Interview with Dr Claudia Milburn
Q. What is your background / training and how influential has that been?
I did a diploma in Foundation Studies at Farnham College of Art in 1984 after my A-Levels (I did A-Level Art). You tried everything on the Foundation course – printmaking, sculpture, photography and life-drawing. I hadn’t really done any life-drawing before so that was very new to me and quite influential in a way. I didn’t really learn a lot about techniques or the practical aspects of painting at Farnham but it was more to do with analysing a subject and ways of seeing. That was more important, especially with one of the tutors there – Karn Holly, her whole practice was focused on drawing. I think she was quite influential, maybe not so much at the time but the ideas fed through later on, particularly when I re-engaged with life-drawing after leaving Farnham. She was the most influential tutor I had at Farnham, or anywhere really.
Q. How about your peer group at Farnham – were other students influential?
Well, in the sense that they introduced me to other ways of working. At that point I had only done my A-Levels in a small group, and this was then a larger group with so much more going on – different approaches to painting, drawing etc.
Q. Were you clear at that point that you wanted to become a painter?
I think I had decided that painting was my priority although they tried to push me more into printmaking initially. I didn’t have the confidence or the ability then to say that I wanted to become a painter with a particular vision, so it was more of a hard slog. I quite enjoyed the disciplines of printmaking and sculpture, but it was painting really that took my focus. I was there for a year then I went to Portsmouth Polytechnic to do a Fine Arts degree. It was a three- year course but I only stayed for a year. After the first year I decided to take a year out which became almost permanent. I don’t know why really, I just decided I wanted a break from full-time education and was intending to go back. I didn’t go back to Portsmouth, maybe the course just wasn’t working for me, I’m not really sure why, it’s hard to reflect back to know.
Q. And did you have formal art education training after that?
Well, then I started working for a picture restorer quite near to where I am in Walton-on-Thames. It was purely accidental; I was working in the restaurant next door washing-up for a few days a week or an evening a week. The picture restorers were next door and I used to pop in for art materials and I just got chatting to the restorer and he offered me work for a few days per week. That was for a few years and it was very useful because I learnt more about painting there, I learnt about cleaning paintings and about restoring frames. He was also a painter and very skilled in different techniques – oil, watercolour etc so I learnt a lot from him.
Q. Were you painting while working for the picture restorers?
Yes, I never really stopped painting after Portsmouth. I started going to life-drawing classes and then continued working on my own.
Q. Was your work very different at the time?
Yes it was although there was the figurative aspect to it. I was looking at the time at David Bomberg and Frank Auerbach and, for a period, I was working very much like them. I would go to Guildford to the top of the multi-storey carpark and draw the city looking down. The work was reminiscent of the charcoal drawings of Bomberg’s drawings of Jerusalem and Ronda for example. And then I would try and paint like that too, portraits and landscapes in that style. Then later on I got interested in Freud having gone to see his exhibition at the Whitechapel in the mid-eighties. Suddenly he became much more influential. I moved more towards that way of working and less in the expressionistic approach to paint. It was especially earlier Freud that I was interested in at that point which kind of tied in to working with tempera. The first thing I did successfully with tempera was a self-portrait which was very much influenced by Freud and his approach. This was around 1990/1991. Before that I did go back to an art college – in Cambridge – to do an illustration course. I felt I needed to do something that was going to be more vocational and potentially find work as an illustrator, but that didn’t really work out. It was interesting doing the course, but not what I really wanted to do. My interests lay elsewhere, and it helped to cement that really. I didn’t finish the course even though they had put me straight into the second year. I didn’t actually qualify though it was all useful despite not getting the qualification.
Q. And, after that, what was next?
I came back and started working for the picture restorer again and carried on my own studies and research. At that time I was working in the Bomberg style and experimenting with tempera as well. I then starting to work in a more realistic style, influenced more by Freud possibly. It took me a long time to produce a successful painting in tempera. I didn’t have anyone to teach me, so I had to get it all from books. The picture restorer was using it but not in the same way, so I had to do my own research to work out how to use it in the way that I am now – from scratch, mixing up the pigments, working on Gesso panels etc. It was quite hard to find all the information out, it would be easier today with YouTube and the internet, but this was pre all that so much more a case of trial and error.
