Friday, August 3, 2012

Interview - Samantha Groenestyn

I serendipitously discovered the work of Samantha Groenestyn when her illustration was featured as Pick of the Week on Illustration Friday. It impressed me enough to click through to her website where I found a range of incredible, beautiful and striking illustrations. Her writing on her blog also lead me to believe there was a fascinating mind behind them. I wasn't wrong. Welcome, Samantha!

Samantha Groenestyn (all photos sourced from Samantha's website and blog)

Tell us a bit about yourself, your work and achievements.

I’m an avid maker. I once read a hundred-year-old self-help book that argued that according to science, people with stout, square hands are makers, and I have small, strong, non-dainty hands that I am never afraid to get dirty. I think of my hands as tools. Despite this, I am a thinker, and I like to approach my crafts analytically. There is so much problem-solving involved in constructing physical things. I think I learned this from my dad, who is a builder. Every day he puts houses together, and there are always unforeseen obstacles that arise in the actual process of making that can’t be accounted for in careful planning. But there are always solutions, and holding the materials in your hands and thinking it out helps you find them.

I now freelance as an illustrator. I work from my crumbly old house in Brisbane, and also in cafes―they never mind if I paint quietly in the corner! I paint bright little pictures in gouache―sometimes portraits, sometimes landscapes, sometimes pictures of lamps. I love vintage things and knitting, and I paint these as much as possible. I like to play with improbable textures in my work. I also do a lot of line work in black pen.

My greatest achievement to date is having a solo exhibition a mere five months after starting on my illustration path. I made friends with a lady who owned a tea house near my house, and we worked together to put on a slightly off-beat but classy little affair. I also recently opened my Etsy shop as a way to showcase my illustrations as useful artifacts.

To the Secret Forest by Samantha Groenestyn

When did you know you wanted to work as an artist/illustrator (from a young age or did you come to it later?) and what steps did you take to make it happen?

I studied philosophy at the University of Queensland and I wrote theses on metaphysics and memory and the value of politics. After this I went to work for the Australian Public Service in Canberra for a year. I knew that I could ‘work smart’―work with my brain, rather than with my hands, get paid a lot for only mental exertion rather than paid a little for physical exertion―so I had to try it out. I quickly realised that things like money and social prestige couldn’t drive my decisions, because my practical side was suffering. I decided to be proud of my blue-collar heritage and embrace the fact that I am a hand worker.

I transferred my Canberra job back to Brisbane, finished off my graduate program and then quit. I found some part-time work at a café to pay my rent. I was soon swallowed up in a painting frenzy.

I think the trick to becoming an illustrator is to declare that you are one. No one has to know how much or how little paid work you have. As long as you are producing work, you are working as an illustrator. When you have enough work to make a website, put up a website. Then you can get business cards printed, and give them to people when they ask you what you do. Blog about your work and let people into your life a little―they love feeling let in on a secret.

Thank you by Samantha Groenestyn

Could you describe a typical work day? How do you balance art, administration and the demands of everyday life?

I work on illustration for half the week. On those days, I zip down to the organic café down the road for a coffee after breakfast. I take along a book on design or illustration―right now I’m reading The Shape of Design by Frank Chimero. This gets me in the right mindset, and fills me up with ideas, either about techniques, or strategies, or new directions to take. I’m learning all the time how to do what I do.

Then I’ll start sketching out the skeleton of a painting in pencil and then I’m ready to paint after lunch. I work on the painting for about three hours, and it usually takes me two afternoons to complete a painting. I break it up with knitting breaks. By the end of the day I start looking into other things I have to do, like invoices and updating my website. At night I’ll write blog posts or go to parties.

There is a surprising amount of planning work that needs to be done. Some projects are less straightforward than others, and require a lot of thinking about the arrangement, colours and content, or amassing loads of field sketches. There are people to email about collaborations. I need to go to the art shop a lot. I’m always arranging to have things printed, and investigating places to sell things. The best way to manage is to make lists in your diary, then group together the tasks that can go together―take along a painting that you can do in a café near the art shop and do your groceries on the way home, or spend a morning on computer work somewhere sunny with a good view to sketch. As for everyday life―I rely on a lot on Jacques, my partner, who is an excellent laundry-man, and only occasionally pinches my shirts.

One thing that I haven’t got the hang of yet is finding time for friends and cousins. Not everyone goes to parties―some people only want to see me during precious working hours, and I find this a real struggle.

Kichi-Ba Tea House by Samantha Groenestyn

How do you approach new work? What kinds of things do you do to gather ideas and motivate yourself?

I am intrinsically motivated to an extent that baffles my friends. I wake up every day excited to do all the things, and I’m never at a loss for what to do. I keep an ideas book, which is full of ideas about everything―future exhibition ideas, future textiles projects, art directors to contact, as well as ideas for paintings. Ideas can vanish so easily, it’s best to record everything so you can sift through it later and get started on a new project right away. I sketch out my ideas in pen, playing around with imagery and text. Sometimes I paint on dollops of colour. I pencil up the real thing and get to work―I use my ruler a lot. Other times I trawl through my old photos and find a favourite one that usually appeals to me alone because of the composition. When I paint it up as I ‘see’ it, though, I can show others what is hidden in the picture.

Samantha Groenestyn's sketchbook

I was struck by this statement on your website: 'Craft is not an embellishment; it is the thoughtful and intentional construction of the worlds in which we live.' Can you tell us a bit more about your philosophy of creating?

Every aspect of our lives is designed―someone determined how your house would be laid out, and that impacts your life every day. Someone planted the trees in the park, someone tailored your coat, someone perfected the making of your favourite cheese. These are all crafts, and they are not just the cherry on top. Craftsmanship is intrinsic to the objects we use and the spaces we inhabit. It shapes our experience, and, in turn, shapes us, and shouldn’t be thought of as an optional addition.

Frank Chimero deftly words it: ‘Delight, unfortunately, can be painted as a quick fix or a gimmick that offers a snazzy way to spit-shine a poor idea with novelty. The intentions of creating accommodating work go deeper than just a surface treatment. … All of these choices are designed, and they all coalesce into the experience of this moment’ (The Shape of Design, pp. 102; 110).

Homeless by Samantha Groenestyn

What are your favourite tools/materials for creating?

After my hands, a good, springy paintbrush―I use two different sized sable and synthetic mix brushes with Winsor and Newton gouache paints. Quality materials don’t make an artist, but if it’s really your trade you shouldn’t deny yourself the best you can afford. I have a trusty set of graphite pencils, from 8B to 4H, and the H pencils don’t show through the thin paint too much. My favourite pen is the Uniball Eye―fine or micro―I’m not at all into felt tips. I like my ink to really flow in a consistent line; I don’t like sketchy pen effects in my own drawings. I have loads of these spread about my house and in all my handbags, mostly used up or missing the ball-tip. I use a solid metal ruler which has proven invaluable―I’m a bit lazy about straight lines and measurements, but I’m beginning to appreciate them. I’m still experimenting with paper, but generally I use a 185gsm watercolour paper. I’ve been trying out some Arches rough watercolour paper, and a whole new world has opened up to me―it really changes the way the paint goes down.

Un regal pour les yeux by Samantha Groenestyn

Thanks, Samantha. Your approach to your work is fascinating - I love that you have such a strong philosophy behind your creations and your illustrations themselves are fabulous!

Please visit Samantha Groenestyn at the following online places:
Etsy shop
Society6 shop