Fine artist Emma Doig is a figurative painter who works mainly in oils. Her expressive work combines technical skill with great energy, resulting in fleeting images of the body in movement. From within each painting, emerges a multitude of experimental contouring and paintwork; the inner becomes the outer through intuitive mark making. It was great to catch up with Emma earlier this month and hear all about her latest body of work, and talk about her inspiration, approach and processes.
You left art school in 2014 after graduating with a BA(Hons) Fine Art and the success of a sell-out degree show (no surprise!). We still remember wandering into your room and instantly being blown away by your large-scale figurative paintings, depicting fleeting moments of movement and energy – they were so fresh and exciting. Do you remember how it felt to be finishing 4 years of study on such a high?
It was mind blowing for me! I didn’t have any plans after graduation and had no idea the reaction my work would get at my degree show! It honestly blew my mind! It is probably why I’m still painting and sharing my work today. I knew for me, the work spoke to me massively but I had no idea others would feel the same. I 100% made the work for myself, to express a part of myself to get something out that I needed to put into form. So, when my degree show sold out within the first few hours, it really opened up my world to the possibilities of making something of it all!
Can you try and place yourself into the shoes of grads from the past 2 years, whose own journeys through art school have been disrupted by the pandemic. If you had no access to a studio, limited tutor time and a general lack of human interaction, how do you think your work would have been impacted?
A big part of art school is learning how to be independent in your learning and development. However, being around other students and actually being in art school and its energy is invaluable, seeing so much art in person while you’re figuring out your own art is so beneficial. So, creating a space at home to work would for sure be challenging in many ways. However, I have worked in artist studios, at home and in many make shift spaces while travelling and moving around, so you can be creative with the space you work in.
My surroundings always have a big affect on my work. Even the part of the world, people around me in whatever town I’m in would affect the work to some extent. Being in art school is about seeing around you, what you in your own way can potentially be. It made me push myself and my perceived limits. I remember constantly scrapping and restarting, sometimes whole paintings. I didn’t have a baseline for how good it could make it, because you’re creating something new that you haven’t seen before for reference. But I knew it could be better, more original and breath-taking. Then in the studio one day it happened, I created a piece that I was striving for, using non-traditional tools and intuitive techniques, Descent (pictured above) from my Becoming Undone degree show series was the first work I did that had the language I was striving for. Without having the space to really go all in, and the creative influence all around me, I’ve no way of knowing if I’d have found my style when I did. But we do have to make the best of things and by that I mean what’s for you will happen. There’s no time limit as an artist, we have our whole lives to develop our work. Also, there are studio spaces similar to the setup of art school studios after graduation.
How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected you?
It’s been a whirlwind! As I was travelling a lot prior to lockdown, I wasn’t used to being in one place for so long. I’ve truly learnt how to be more grounded and to find the power and beauty in being more present. As most people can probably relate in this situation, when you have limitations like this put upon you in a way that not only effects your own experience but the energy around the whole world, it has a powerful collective effect on you. Also, by having to essentially stop the normal way to going about my life, it brought up a lot of triggers for me. An opportunity to lean into discomfort that I’d perhaps been running away from. Time to confront and heal, let things move and 100% a practise of grounding and coming back into myself in the present moment as much as possible. It has been uncomfortable like any kind of growth!
Were you able to adapt your practice and continue painting?
I never put any pressure on myself to paint, in fact I try and do the opposite. I think creativity can’t be controlled or forced, it can be heightened but ultimately it is fluid and ungraspable. It comes in the state of being rather than doing for me. During lockdown I’ve done what I felt is best for my creative practise, get out the way of myself and let it flow in its own time. While nurturing and encouraging it.
Your work has a real sense of immediacy to it – fluid and spontaneous. Can you talk us through your approach from the initial concept to the final production? Do you go from sketchbook to canvas, do you work from photographic images of the human form, or do you allow your intuition and memory to override these more traditional and formalised conventions?
Most often I will start an initial piece with colours in mind. Before this I usually work on small cut offs, my version of a sketchbook is small boards to work roughly on as I usually work abstractly initially. I’ll maybe have an image in mind, mix up the colours and apply roughly with fluidity to the panel. This creates a base for the movement and energy lines in the painting, the direction of movement. Then I’ll start pulling out the figure by applying and taking away some paint. I block in tones and decide how much information I want to keep and how much I can take away without losing the structure of the human form. I like to leave a lot of the work spontaneous and uncontrolled with a balance of precise decision making, working loosely from photographs. However, the painting almost always takes its own path, strays away from my original plans and tells me what to do. My process is in creating a dialogue with the work and connecting with the direction it wants to go.
You spent quite a period of time in NZ – how was that experience? Has it had a lasting influence over your work?
I loved my time in NZ, before travelling around the islands, I spent almost all of my time working on my creative practise. Aka movement, yoga, creative meditation, writing about my ideas and painting. I’m not so great at updating social media but it gave me time to update my Instagram and online portfolio. I loved walking around the little streets in Wellington where i lived. I would take pictures of the little wooden fences, pink and orange spray paint markings on the road and pastel painted houses. Then usually in the afternoons i would mix up paints with the colours that I’d seen and go from there. I made a whole series of pastel-coloured figurative paintings during this time in NZ, a series called Devotion. These paintings are about devoting time to yourself and cultivating space in body and mind, which is exactly what i did during my time there. The work explores the figurative form in fluid abstract movement. I also created a selection of circular fluid works exploring my ideas on connection. The connection between yourself and your surroundings. Everything can be reduced to flowing colours and patterns of frequency, moving in and out. A fluid co-creation, connecting everything we know and essentially everything we are. I have one of Devotion paintings up on my wall that I haven’t yet been able part with. It reminds me of the incredible feeling and space I was in while I painted this series and so reminds me to carve out time for myself.
Which modern artist(s) inspire you the most?
Right now, I’m loving Alyssa monks, Ryan Hewett, Caro Arevalo and Mitch Gobel.
Do you ever see yourself moving away from figures?
I go between painting figuratively and abstract. For me the figures are an exploration and insight into something more experiential than painting just the human form. They are about breaking through mind limitations and feeling into the limitless wonder of more fluid states of being. A more body centred experience. So sometimes I stick quite close to a figurative representation but mostly for me it is about the movement of the paint to show this intangible subject matter. I also love painting landscapes and plants; I do think the body is very interconnected with nature so who knows. Nature does massively inspire my work. But I do love painting abstract figurative, It has so much variation and potential to explore what it is I want the work to say.
Big thanks to Emma for taking the time to talk to us about her practice, studio life and new work. You can find her full gallery collection here.
And as always, thanks for reading.