Interview - Focus on Janet Keith

Art Director and Curator Francesca Biondi interviews Janet Keith about her work.

Janet Keith is an award-winning artist. She works between County Down in Northern Ireland and Sussex in England. Her paintings have been acquired for private collections around the world, and recently became part of the Civil Service’s Art Collection in NI. Janet creates distinctive abstract paintings taking inspiration from the tangle of nature and landscapes near and far. Her artworks capture her blend of intuitive and structured way of making art, preoccupied with creating balanced, harmonious and vibrant compositions and not with realistic representations.

View Janet’s paintings currently featured in the two-person exhibition ‘Painted Perspectives’ at Gallery 545.

Visit Janet’s online page at Gallery 545. Read more about the history of her practice and view all her available paintings.

Can you introduce yourself and your practice?

I was born in Northern Ireland. My interest in art was fostered at school and, to a large extent, inspired by the wonderful collections of Fine and Applied Art at the Ulster Museum. I read History of Art at St. Andrews University in Scotland. Then, after qualifying as a solicitor and whilst working, I completed a part time Degree in Painting. Painting is now my fulltime occupation.

I have always visited Northern Ireland regularly to spend time with family and friends and enjoy the wonderful scenery which, of course, filters into my work and is quite different to my immediate surroundings in Sussex. As I visit so often it feels like a natural thing to connect with the art scene here and enjoy that too. I have been very encouraged to have had paintings selected for the Royal Ulster Academy Annual Exhibition and last year Listening for Curlews was awarded the Paul Henry Landscape Prize. I am a member of the Ulster Society of Women Artists and represented by Gallery 545. Perhaps one of the ‘silver linings’ of this past year of Covid has been the increased use of technology and social media to connect people. It proved that distance is not necessarily a barrier to growing relationships or participation - albeit maybe at a slower pace and requiring good organisation!

 

Precioso, acrylic on board, 51 x 76 cm

Tell us about your work.

My painting is a response to the visual excitement and beauty of my surroundings. My artistic roots are in plein-air landscape painting. Gradually though, the emphasis of the work has changed. I have become more interested in the expressive aspects of painting. I like to explore how the unpremeditated and the more considered elements of pictorial structure weave together to build an expressive painting. Colour, energy and a feeling of nature are hallmarks of the work.

What inspires or influences your work?

Inspiration comes from the very rural surroundings of the studio and from travels to different places. The landscapes of Great Britain and Ireland are obviously dear to me. I have also fallen in love with the deserts of Southwest USA - they inspire an entirely different colour palette and sense of space.

I never stop looking at other artists work in exhibitions and books - and exploring the history of art. I particularly love fourteenth century Sienese altarpieces, Indian miniatures, Japanese woodcuts, and twentieth century American and British painting.

Music playing in the studio is also a great influence as it helps me to zone in to that flow state and it can set a flavour to the rhythms and mark making in the painting. I listen to a lot of Latin music, Spanish guitar, jazz and opera. It needs to be instrumental music or singing in a language I do not understand so that the words do not form pictures of ‘things’ in my mind - which can be distracting when painting.

 

    
Glade Pink & Glade Blue, acrylic on board, 38 x 51 cm

Natural surroundings are an important source of inspiration for you. How do you approach them?

We are all unique filters of our experience and environment. My approach to painting seems to allow what has seeped in through the senses a way out again in and through the painted gesture. Increasingly, I not only look carefully but listen too - to birdsong, the breeze in the trees, waves, seals singing on a beach - they all have rhythms and character much like lines, shapes and colours in paintings do. When walking through the forest, for example, there are not just the visual elements, but also sounds, scents and other sensations - the feel of a gravel path under foot, the sun on skin, breathing. There are layers of experiences working in and out and through each other. This is, often, how I paint.

I have a lifetimes experience of looking at landscape and translating what I see into drawings. However, when painting I do not use sketches or ‘ab-stract’ from a view or scene. Rather than working ‘from’ nature I’d say I am working ‘towards’ it - by allowing marks, gestures, shapes to emerge into the painting in an uncensored and open way. Those marks or shapes or colours are not attached to or describing trees or clouds or whatever - they are just themselves - but may, in the end, suggest natural forms or sensations which have excited my senses.

 

 

Can you talk more about the artistic process behind your paintings?

My approach to painting is to begin with an open mind and no preconceptions about what the painting will look like when it is finished. A painting begins with lots of intuitive marks and scribbles very quickly and without thinking. Some of these marks are covered over partially or completely and there are many layers.  This stage always feels to me like the sound of an orchestra tuning up - a random but purposeful cacophony. It is very exciting and activates the canvas with energy and possibility. Gradually, colour is added - in both transparent washes and opaque areas - still intuitively and quickly, without conscious judgement.

Building the painting then moves into a different stage - of consideration and responsiveness - emphasising or imposing pictorial structure. Adding and subtracting areas. All these considerations take time, the pace slows and l spend a lot of time looking at the painting. Maybe turning it 90 or 180 degrees. Looking and analysing. Thinking before acting and then acting without thinking - to keep the marks as fresh as possible. What l am striving for in the painting is a balance between the impromptu and the pictorial structure - but a balance which allows the energy and life in the painting to shine.

How do you see your practice developing in the future?

My aim is to keep learning and growing as an artist - by letting the paintings lead the way.