In the Studio / Headline artist Hazel Mountford
Hazel Mountford in her studio, 2017
Winner of the prestigious BBC Wildlife Artist of the Year Award in 2009, British painter Hazel Mountford showcases her new collection of originals as our headline artist this winter.
Working in acrylic on handmade, often irregularly shaped, wood panels Hazel captures the essence of her animal subjects through a combination of meticulous study and strong technique. Inspired by her own personal journey of surviving city life in London and by a fascination with the competition for space between humans and animals, Hazel creates works from which animals peer out and fix the viewer with an intense gaze.
The Biscuit Factory: Tell us about you and your practice?
I am a fine art acrylic painter based in Bristol. The main focus of my work is the competition for space amongst animal species and the over-lapping struggle for territory with an ever expanding human population. This shifting relationship creates an intricate evolving jigsaw which I find fascinating.
My paintings are highly detailed, presented on simple or minimal backgrounds and strive to capture a sense of quiet beauty, allowing the viewer time to pause and reconnect with nature. I work on wood panels, created by myself and my father. The panel shapes themselves are influenced by the shapes, architecture and negative spaces of the man made landscape and are used to create a stage my creatures can interact with.
Alongside my current show at The Biscuit Factory, my paintings have been exhibited in in London, Glasgow, Dublin, New York, Toronto, Singapore and Hong Kong. In 2009 I won the BBC Wildlife Artist of the Year- British Mammals and in 2016 was shortlisted for the David Shepherd Wildlife Artist of the Year.
'Expectant Fox' in progress, Hazel Mountford, 2017
TBF: Tell us about your time at Wimbledon College of Art? What inspired you to study theatre?
Growing up in the countryside in Kent as a child, I was constantly drawing characters to populate my imaginary world. At college I took these further, making puppets both human and animal and creating real installations. Studying theatre at Wimbledon School of Art was a natural transition. The course gave me the expertise to work as a props maker and scenic artist in film and theatre. I then later co-started a mural company. As much as I enjoyed my work I started to feel a desire to develop my own creative projects. It was at this time that I was hit by a car, which put me in hospital for two months. Unable to work for six months I had the chance to re-evaluate, taking the decision to risk my savings, rent a studio at Wimbledon Art Studios and devote my time to develop my own paintings. I never looked back!
TBF: Tell us about your studio space. Where are you currently based?
I recently moved from London to Bristol. It’s a very exciting city and has opened up many new ideas and possibilities. My new studio is in Freestone Studios, a large creative complex near Bristol Temple Meads train station. It’s much larger than my London studio so I’ve been able to divide the space into two sections, one for painting and one for making/finishing. My artwork may have simple uncluttered backgrounds but my studio is the exact opposite. The walls are a mass of newspaper/magazine cuttings, streaks of paints from colour testing and scribbled notes for future projects, while the cupboards and shelves are filled with reference books, figurines and various taxidermy items found and given.
TBF: Tell us more about your painting process and technique? Do you often work from photographs?
I start by producing a multitude of doodles in my sketchbook and sometimes small maquettes. I usually like to work on the floor surrounding myself with sketches, I think it harks back to the time when I drew as a child, it allows me to have a feeling of play to the process, anything goes.
Once I’ve decided on the composition I work up the sketch to an accurate proportioned drawing which I then transfer onto the panel. For my insect paintings I use specimens in my collection to work from directly. For my mammals and birds I work the anatomy up in layers, firstly drawing in the skeleton, then the muscles and finally the skin/fur/feather layer. I use a multitude of sources for reference, over the years I have built up a small library of animal anatomy books; sketches from in the field and museum specimens; photographs and live footage which I can delve into.
As a base for the painting broad skin/muscles tones are put on first, followed by thin glazes to slowly build up depth, culminating in delicate fine lines of detail. Although I adopt a photo-realism approach I still want to retain a painterly quality, a sense of the human hand, and I like to allow chance areas where the paint has developed its own texture.
Getting the eye right is a very important stage in the painting and can take several days. As humans we are very drawn to the eye, it can convey submission or confidence; it can change the relationship between the observed and the observer. To make eye contact is to make an intimate bond and I spend a long time deciding on this sense of interaction.
Hazel Mountford's Bristol studio and work in progress, 2017
TBF: What inspires you?
My artwork takes inspiration from current issues concerning the natural world. It can be a phrase that strikes my interest or an article in a newspaper or just simply walking round the streets observing interactions. Living and working in an urban environment has shaped and influenced my practice, my ongoing series of angled panels are my way of communicating and visualising the plight and successes as animals co-exist next to us. I’m interested in the meeting point between these two worlds, examining the cross connections. My round ‘Night’ paintings on display in the gallery are driven by the question, who owns the outdoor spaces after dark?
The ‘Sweet Spot’ series was inspired by attending the Pollinator Festival in Bristol Botanic Gardens. Most people know about bumblebee and butterflies but many flies, beetles, moths and wasps are important pollinators too. In this series I wanted to celebrate this incredible diversity. By painting them on traditional gesso panels, which take several days of careful preparation and finishing, I want to invoke a feeling of jewel-like preciousness to each and every one.
'Skylark Descending', Hazel Mountford, 2017
TBF: Which artists inspire you?
To name just a few I’d say studying the works of Adriaen van Utrecht and Frans Snyder has inspired me to evolve and expand my painting technique. Another influence is the entomologist artist Maria Sybilla Merian, I love her attention to detail, her dramatic use of composition and vibrant use of colour.
TBF: Which is your favourite piece from your winter collection?
Conceptually I’d say my favourite is ‘Fahrenheit’. The piece was inspired by the line that “butterflies are a measure of the health of the environment”. I spent many hours playing with different compositions. I’m really pleased at the arrangement of the butterflies, the gently circling upwards movement, the sense of fragility but also strength. I hope it encourages people to pause and reconnect with nature.
I love painting foxes so another favourite has to be ‘Expectant Fox’. These beautiful creatures occupy a unique position in the ecology of many cities and I find it fascinating how adaptable they are in our changing environment. This painting was based on a fox I observed outside my bedroom window taking an interest in a neighbour’s fence.
'Expectant Fox' (detail), Hazel Mountford, 2017
TBF: What’s next for you? Do you have any projects in the pipeline this year?
I’ve been asked to produce a series of paintings for a new animal book coming out in 2019. I can’t say too much about it at the moment, as the project is in the early stages but I am going to be looking at some weird and wonderful creatures.
At the same time I’m going to be developing a more personal project under the title ‘Masquerade’. The series is a response to the complexities of food chains, the removal of keystone species, and the jungle of existence. My starting references are mimicry in nature and the transformative aspect of anthropological masks. I’m presently in talks with some performance artists about a possible collaboration. It’s going to be an interesting joining of my theatrical past and animal portraiture present.
Hazel Mountford's collection of original paintings is on show now as part of The Winter Exhibition at The Biscuit Factory until 18 February 2018. The collection is also available to view and purchase online here.