Q. Was it the tempera medium that caused the shift in your work?
Yes, I think it was the medium and it’s also drawing, it linked to drawing. I started going to a lot of life drawing classes, portrait drawing classes, around that time, as well and working with tempera. I was really interested in drawing which tempera complemented. It’s quite limiting in some ways whereas oil can be manipulated and moved around in so many ways. There are many techniques associated with oils so I felt the tempera made it easier in a way because it was more limited in its scope of application which suited me.
Q. You have worked almost exclusively with the medium of tempera for many years. The process it requires is painstakingly slow, requiring patience and dedication. Why do you feel this medium suit your way of working more than any other?
Well sometimes it is frustrating to work so slowly. I do still occasionally work in oil which is kind of liberating in a way, but I feel that I’m a better tempera painter than an oil painter – it feels more personal to me. I had more of a personal way of using it, so it wasn’t so influenced by other people.
Q. Is the fact that there are not so many painters working with tempera part of the sense of privilege and identity in working with the medium?
There’s an element of that now but I wasn’t really aware of that when I started using it, I didn’t use it for that reason. I found it by accident really, and then I liked some of the results I could get with it, and the physical quality of the medium. I always found the oiliness of oil paint difficult, particularly early on when I was using it and I tried glazing etc. The tempera was much easier, although it is slow as a process, it enabled me to achieve results.
Q. Your technique with using the tempera is not dissimilar to pointillism. Do you feel an affinity with the post-impressionist genre?
Yes, there is a pointillist element to it when I use it though you can use it in different ways. Initially I was just working on portraiture, and occasionally still-life. You can’t blend it, you can’t push it around once it goes on to the panel, it dries almost immediately. It’s quite hard to modify what you have done before so you have to just add other touches of paint to modify what’s gone on underneath and you build up a layering of paint. Although you could use it a broader I way, I found small touches, cool colours against warm colours, worked for painting skin, and for portraiture in general. It helped to create all the little nuances that you find in skin which is not just one colour or one tone. it helped me to do that, you get optical mixing almost, you get a red against green for example, and little touches of each colour. I wasn’t setting out to be a pointillist although I do like pointillism. When I paint I don’t do a lot of colour mixing on the palette, I try to do it with the combinations of pure colour sitting side by side on the panel. I do feel an affinity with the post-impressionist painters – if I’d been around then I’d have liked to have been one of them. I like Seurat’s work particularly. His work has a monumentality about it. So yes, there is an affinity there, but I was very interested in realism so although it’s the pointillist technique, it’s more to do with realism, a realist way of working.
Q. You frequently work on a small scale. Is this simply due to the delicate, slow process of tempera painting or is scale itself a significant element of your work?
Well I have worked on larger scale pieces, some of the figurative pieces I have made are up to 4 or 5ft. It really works well once you go over 50 or 60 inches, they just take quite a long time to do. I quite like going from one to another. It works at both scales, it works on a monumental scale and can work equally well at something that is only a few inches across. It’s good to have a larger piece on the go in the studio and much smaller pieces too so there’s a shift. I don’t think it would be as satisfying to always be working at the same scale.
Q. Your figure compositions appear to have a strong narrative content. What factors determine the pose or composition for your sitters?
I’m not trying to create a specific narrative, there’s something going on there but I’m not really sure what it is. Usually it is just using some of the props and objects that are in the studio. If someone comes to sit for me it suddenly generates ideas – the way they relate to those objects can create something. The sitters have no real relationship to those objects, they are not familiar to them, so there are implications of a narrative but it could just be viewed as a straightforward objective painting, objects in the studio or a still life for example. I quite like the idea of there being another aspect to it as well, it’s something I’m more interested in as I go forward I think.
Q. So, it’s more about creating a layer of intrigue?
Yes, it’s something else. Originally I was working purely from observation and it was all about the observation and getting it into the work, to record the truth of whatever is in front of you, but I’m starting to move away from that now. In recent years I’ve been much more interested in creating narrative elements in the work and in making that stronger.
