Articles/ Interviews

ANOTHER REALM - Pastel Journal USA

An article about Jane Lewis's work in pastel by John A. Parks

Inspired by Opera, Italian Renaissance painting and her own imagination, English artist Jane Lewis populates her world with theatrical characters who spark our curiosity.

The figures in Jane Lewis’s pastel paintings look out at us from a becalmed, strange and curiously timeless world. Rendered impeccably in subtly shifting tones and hues the paintings present characters dressed in improbable costumes that seem to belong to some bygone classical age. And yet often, in the same works, we find elements of modern dress, hairstyles and gestures that seem distinctly up-to-date. Lewis has created a gently magical realm where historical eras intermingle, where the most unlikely things can happen and where characters carry expressions of benign enchantment.

It is hardly surprising to learn that these pictures arise from an almost visionary approach. “I always have a lot of pictorial ideas floating around my mind,” says the artist, “and there can be a gestation period of weeks, months or years before an image finds its way into a pastel or oil painting.  I keep a notebook with lists of possible subjects and titles, and a sketchbook of rudimentary compositional drawings.  Many of these will never see the light of day because I work too slowly to realize them all.” 

The inspirations of Lewis’s world are varied. As a young artist, fresh out of graduate school at the Slade in London, she undertook a year’s residency with Kent opera. “It had a big impact,” she says. “I would say that it was the moment when my work began to enter a mature phase. To me the operatic experience is one of ideas expressed in a larger-than-life way that often appears artificial and yet has the ability to express deep truth and emotion.  When I began using masks and theatrical-looking costumes in my work, I couldn’t quite explain why, but simply felt attracted to them.  Now I think that they heighten the atmosphere of a painting and create a separate world in which the characters and objects of the composition can speak more eloquently - albeit in a language of their own!  Painting after all is not real life, and why should it be?”   Lewis has also been much influenced by ancient Roman painting as well as painting of the Italian Renaissance, evidenced by the purity of form in her work and the almost stately sense of interval. “Whenever I can I take a holiday in Italy and look at paintings,” she says. “I would say that in recent years this has been my principle inspiration.”

A painter in both oils and pastels, Lewis has a keen appreciation of the strengths of each medium and assigns to each a distinct role in her creative practice. “Pastel brings a certain freshness,” she says. “When I work in oil paint, I use layer upon layer which can be added to almost indefinitely.  With pastel there is a limit to the layers it is possible to apply before it cakes and falls off the surface.  And so I must work within a tighter discipline, which can be stimulating if I‘ve been bogged down for months with a difficult oil painting.  Pastel is a kind of balancing act, with imminent disaster at each stroke of the crayon! This is because once a piece of work has progressed to a certain point it is difficult to make corrections, at least in the way I work.”

Lewis also says that with pastel she enjoys the challenge of working with a limited palette. “Pigments in pastel are more vibrant than when mixed with oil,” she says. “I stick very strictly to a few earth colors in pastel because of their greater vibrancy.  It can be a challenge to express say strong pinks, oranges and yellows in earth colors, but the restriction avoids their looking garish.” It should also be said that the generally muted color obtained from this restricted palette adds greatly to the sense of atmosphere and remove in Lewis’ work.

Another advantage of using pastel is the relative speed of execution when compared to oil. “I can be more free in pastel because the time I’m investing is so much less,” says the artist, adding that she can spend up to a year on an oil painting but will rarely work for more than a month on a pastel. This freedom allows her to take risks, often beginning a pastel by taking up one element, and allowing later additions to take their place through a process of intuition and suggestion. On the other hand, when working in oil the artist makes life-sized sketches and cartoons to ensure that the compositions are fully organized before she begins painting.

Before starting a pastel Lewis tints the paper with watercolor. “I use an earth green and a kind of brownish red which is usually a mixture of burnt umber and red,” she says. “I lay one over the other in two separate washes into which I press crumpled tissue paper to get a marbled effect.  This is eventually completely obscured by pastel.”

Lewis works from a variety of reference, “I have done a lot of drawing from life, but I find it essential, because of my very slow working methods and my liking of privacy, to take several photos of a sitter from which I can choose aspects I find most useful,” she says. “I nearly always reinvent a figure or object and also use memory and imagination.”

Having selected her subject matter Lewis makes a fully rendered and completely fixed charcoal under-drawing on her colored ground. “On occasions when a picture is not going well I can wash the pastel layers away back to the charcoal base drawing without losing everything,” she explains. “The pastel painting is then built gradually from dark tones to light, at first using a muted approximation of the final colors, and finishing with the full tints and lighter accents.” Lewis says that she does a lot of blending with her fingers, especially in the early stages. “I finish by delicately blending tones and colors with direct strokes of the pastel crayons,” she says. “Fine detail is achieved with pastel pencils.”

Apart from fixing her initial charcoal drawing Lewis rarely uses fixative.   “Spraying fixative flattens and kills the whites and to my mind deadens the crumbly pastel surface,” she says. “But I do use fixative or else just water to achieve texture by spattering certain areas of a painting.  I cut paper stencils to protect other parts of the picture from spattering.” Lewis also uses a more elaborate stencil technique to create subtle patterns in some of her work. “I’ve cut quite a lot of decorative stencils over the years,” she says. “I place them on the area of a pastel I want to modify and block out the other parts of the painting. Then I spray fixative gently through the shapes. This darkens the pastel, creating a subtle version of the pattern on the surface. I then work back into the area as needed.” 

