This week Brighton Journal spoke to local painter, Denise Harrison. Denise is based at the Phoenix Brighton Art Space, where she works in her studio and teaches painting. Landscape and conservation are at the heart of her work, and Denise spends a lot of time immersing herself in the different environments she paints. We discussed Denise’s current focus on the Stanmer Park restoration project, how sustainability is key to her practice, and why she decided to become an artist. Take a look at her vibrant work.
What are you doing today?
Today I am tidying my studio and clearing the walls and getting ready for a new body of work. Making a fresh start for the New Year.
Describe where you do most of your creative work.
I’m lucky enough to have a permanent studio at Phoenix Art Space where I have another 120 artists around me and a fantastic environment including our gallery and education spaces where I also teach painting.
What’s the most exciting thing you’ve worked on?
I was approached by a publisher to be the author of a new book on painting. The book ‘If You’re Bored with Acrylics, Read This Book’ (Octopus/ Ilex Publishing) was published in September and has gone world-wide. I’d say that’s pretty exciting. I’m now working on a title for the next painting book.
What made you decide to become an artist?
As a child, I always carried pens and sketchbooks around with me, even when visiting relatives. I found it relaxing and a way of expressing myself. Before I became a working artist, I would draw and paint in the evenings when not working, it seemed like a natural progression to do full-time what I loved most, so I did a BA (hons) degree in painting and then an MA in Painting at the UAL, Wimbledon.
What are you currently working on?
I’m getting a new body of work together concerning the restoration work at Stanmer Park, so I’m priming and preparing my canvases. I’ve still to go out and make a collection of drawings and some small study paintings before I decide on the final images to be painted, so I am gathering my visual research.
The other part of my practice that I am working on is teaching painting. As well as teaching at Phoenix, I am now setting up new courses at Starling Studio on Havelock Road.
What are the key themes in your work?
My work is concerned with the landscape and conservation. I am interested in sustainability and man’s interference both negatively and positively on plant-life and the face of the landscape. I do a lot of research into the environment I am about to paint and spend a long time walking and sitting in those spaces before I use paint to explore my ideas and findings. I am also interested in colour as I have synesthaesia related to colours, smells, feelings and sounds, so I use colour to convey my experience of that landscape.
What would you like people to notice about your work?
I would like people to look at my work and be reminded about the beauty of plants and the landscape that is around us, but also to raise awareness about conservation and sustainability. I did a series of paintings capturing the great work that ‘Aquaponics Life’ was doing in their greenhouse at Stanmer Park/ Plumpton College, before it was due to be knocked down. Here I was looking at the man-made structures of the greenhouse mingling with the organic shapes of the plants and the positive impact that humans were having on plant sustainability. I wanted to raise awareness of this work as well as documenting it within a painting.
What attracts you to the medium you work in?
I work with oil and acrylic paint. I enjoy the physicality of paint, the way it moves, its consistency and the chance happenings that can then evolve. I tend to do my small sketches and studies in acrylic as it dries fast and it gives me a chance to work through lots of ideas quickly, I use these smaller paint sketches for the larger paintings, which are up to seven foot in height, I prefer to use oils on these as it moves around the larger canvas with more ease and its slower drying time allows me to rework areas and play with adding and removing paint until I get the desired outcome.
What equipment could you not do without?
I love my brushes and sometimes will buy one purely for its aesthetic. I have many brushes but my favourite would have to be my very long handled Da Vinci brushes for oil painting.
Who or what inspires you?
The landscape inspires me, going for walks and collecting objects, leaves, stones, litter… I make up a box of found objects for each painting and take inspiration from them when I am creating the composition.
How is your work affected by living in this area?
My work is about researching and painting local places and spaces, either where I was brought up or places around Brighton. I’m also interested in the landscape and gardens that surround large houses. I spent two years working on a project researching Stanmer House and Stanmer Park and this has now moved onto me investigating through painting the work being done at the park as well as the greenhouses. I am also interested in Preston Manor.
What’s your favourite thing to do locally?
I love going to the beach and Stanmer Park as well as Stanmer Organics. Brighton is so small that it doesn’t take long to get out into the country-side, but if I can’t get there, I go to the Preston Park Rock Gardens, also known as the ‘Chinese Gardens’ or the walled gardens in the grounds of Preston Manor.
What’s your favourite gallery (or place to see/experience art)?
I really enjoy the Serpentine Gallery in Kensington, London. It involves a pleasant walk through Hyde Park before reaching the gallery. It’s a lovely large space, with open planned rooms housing really interesting exhibitions. The Faith Ringgold was a great exhibition with so much colour.
If you could collaborate with one artist, from any time, who would it be and why?
I would just love to be a fly on the wall and watch Bonnard paint but to collaborate with would have to be Richard Deibenkorn because of the way he views the landscape and breaks it down into colour and shapes, his work is beautiful and intriguing.
What’s your favourite colour?
I have two favourite colours, Naples yellow and cyan blue, they are super yummy.