Q. Your paintings convey a mood of quietude and stillness which gives them a particular intensity. Is this sense of arresting time an aspect that you are consciously trying to achieve with portraiture?
I am interested in that, if I can achieve it. I’m not sure how you actually achieve it, but I am aware of it when I look at painting of this sense of stillness which is always intriguing. It is something that interests me. I think the tempera can lend itself to that, something about the medium and the slowness of it, created over time and with lots of repeated sittings. It is something that interests me so maybe it is just that interest feeding through in the work.
Q. This exhibition concept is really interesting in this respect with the Margaret series of paintings – individual portraits, stilled in moments in time, repeated over a period of time – viewed alongside your more recent portraits. There’s a sense of layering of stilled time – do you agree?
Yes, certainly. I had the first sitting with Margaret soon after I moved into her house where I had my studio. She was sitting for me almost immediately when she was 80, and the last sitting was in 2016 when she was 96 and she sat almost every year, on and off, so that was a long period of time.
Q. Approximately how long do your painting sessions with sitters tend to take? How much does the work change from your original conception?
They can be quite long sittings. I had a four-hour sitting this morning which is quite exhausting. And yes, things change, the lighting changes and sometimes things are different about a model, the hair changes etc. I do take photographs as well to use as reference sometimes and drawings. Once I’m painting direct it takes the painting forward, then I’m sure will change again and can do so quite drastically. I do place tape around where the models are sitting and around my easel to try to get them back into the same position but even then things change slightly. When I look back at the original drawing after I’ve finished a painting it can be really quite different, aspects can change quite dramatically.
Q. Do you converse with your models while working or is this in silence? Do you allow them to view the evolving work?
It’s quite hard to have complete silence and you have to give models breaks, every half an hour or 40 minutes and we will talk then. It depends on the model really but I’m quite happy to gauge it, if they want to talk a bit, but obviously not when they are actually sitting. It’s hard to concentrate if they are moving around. I don’t make a point of showing the work to them, in that sense it’s not collaborative, I’d rather not show them. Sometimes sitters are quite engaged, I’ve had art students who have sat for me and they can be quite engaged so they’re the worst really! It’s probably better if they don’t have any interest in art at all, they’re the perfect sitters!
Q. Is it ever necessary to abandon or re-start a painting because the subject matter or composition is not working for you?
Yes, or the models disappear! It’s always a worry especially if you’re working on something, for example, over a six-month period since the initial sitting anything can happen. I must have abandoned pictures going back but generally I think I see things through to the end somehow. But it is always a possibility that something is going to happen. I try to get models that are going to be reliable before I commit. I try to get to know them a bit by having a few sessions drawing them and then I find out if they’re going to turn up or what their plans are, that they’re not going abroad for two years or whatever.
Q. Do you feel your approach to portraiture has evolved over the years since you have been working with tempera? If so, how has it changed?
I think it has changed but not dramatically, more incrementally. Looking back, there’s much more colour in the work now than there was initially. When I started using tempera it was more monochrome, my palette was more restricted back in the 90s. Particularly with the still-lifes now, much more colour has come in. I was afraid of using colour initially or perhaps I was overwhelmed by it but I am more confident with colour now. It’s about confidence and it takes time. I’m less worried about decorative elements coming into the painting now.
Q. Acute observational focus is central to your work. With this in mind, can you reflect and expand on the role of drawing in your practice?
Yes, I usually start with a single drawing or maybe two drawings if I try something out before actually committing to the painting. I use the drawings for the underpainting so I transfer the drawing onto the panel and work from that to produce the underpainting. I use a much more limited palette initially. I tend to put on a few layers which is not the true colour and then build the paint up with the model back in the room. I’ve always done that, starting with the process of drawing first.
Q. Would you normally work with a model every day?
No, it gets too expensive to have models in every day. But actually that would be too much because I need to be on my own quite a lot as well. It’s quite hard to think properly when someone else is in the studio and to be more objective and analyse the work. I spend ages looking at the work and thinking after they’ve gone, modifying the work slightly sometimes without them. I’ve got models coming in a few times a week at the moment.