A completed work by Lewis presents a seductively finished appearance in which every form is turned and light gently suffuses every corner of the work. “I want the viewer to be seduced by the technique,” says Lewis, “and then perhaps be caught unawares by what they find in the painting.”

This approach can be seen in action In “The Puppet Master with his Automaton Dog,” in which a man in a heavy formal suit seems to be wearing a scull cap of the kind we might find in an Italian Renaissance painting. Most of his face is obscured by a mask that appears to be even more life-like that the man himself. In front of the man sits a dog dressed somewhat like a pope with a green skull cap and cape. On closer inspection we see that the man’s suit has been sliced at the shoulders revealing the wearer’s bare arms. The viewer is thrust into a mysterious narrative in which there aren’t enough clues to quite understand what is going on.

“I don’t purposely withhold information from the viewer,” explains Lewis. “It’s more that an idea, or narrative, has not completely revealed itself to me too.  Often a theme, or thread, runs through a series of pictures, and each time I take up the thread something else reveals itself. I do not have complete control over it.  So I am inadvertently withholding something from the viewer, which I think is a good thing, like a novel with an inconclusive ending where the reader must wonder and perhaps invent a possible conclusion.” And perhaps this is the pleasure offered by the work, the invitation to free oneself from logical restraints and to simply play along with the whimsically subversive notions of the artist.

Similarly mysterious events are taking place in “Boy with a Monkey” where a boy is dressed in a heavy old-fashioned suit and tie accompanied by a monkey in some sort of housedress. Both monkey and boy are wearing paper crowns and both look equally serious and self-possessed. “The paper hats just came to me while I was working on the piece,” says Lewis. “The suit is based on an old photo that I came across in a junk shop. I exaggerated the color a bit which I always do when I invent the costume.” As for the monkey, Lewis says that she does not like the idea of performing animals. “In the world of my painting I see them simply as characters,” she says, “equals to humans.” The background of the piece is broken into a simple geometry suggestive of classical architecture. This is a compositional device that allows the artist to continue the sense of interval and form out into the rest of the work. It also allows her to invent more fully with the color world of the painting.

Lewis’s intermingling of historical eras is very much in evidence in “Girl with Mandolin,” where a young girl is shown in a kind of pageboy haircut that was both popular in the Renaissance for boys as well as in modern times for young women. Here the girl is dressed in a fanciful costume of colored silks with a curious collar composed of hanging lengths of ribbon. “That area wasn't working so I invented something around the neck,” says Lewis. “Frequently getting in and out of those kinds of difficulties is a good thing because it makes me reinvent something. I don't know how that collar would work in reality.”

Invention on the fly also happened in “Caduceus” where a young person of indeterminate sex is dressed in a Pierrot costume and holds aloft a double snake. There is considerable tension between the benign expression of the figure and presence of the writhing snakes. “The snakes came to me after I began work on the piece,” says the artist. “The pair stands for both masculinity and femininity which seems appropriate to this figure.” Lewis says that she embraces the somewhat androgynous nature of many of her figures and is quite happy if their sex is ambiguous. This time the clothing was not invented but drawn from a hired theatrical costume.

The snakes are not the only symbols in Lewis’ work. The mandolin that appears in several paintings and drawings belonged to her mother and Lewis feels that its appearance is symbolic of her mother’s presence. Other recurring images are more difficult to pin down. The presence of dogs in recent work stems from her interest in the apocryphal story of Tobias and the Angel. Other forms simply emerge from the working process, like the felt hat in “Boy with Felt Hat.” Here the artist was originally intent on drawing a particular hairstyle but found it going awry. Instead she found herself inventing this unlikely piece of headgear. Once again we seem to have entered another realm where forms can transmute and time is elastic.

As for the future, Lewis is hard at work on a new body of paintings. She recently ended a long-term gallery affiliation in order to concentrate on producing art without commercial pressures. “I’m independent and I’m working on a body of work I feel strongly about,” she says. “I’m about two and a half years into the project. I’m in my early sixties now and I want to focus on doing the best work that I can.”

Lewis’s Materials

Lewis prefers Rowney pastels because of their smooth texture and small size. “I also use Winsor & Newton, Rembrandt and Unison so that I can have a wide range of tonal gradation to my predominantly earth colour palette,” she says. For fine detail she uses Stabilo pastel pencils.  

Two Rivers hand-made paper. The artist stretches the paper before use and tints it with watercolor.

Meet the Artist

Jane Lewis was born in London and attended the Hornsey School of Art before doing post-graduate work at the Slade School of Art. She won the Slade Prize on graduation. Shortly afterwards she undertook a year’s residency at the Kent Opera and went on to exhibit with the Nicholas Treadwell Gallery and then later at the Portal Gallery in London. Lewis was awarded a fellowship in drawing by the Henry Moore Foundation in the mid-eighties. She has also received grants in recent years from the British Arts Council and the Oppenheim-John Downes Memorial Trust. She has exhibited her work widely in the UK and abroad over the last four decades.

copyright: John A. Parks / Pastel Journal USA / February 2016