a week, to between eight and twelve. For me it felt like it was becoming less about personality and more about productivity. It was expected to do six to eight variations of a design, and I was really struggling with it creatively because it felt less and less like my personality was being invited into the equation. I felt it was more about expressing someone else's style rather than my own. Once I had been doing it for a few years, and started to see the same trends and patterns coming back around again, I knew I wanted to work in a way where I could showcase my personality through my designs and found the commercial element didn’t allow for this. I got more and more dissatisfied with it as a process, and felt that everyone was moving quicker than me as they developed their computer skills, whilst I was still drawing focused. The MA was an opportunity to step back from this accelerating world and spend two years re-finding my path, and exploring more creative avenues.
Sounds like such a formative decision for you, and what was it about screenprinting in particular that you liked?
Multidisciplinary printmaking thrusts you into doing lots of things. I had done some printmaking before as part of my undergraduate, but found it stressful at the time because of the busy environment, it was hard to get a slot to use the facilities. The MA made printmaking so much more available to me, and allowed me to really explore the opportunities it presented. It was great to have those two years just to try things out, and fail sometimes as well. I explored different forms of printmaking including etching, but it was screenprinting that I felt suited my style and personality. It is much more of an immediate process than other forms of printmaking, you can print a lot quicker following the drawing process, whilst still achieving a high level of detail.
It is such a luxury to have that time to explore. Are you able to articulate what is it that you discovered through your MA that set you on the right track, or did it just feel right all along?
I didn’t really know what to expect from the MA, initially I was hoping to expand on the textiles element, thinking about how I could utilise my fabrics and products and considering business models. I didn’t know much about fine art printmaking at that time, but I realised how much I was actually enjoying being in the studios alongside other printmakers like Dave Fortune and Frea Buckler. I soon realised that fine art printmaking was actually a very compatible format for me in terms of how my work could be visualised. It suddenly all clicked and felt very natural, like it was where I was meant to be, rather than on the textile side of things - it was a happy realisation!
I guess because you had been given the time and space to really explore and discover what was right for you, with access to great facilities and supportive people. What sort of imagery were you producing at that time?
Exactly, everyone there was super supportive and very available, the MA was a really good way to change the direction narrative. Subject wise I kind of stumbled into the architectural aspect of it. I was doing the arts trail in Bath, and the first print I did was an aerial view of Beechen Cliff. People responded really well to it, the architectural aspects suited my detailed style of drawing, and that one drawing led to everything else that followed. It was that print of Bath that really triggered the interest of a particular gallery, which led to a wider series of work on Bath. I then expanded to a Cornwall series, and then a London series. It was like a domino effect. I guess I have always been influenced by architectural elements, for my degree show at Loughborough I drew lots of parks. I also really like Brutalist architecture, so I had been drawing a lot of the 1960s flats and houses in Bristol alongside cars and trees, which I used for a wallpaper design and large ceramic plates in my MA Show .
And how would you say your practice has developed since then?
I think I have expanded how I use the medium of screenprinting, and I have become more confident as a printmaker, enabling me to make more detailed and intricate images. I am always pushing my drawing as well, finding ways to express myself in ways that feel unique to me. One of the main reasons I introduced pattern into my work, particularly into the skies, was to make it unique to me -it’s something that has become a signature of mine, and ties in nicely with my background in textiles.
Yes, I was wondering about the relationship between your patterns and your scenic work, and how they speak to each other?
I do love pattern, and I have always enjoyed it, but find with my artwork it is best to keep the pattern really simple and subtle to allow the drawing to breathe. Particularly when I started doing more London work, I toned down the pattern element within it, because there was so much going on in the scenes. So that is often about how these elements lend themselves to each other, you have to respect the imagery and give it the time to shine itself, without pushing something else on top of it which fights against it.
So would you say you are allowing patterns to emerge from within the image?
Yes exactly, there is a lot of texture within the drawings themselves. The way I achieve definition or detail is through pattern, it is not just a case of cross hatching, even though that is an element in itself, there are more details. The way I create levels of tone is through introducing another pattern, so the viewer can distinguish between areas and elements printed the same colour. It is just about allowing everything to have its time and space.
Your pieces are painstakingly detailed, yet we have talked about your prolific productivity. What is your relationship with time, and how long do you spend on your drawings?
There really isn’t any shortcut, I just have to put in the time. It can often be hard to stop actually, particularly when it is going well. If everything is propelling along nicely you don’t want to just slam it shut, because it can take a while to get started again. The most challenging part, particularly if it is a big and intensely detailed piece, is the composition, that is the time when I really have to concentrate. But once I have achieved the outline, I can relax and enjoy filling in the detail.
Is that quite a meditative process for you?
Meditative is one word, but it can get quite repetitive! You need to have something to sustain you throughout those periods. I find watching series on Netflix helps, something you don’t have to concentrate too hard on, and recently have been listening to podcasts. It is just having some form of company so you don’t get too bored or crazy!
What sort of imagery do you work from when you’re drawing?
Normally it is photos that I have either gone out and taken, or had access to. I have got an awful lot of photographs, I am always snapping away at different spots and scenes. I personally find it easier to work from photos, because of the level of detail in my work, it doesn’t really suit drawing in situ. Digital photographs also allow me to zoom in and see aspects and textures I might otherwise not be able to see. When I did the Barbican pieces for example, you can actually see the dimples in the concrete. It is those details I like to transfer into my drawing, simplifying it to create a pattern on a wall’s surface for example. I know this is something which wasn’t available a hundred years ago, you couldn’t zoom in on a photo and see the nuances of what lies in an image, it also helps to capture a series of images and different angles.
