Published  26/02/2016

Chantal Joffe: ‘I want to make the painting feel like the person’

Chantal Joffe: ‘I want to make the painting feel like the person’

The artist talks about what she seeks to capture in a painting, how motherhood changed her, and why she is drawn to confessional poetry


The walls of Victoria Miro Mayfair are lined with faces: some overtly familiar, some less so, although they all have something recognisable about them, as if they could belong to your circle of family and friends. This is perhaps a reflection of how the artist, Chantal Joffe (b1969), feels about the assorted subjects – including Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Anne Sexton, Elizabeth Hardwick – who crop up in her paintings, and whom, after reading their confessional writings, she feels she knows. Indeed, mixed in among these “celebrities” are portraits of Joffe’s own family – herself, her daughter Esme – capturing the spontaneity of a summer snapshot, as the paint drips down the canvas, or is dragged horizontally in ripples and stripes. There is a tenderness, an intimacy and a liveliness to the pictures, both familial and historic.

Known for her often large-scale oil paintings, Joffe more recently began working in pastels, experimenting outdoors, and enjoying the vivid colour palette. She spoke to Studio International about her techniques, inspirations and recent directions.

Anna McNay: You work a lot from photographs, as can be seen in some of your paintings of yourself and your family. Do you prefer this to working from life?

Chantal Joffe: I work from photographs and also from life. Photographs mean you can be on your own when you are working, which I often prefer.

AMc: You mix your paint with thinner, which often causes it to run down the canvas, disrupting the surface and destroying any illusion of reality. What kind of a likeness – if, indeed, a likeness at all, do you seek to capture in your work?

CJ: I want to make the painting feel like the person, so that it is as close to experiencing the person as I can make it.

AMc: You also prime your canvases with bright colours. Do you then remain true to the colours of the source photograph, or do you allow yourself artistic licence? Where does your palette come from?

CJ: I use coloured grounds because I don’t like painting on white. I usually mix them. For a while, I have used apple green – it’s a colour Degas used for a ground. I like the colour to be very clean. I also like to change the colours I buy, change the blues or yellows to try and shift the way I use and mix colour.

AMc: Tell me a little about your painting process. Do you scale up the photographic images carefully on to the canvas? What goes on to the canvas first?

CJ: No I don’t scale up. Again, I like to change how and where I begin a painting. Sometimes I will begin with an all over tonal wash, other times with an eye …

AMc: The family photographs you use tend to be snapshots, capturing moments of joy and laughter, as opposed to posed lineups. Do you take photographs with potential paintings in mind now? Does this affect the spontaneity of them?

CJ: I take a lot of photographs and also use photos my family take and give me. I’m not a very good photographer: I’m too impatient. But I do also like posed photos.

AMc: Your current exhibition at Victoria Miro includes a lot of your family portrait paintings, but also a number of your paintings of writers and poets, such as Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Anne Sexton, Elizabeth Hardwick. Is there a palpable difference when you’re painting these people who are distanced by space and time, from when you’re painting your immediate family?

CJ: Yes, it feels completely different, more awkward. They came out of a period when I was reading a lot about them, so in an odd way I had a sense of knowing them, but it is very different from my family.

AMc: Why these particular subjects? What draws you to them?

CJ: I have been interested in Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Robert Lowell since I was a student. I like confessional poetry – the way that it is very structured, but also very emotional and revealing. I kept thinking perhaps there was an equivalent in painting.

AMc: Most of your subjects are female. Do you consider yourself to be a feminist artist? Why this particular focus on women?

CJ: I am a feminist. I often think that being a woman and being a painter leaves you no choice – how could you not be a feminist? I paint what I think about, what I look at, the life I am living – I don’t know what else there is.

AMc: You have previously mentioned Diane Arbus as a major influence and inspiration. What is it about her work that speaks to you?

CJ: I first saw her work when I was in a photography lecture as a student at Glasgow School of Art. It was the picture of a couple sharing a hotdog in a park in New York City. I couldn’t believe it. It was a photograph that felt like how I saw the world. I went from the lecture to the library and got out her book, the monograph – I had never seen anything like them.

AMc: Who else is an influence or inspiration?

CJ: I think sometimes I am too much of a fan. I get so interested in an artist or a writer that I read everything about them – letters, diaries, biographies. If they are alive, I try and write to them – I want to know how it feels to be them. Paula Modersohn-Becker is someone I feel that way about at the moment.

AMc: Do you ever feel vulnerable or exposed, showing such intimate portraits to the world?

CJ: Last year, when I did a show entirely of self-portraits, many of them large and naked, a man at the opening was pretending to hold up the breast in one of the paintings, and I felt a bit embarrassed. But usually no, once you have finished a painting it becomes entirely separate.

AMc: How does your daughter, Esme, now 11, feel about being the subject of so many of your works?

CJ: I think she likes it, but sometimes I think she finds it annoying.

AMc: How did motherhood change you as a person and as an artist?

CJ: Having a child changes you in a lot of ways, a lot more than I could ever have imagined. It also makes your sense of time more urgent: even now, I am thinking about the things I have to do when I finish this interview. I think that is probably a more female experience.

AMc: Many of your works are very large – nearly 10 feet [3 metres] tall. How do you decide what size you want something to be? What is it about this large scale that appeals to you?

CJ: I like painting big, it requires a lot more energy. Some subjects seem to need scale; other times, I like the intimacy of working small.

AMc: I had not seen any of your pastel works prior to the Victoria Miro show. Do you use this medium as much as paint? Are they interchangeable for you, or is pastel reserved for familial pictures?

CJ: I haven’t ever used pastels before. I started using them last summer to try working outdoors because the wind kept blowing my palette away. They are very different from oil paint – you have to work more broadly, in tone, not in line. I love the pure pigment, the colours are so intense.

AMc: Where do you see your work heading? Is there a particular direction to it, or do you just take it day by day?

CJ: I don’t know, I have been making some very big pastels. It reminds me of being back at art school, but I don’t know where they are headed.

• Chantal Joffe is exhibiting at Victoria Miro Mayfair, London, until 24 March 2016.

Click on the pictures below to enlarge

studio international logo

Copyright © 1893–2024 Studio International Foundation.

The title Studio International is the property of the Studio International Foundation and, together with the content, are bound by copyright. All rights reserved.

twitter facebook instagram

Studio International is published by:
the Studio International Foundation, PO Box 1545,
New York, NY 10021-0043, USA