Q. Since Margaret Robinson’s death, your studio has been on Platt’s Eyot, the large island on the Thames near Hampton. What is the atmosphere on the island and why does this location suit your way of working?
My studio in Margaret’s house was very different, an old Georgian house in Chertsey, with a great room and I was there for 16 years which was perfect. And then obviously I lost that when she died so had to find a new studio which is a bit of a process. I went to look at a few and none of them were quite right and then I came over here by chance. I wasn’t really looking for an island studio per se so it was just accidental really, there was some space on the island that was available, I came over to see it and felt it could work. I liked having the river there and I felt there was a lot of potential subject matter looking out of the windows. It was so different to what I had before, the light was so different because you have the light coming off the river and the outlook was very different. It’s quiet here at the moment because last year we had a fire next door and a quarter of the island disappeared – it was a major fire, like something out of a war film because there were these boat sheds which were all green corrugated iron and which were next to my building and they were set alight accidentally while someone was having a bonfire. It was the bank holiday last year and they just went up, it got out of control and there were explosions as well, gas bottles exploding. It really was like something out of Apocalypse Now. Luckily my studio was not affected too much, there was a bit of damage, but it was okay.
Q. Who or what has been your greatest influence as an artist? Have any particular artists been mentors in the development of your practice?
Well mainly figurative artists, Freud and Uglow have been influential. Maybe Andrew Wyeth, I hadn’t been so aware of Andrew Wyeth but I am now and obviously he works in tempera so there’s an affinity there. It was only when I went to America that I saw his work rather than in reproductions. But also early Italian painting, I’ve always liked Giovanni Bellini and Piero della Francesca. And Morandi, I wouldn’t say that he’s been a major influence but there’s a stillness about his painting although he’s very different there’s something there. And some of the surrealist painters, like de Chirico for example. Also, Spanish painters, like Francisco de Zurbarán.
Q. You had the extraordinary commission to paint the Queen in 1996. Did this commission pose any significant challenge to your normal practice?
Well it was a commission but it was also a prize I won, so I wasn’t actually doing it for her whereas normally if you have a commission you are doing it for someone and they have to like the work if they are going to pay for it. In this case I had free reign, I didn’t have to satisfy her or anyone really. But yes, you are right, it was actually quite an odd experience. When I had my first sitting, I hadn’t actually met her beforehand. I just had to go and set-up and wait in Buckingham Palace which was a strange thing to do anyway. You arrive there and then you are taken to a room and then you have to wait for the Queen to arrive. Then you’ve actually got to draw her. I was quite young when I did that and I had a lot of time to think about it, I had about five months to think about what I was going to do. They were very generous at that time, I had seven sittings which were at least about an hour and a half each time, over a three or four month period, which you really don’t get now. Now you would be lucky if you got one or two. I spoke to someone who painted her a few years ago and she only had about half an hour. It’s always hard with sitters if it’s someone you don’t know very well, I’m always worried they just don’t want to be there, that they’ve got better things to do, it’s always slightly unnerving. As a model she was actually quite animated and talkative. She didn’t sit in silence, she was talking all the way through either to me or the private secretary who was in earshot. We talked about various things, there were a few things going on at that time, the Dunblane massacre and things like that, and she was talking about some of the people outside, talking about what they were wearing, the current fashions. She was very engaged with everything, she wasn’t remote or distanced at all.
Q. How did lockdown affect your practice?
It was a strange period. I quite enjoyed the first lockdown, I quite like having had to stop and reconsider everything. It was strange because I couldn’t really have any portrait sittings so I could only really work on still-lifes. I couldn’t come to the studio, so I was at home a lot. I’m not sure how beneficial it’s been.
Q. What are the latest developments in your work?
I’m working on this series of small portrait heads. Obviously, that’s a subject that I’ve explored many times before, but not for a few years. It’s been at least two and a half years since I’ve worked with models. I’ve got a series of models I am working with at the moment, and all but one I’ve worked with before. Alongside these I’m working on a large figurative piece but that’s quite big so will take some time to complete.
Thank you Antony, it’s a pleasure to talk to you about your work.