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Published on 17th March 2021
(Jane Palmer, with her new soft toy artwork collection)
I studied Art at A Level and had a place at art college which I didn’t take up, and studied English and Art History instead, up to PhD level, spending the next 30 years working in higher education, in art libraries, and as a research consultant. I am now a full time artist, specialising in expressive figurative work: portraits, still life and landscapes. I have spent the last 7 years attending master classes from some of the best artists in the country. I am a member of the longstanding Fiveways Artists Group in Brighton, and won Brighton’s Artists Open Houses ‘Artist of the Year’ award in 2019. I feel I have finally reached the place I want to be, but I often wonder what would have happened if I had taken up that place at art college all those years ago.
I work predominantly in oils, which I find the best medium for expressive figurative work. They are very fluid and adaptable, but I also love the lusciousness and sensuality, especially when working on large scale paintings. However, I also draw in graphite and charcoal, when I want to do close observational work. I am often considered a colourist as I am drawn to strong colours, and the palettes beloved of the Bloomsbury Group.
Formative influences include Rembrandt, Gwen John, Edvard Munch, Vanessa Bell, Euan Uglow and Lucian Freud. However, the exhibition of Helen Schjerfbeck at the Royal Academy in 2019 totally blew me away. I also admire contemporary artists including Andrew James, Tim Benson, Julia Hawkins, Jenny Saville and Sarah Spackman: Jenny Saville in particular for her treatment of flesh and female angst! I should also mention inspirational tutors in Lewes and Brighton who helped me on my way: Camilla Cannon (The New School of Art) and Nicola Maxwell Gumbleton, Lindy Dunbar and Athol Tufnell at St Andrews Place, Lewes, without whom I wouldn’t have had the courage to continue.
It’s hard starting out as an artist after such a long time, especially outside the conventional route of art college. You can feel like an impostor. I hadn’t realised how unimportant the world of art is to anyone outside it: what totally immerses you is of supreme indifference to non-artists, which can be very hurtful. And of course, age is against you. You feel you need to make up for lost time, and I have surprised people by my manic productivity! My first artists’ open house (Jane Palmer & Friends) in 2019 was a huge success, and winning the Artist of the Year award was totally unexpected and beyond my wildest dreams. Since then, I have exhibited in other venues, and had my work shortlisted for various open art competitions. Artists and Illustrators Magazine did a feature on one of my paintings (Priss with hoop earrings) in their ‘Wet Paint’ feature in October 2020. I am often encouraged to enter Sky Arts ‘Portrait Artist of the Year’ but the competition is fierce. Another highlight was having one of my ‘Portraits for NHS Heroes’ included in a montage in an issue of the British Medical Journal in October 2020 – a very unexpected accolade!
(One of Jane’s ‘Portraits for NHS Heroes’ featured in the British Medical Journal)
Motivation can flag at times, and during lockdown I have missed the company and support of other artists in my art groups. Having a work plan, and something to work towards (e.g. an art competition or exhibition) is galvanising. I have participated in Sky Arts ‘Portrait Artist of the Week’ which provides a regular discipline. I treat my art practice as a job, not a hobby or recreation, and try to intersperse my art activity with keeping up to date with contemporary art history and technical art tips. After 30 years in higher education, I am pretty used to rigorous self discipline.
Art groups often use the same models, and Brighton and Lewes have a lively art scene. I met Priss Nash 3 years ago and have painted and drawn her several times, so she has now become my main muse. She is an exciting model, musician, poet, rapper, and very active in Brighton’s BLM movement (@prissnashpoetry on Instagram). I had sold several paintings of her, so I commissioned her to sit for me in my studio last year which resulted in a large painting in oils (‘Priss in pink linen shirt’). We made a video, titled “Artist and her Muse” which can be viewed on my website, in which she talks about the collaborative experience of being an artist’s muse and what it is like to be a black model in a predominantly white art world. The video also shows me setting up the pose and painting Priss. During lockdown, I commissioned her to create some photos so I could complete a large painting I had started in a class, which has since been entered for competitions (‘Priss in turban and earrings’). I am currently working on a series of works from a new set of commissioned reference photos, including the completed ‘Priss in lilac jumpsuit’, in which I asked Priss to wear her own clothes and look directly at the viewer. I consider this one of my best paintings to date, and so does Priss!
(Jane’s portraits of artist’s muse, Priss Nash)
Other favourite muses include Italian artists’ model Beatrice Cupido, whom I have painted from life several times, including a weekend in my studio (‘Beatrice reclining’). I also commissioned her to create a set of reference photos for me, so I could complete a painting of her in lockdown (‘Beatrice in white dress’). Beatrice has developed more reference photos which she sells successfully through her Instagram Shop and I have used these several times.