How precise are you when it comes to drawing architectural elements?
It’s important when I am depicting a certain place that it is recognisable, so I ensure everything fits in its place, but the way I draw is not rigid, I draw freehand by eye, and don’t use a ruler. The most I will do is an axis line, because I do have a tendency to go on a slant, but I’m not looking for precision, I like things to be a bit softer I guess.
Your quality of line definitely brings a softness and sense of movement to the pieces. What is your relationship with the locations you pick, and would you say drawing them changes your relationship with those areas?
The first pieces I did were of Bath, a place I was familiar with as I grew up near there. It is a really beautiful city, with its beautiful rolling sandstone buildings. My sister used to live in Cornwall, which is why I did a body of work on Cornwall, and that was very different because of the nature of the coastal landscapes. It gave me an opportunity to flex my drawing muscles, and it was where I discovered my love of a panorama, the long thin format suited the coastal views, a perspective I then transferred later on to some London work. With London I am often asked to do particular views or buildings, but this gives me a chance to try and discover new ways of drawing a place that has been drawn many times before. I have to try and find a way of interpreting it that’s different to how other people have interpreted it, and I enjoy that challenge, the challenge of making it my own. It is a good way to test yourself and push your confidence.
I often go to the Barbican to draw, I love the structure of the Brutalist architecture, but also the joy of the amazing conservatory, which is where the botanical elements of my practice are often inspired by - who knew that in the centre of London you have this tropical oasis!
It’s always so nice to interact with a space, and then go away and draw, trying to capture the feeling of being there in the work. I definitely prefer doing artwork that is led by an interest in the space, because I feel it comes from a much purer place, and you want to share the experience of that place through the artwork. It is like when you have a favourite film and you want everyone to enjoy it, when you have a favourite place, you want everyone to be interested and intrigued by it.
You’ve mentioned your botanicals, but animals are also a strong subject matter for you, how did animals start emerging in your work?
I decided to do an animal alphabet for my nephew when he was born, I have always loved animals and the animal alphabet was a nice excuse to do something different. It gave me something new to study, and I found drawing animals really freeing in comparison to my architectural work. I am passionate about animals and they are lovely to draw; I particularly enjoy trying to capture their character and personality.
It sounds like a real breather for you.
That is the best way to describe it. Because I am always working, change is as good as a rest, so changing the element that I am concentrating on is my way of doing something different, and it is nice when other people connect with it too.
Are there any other themes or ideas that you would like to explore?
Doing the Art Car Boot Fair with Smithson Gallery is always a great opportunity to experiment with something more free and experimental, I really enjoyed creating the botanical studies in coloured pencil for you, working with looser forms and lots of colour. I would really like to get back into painting at some stage too, something I used to do when I was younger using gouaches, inks and watercolours to create my textile samples.
I wanted to talk about colour, and how that comes into your work. How do you decide on your colour pallets?
I pick up on colour palettes and combinations simply from observing the environment in which I am drawing. I tend to start with a particular tone that I associate with that place, and that then influences everything else. Once you have picked one colour, everything else has to tie in with that to make the work harmonious. For my botanical works I worked from my photos of the Barbican, the pink and green palette came in because the walls in there are this sort of dusty pinky-grey colour, and I guess it was that subtlety against the green that influenced me.
Tell us about your inspirations from the art world?
I have always loved David Hockney, he is my obsession. I remember when I was doing my MA my tutor rolled his eyes and was like, ‘Everyone likes Hockney’, but there is a good reason for that. Not only can he draw incredibly well, but he is not a one trick pony. He has always pushed and challenged himself across many mediums and styles, you can look at any of his work and know, ‘That is Hockney’. He is so prolific and so talented.
I also really like Steven Chambers, he does really lovely paintings often including figures and animals, and I love his sense of composition; one of my favourites shows a crocodile amongst palm trees. I am also very inspired by William Morris, I have loved that style ever since I was little and I think he has influenced the way I draw. The way he achieves background and foreground with just a line, the way he draws a prominent flower with all the intricacies of the leaves behind it, and creates depth just through linear elements, it is just incredible - I love that intensity that he brings to the pattern.
I am lucky that I was taken to art galleries a lot when I was a kid, so I have always been around art. It has always been something which has been praised and present in my life, which is so important. I don’t like how art is marginalised into being some sort of novelty subject. It is something I think everyone should have exposure to, it is really intrinsic and important as a way of expressing oneself. It should be something that is encouraged and celebrated. It has been proved that it can actually improve people's mental health, it has so much worth. There is so much freedom in art.
I agree, and art can be a lens to look at any other subject through! There is so much that art can teach us, it can create whole new ways of understanding the world around us.
Yes! What we learn about different cultures and history is often through art. Looking at certain paintings or tapestries can tell you so much about the social circumstances of the time. It has been such a contributor towards society and evolution, and to understanding society. I really don’t like how it is disregarded … like with Rishi Sunak telling us to retrain...
(Following a rant about Rishi Sunak) The arts will prevail, it is so integral, and must be supported.
I do think as soon as everything opens up again, art and culture is what people will be craving. It is all about escapism and being transported, and I think there will be a surge towards that. It is just a matter of when, so we need to stick with it…
Absolutely! Thank you so much for your time and energy Clare, it’s been a pleasure.