Studio Stories

Karlien de Villiers Paint Pallettes with gouache

Some of my mixing palettes with gouache and watercolour paints.

"So, what exactly is it that you do all day?" is a question I am asked more often than I care to count, often by well-meaning family members or friends with "real" jobs. Not that I can blame them. From the outside making art might not seem much like work, and may appear to be more like having fun with your paint and paper and being in your own zone for long periods of time. While this may be true most days, as with anything that started as a freelance passion, it can become really hard to keep up your enthusiasm when doing something that used to be pure pleasure as a full time occupation.

Karlien de Villiers Work Process

Work in Progress from 2018 in gouache and watercolour on paper.

I’m not complaining, really, I love what I do… it’s just that some days are better than others. Ask my long suffering spouse and kids, they will tell you all about the deadlines, the always-busy-with-something-mom and no place to properly eat dinner at a table because all available surfaces are covered with artworks that are in varying stages of drying.

Due to space constraints (I gave up my rented studio space to save on costs) and being at home all the time during the Covid lockdown, I started working on smaller pieces of A4 papers that are easier to move around in a limited space and can be stored safely in a drawer. While working on paper with watercolour and gouache, I work in a relatively confined space in our bedroom, with our bed doubling as an extra “table” surface to spread out artworks in progress while working on many pieces simultaneously.

Karlien de Villiers Studio

What my desk eventually looks like while working.

When working on sculptures, I invade the kitchen and dinner table, with clay dust and residue from wood-carvings that are literally everywhere, and then I sometimes end up spending a disproportionate amount of time on my stomach on the floor with a little broom and dustpan or the vacuum cleaner in an effort to tidy up some of the chaos: think clay, dust, wood carvings, mud from the kids’ shoes, left-over pieces of macaroni, crumbs and toys strewn about. While not claiming to be a neat-freak (I’m not), I do have a bit of OCD about things lying around in disarray on the floor - as I have had many close calls and some actual falls because of tripping over a toy truck or Lego blocks.


Karlien de Villiers Sculptures

Wood carving sculptures in progress from 2017 (when I still had a workshop space).

 On the whole I really enjoyed having my entire family at home all the time during lockdown. Despite the chaos and getting cabin fever sometimes, it was nice to have company while working. Usually the creative process can be very lonely – unless you are lucky enough to share a work space with likeminded people – and when my children started going back to school more regularly the past few weeks, the silence in the house is suddenly deafening and a bit eerie. The world starts going back to a “normal” routine of going to work, and I look at all the papers and paint in front of me and, not for the first time in my life, think “What exactly are you doing?”

 Karlien de Villiers Mixing Palette

Mixing palette with ink and watercolours.

Even after almost twenty years of making art, there is a point in every new project or body of work where I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing and have the despair and frustration of seeing a vision in my head of ‘how I wanted the image to look’ versus what is actually happening on the piece of paper in front of me – the disconnect between mind and hand, thought and the physical mark on paper. I usually try to work through the process and resolve an image or artwork by continuing to work on it, trying to be more patient with paint layers that take too long to dry and mixing better, more complex colour combinations to freshen things up. I also often start over completely, sometimes on a new piece of paper – destroying or cutting up the existing work – or I simply turn the page over and start a new artwork on the back of the same page if the paper quality allows it.

 Karlien de Villiers Art on Paper

An example of papers that have been used on the front and back.

Although there are images that I do plan more carefully, most of the time I don’t have a set idea of what the final artwork is going to be, and tend to let the process of drawing and painting (with all of the ups and downs) lead me toward a solution – I also do discard many works that I simply couldn’t crack. Sometimes I re-use discarded artworks: I cut them up into pieces and use it in collages, or I simply paint over the underlying image with an opaque medium like gesso, acrylic or gouache and start again. I still haven't managed to get that magic "inspiration" versus "perspiration" balance right (leaning more towards perspiration) and I doubt that I ever will. 

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