(Jane’s portraits of artist’s muse Beatrice Cupido)
Artists’ models are having to be especially creative during lockdown when their sources of income have all but dried up, and I am happy to support them during this time. I also subscribe to Draw Brighton (#draw_brighton), which provides high quality photos of models, with good lighting and challenging poses.
My work has become much freer and more expressive as I gain confidence. However, I still produce very closely observed drawings which satisfy the perfectionist in me, and I do these to break out of a period of low confidence or artist’s block. The important thing is to keep on keeping on.
I start each new artwork with some trepidation. I have a plan, and some idea of how long I want to spend on it, especially if it is a drawing or a large oil painting. However, it can take an hour or two before I know if it is going to work. Sometimes the creative impulse fails, or there is something about the pose that is difficult or cannot be resolved. I have experienced periods when nothing is working, and I’m continually scraping back or starting again. I have seen many other artists going through the same experience. It is important to walk away and come back to it later, or you can lose your nerve. However, there is a moment when you are two thirds through, when you realise you are producing something that you just “know” in your heart is good, and you can enjoy putting in the finishing touches. Sadly, not everyone will feel the same way about your work, so it can be a lonely pleasure, but you have to keep faith. Art is not for the faint hearted – it is not a Sunday hobby, and can be the most difficult thing you have ever done, with the least rewards. It’s right up there with completing a PhD!
I am a member of the Fiveways Artists group, the longest established ‘Trail’ in Brighton’s Artists Open Houses, started by Ned Hoskins in 1982. I am also a member of the Brighton SOL Design Collective which works alongside AOH, and provides career enhancing workshops and talks. I subscribe to the Draw Brighton community, which currently offers virtual training blogs and videos, and fortnightly photo references of models, as well as interviews with celebrated artists, e.g. Chris Riddell. Before lockdown, I was involved in several art groups, and organised a number of painting sessions which were famous for my contemporary music playlists!
Pre-lockdown, I was preparing for a number of exhibitions, including a solo exhibition at my first university, University of Kent. I had featured in a number of art publications and was looking forward to the next Artists Open House in May 2020, which has been delayed – twice. Online galleries just don’t have the same buzz as welcoming strangers into your house. However, lockdown has given me the space and time to practice and improve, and I feel my art work now is of a better standard than it has ever been.
Yes, I welcome commissions. There were several enquiries at my first Open House, and one in particular was very successful, and resulted in a lovely testimonial on my website . Others were in the pipeline, but lockdown, and people’s dwindling incomes, have put those on hold. But there is nothing quite like the gift of a painted portrait which can be handed down through the generations.
We are preparing for another Jane Palmer & Friends Open House in the AOH Brighton Festival, over four weekends, starting 29th May. I will be exhibiting work with three other painters, a sculptor and a ceramicist, and I’m looking forward to this as a celebration of normal life coming back.
I have always been a social media sceptic, but artists have to use it to publicise their work, if only to other artists! During the pandemic, it has been a lifeline. I started using Instagram last March (@janepalmerbrighton), during the first lockdown, and am now a regular contributor. This led to my participation in the Portraits for NHS Heroes project, and the production of four portraits (from photos), one being included in the curated online gallery. It was a privilege to be involved in this collaboration with Tom Croft, Google Arts and Paintings for Hospitals.
(Jane’s ‘portraits for NHS heroes’)
I contribute regularly to the Portrait Artist of the Week feature (#mypaotw), which has well known artists and sitters in conversation, including Samira Ahmed, Clive Myrie, Jon Snow and Jill Nalder.
I have also created my own response to the pandemic, in a series of paintings from photos of people’s battered old soft toys, which have been shown on Instagram (#janepalmerbrighton), with proceeds from sales going to MIND, the mental health charity. I plan to use the individual paintings in a large narrative painting on the theme of memory, loss and resilience.
So Instagram can be an enabler, but it can also be a source of anxiety and low self esteem, especially if you pay too much attention to numbers of “likes” and followers. It should be supportive, and a platform for artists to show their work and receive helpful comments or suggestions, but it can become overly competitive and formulaic. I know artists who try to beat the algorithms, and that way madness lies. Social media is addictive and uses some of the same “hooks” deployed by online gambling. However, it is all we have at the moment, and we must look for the positive.
NB. One bizarre note to finish on is that I discovered another artist called Jane Palmer who lives in Denbigh, Wales, and specialises in still life painting. We both have websites and Instagram accounts but my work is very different from hers. The chances of that happening are so small. (I have occasionally received enquiries from people which I refer to her – I hope she does the same for me!)
View Jane’s profile on Acquire Art