Artists We Love: Alex Emsley

WORDS Amelia Brown

Creator of astonishingly hyper-real still life works with oil on linen, we chat to South African artist Alex Emsley on how he developed his meticulous technique, how he chooses his subject matter, and what his average day looks like. 

How did you develop your technique and style?

I think that failed experiments eventually lead an artist to a technique that works for them. I’ve flirted with many different styles – all of which failed miserably – before finding myself on this path. One could argue that my style is very analytical, perhaps even scientific. I’m not sure what that says about me – I guess I might have an analytical personality? I enjoy analysing the structure of a subject – figuring out how it’s built, and how to translate the structure into paint.

How do you choose your subject matter?

Before I choose a subject, I consider what kind of challenge it will present. I often choose subjects that are a little difficult for me, that stretch me out of my comfort zone. I believe that is how one progresses. If your task lies a little beyond what you are capable of, you are forced to develop and grow. This doesn’t come without frustration. I swear at my paintings all the time! (When I don’t swear at a painting, it usually means that I’m not learning much from it.)

Is there symbolism in your compositions?

I have experimented with symbolism in the past – I’ve tried incorporating a narrative into my compositions, sometimes even a sense of humour – but less so these days. I find that symbolism can get a bit tired. It amuses a viewer the first time they see it, but the novelty wears off and then it gets stale. I believe that the simpler a composition is, the less chance there is that it will grow tiresome.

What are you inspired by?

I lived in London for a few years, and often visited the big museums. Paintings by the so-called “old masters” have always fascinated me, as have more contemporary works in modern galleries. If I have to be completely honest, inspiration plays very little role in my daily routine. There’s a great quote by William Faulkner that sums up the problem of inspiration: “I only write when inspiration strikes,” he said. “Fortunately, it strikes at nine every morning.”

Describe where you create your pieces?

My studio space is small but organised. Everything I need is at arm’s length. I used to sit under hectic spotlights that would roast the back of my neck, but I’ve switched to LED tubes. Many people ask me how I keep my hand steady when painting. I’m afraid there’s nothing special about my hand: It rests against a stick while I work, an old trick that painters have been using for centuries. I use a vertical palette, which makes it easier to mix colours. I have an old laptop in the corner that serves as my sound system. I listen to a lot of audiobooks while I work. I get a lot of “reading” done this way.

If you could collaborate with any South African artist, who would it be?

That’s a tricky one. The nature of my work is solitary, so I might find a collaboration challenging. I don’t think I could team up with someone whose work is similar to my own. I’ve been tempted to paint images onto sculpted forms, so perhaps a collaboration with a sculptor could work.

If you weren’t an artist, what would you be?

I’d probably be a writer. I do actually write stories when time allows. I find that writing and painting share many common traits. A writer uses sentences the way a painter uses brushstrokes. Words are weaved together to create a story, just as brushstrokes overlap to create a painted illusion.

What time of day do you prefer to work?

I find that the first session of the day is always the hardest; my painting seems hesitant and tentative. Then, as the hours pass, I shift into a higher gear. I start work around 9 am, and I usually produce the best work much later in the day. I clock off in the evening, around 7 or 8 pm. Sometimes it’s later, sometimes earlier. I usually work long hours.

Highlight of your career so far?

Earlier this year, Barnard Gallery presented a solo exhibition of my work at the Joburg Art Fair.

What’s next?

Barnard Gallery is doing amazing things for me and will likely hold a bigger solo show at some stage. I only produce a handful of paintings each year, so there are logistical challenges that have to be figured out. I’m also itching to experiment with new subjects – perhaps even in a different medium. I’ll see where this path takes me.

Alex’s work is currently on display at the Barnard Gallery in Cape Town in an exhibition entitled Barnard Collective, a highlights reel of 2017 showcasing signature works by the gallery’s stable, including the likes of Sarah Biggs and Katharine Spindler, alongside works by invited artists. The exhibition runs until 23 January 2018. View more of Alex’s work on Facebook and his site.