The First Love: Interview with Jenni Stringleman

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Interview by Sarah Mills


After twenty years of working in graphic design and animation, Jenni Stringleman has returned to her first love - working in oils.
 
Based in Auckland, New Zealand, she paints contemporary, bright expressionist florals, fresh, abstracted nudes and portraits.
 
“For me, painting is an expression of joy. I simply love the act of applying oils to canvas, and this has lead me to explore a heady mix of thick oils, and semi transparent washes of colour, high detail combined with gestural strokes.”

Jenni's recent pieces focus on the figure drawn from life in charcoal, erased, rotated, and attacked with brayers and solvents with slabs of flat colour finally applied to obscure and reveal. 

Jenni sells and exhibits at Gallery De Novo and Endemic World Gallery in New Zealand, as well as shipping pieces to international collectors.

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You came back to painting after 20 years of working in graphic design and animation, what drew you back to oils?

I painted almost religiously at high school, partly to get out of PhysEd but mainly because I was obsessed with art! At our school, we had hessian or paper stapled to walls and never-ending acrylic paint, and it was heaven. I wanted to be a full-time artist but decided to go for something practical - graphic design. I assumed I’d paint in my own time after work, but I never did! Instead, I worked on a bungee jump for years, in New Zealand and the UK, then painted murals and eventually ended up in graphic design in the City in London. I was having too much fun to remember to paint (or practice the flute, but that’s another story)!

Eventually, after 11 years in London, I returned to New Zealand, got married and retrained in animation which I adored, but after falling pregnant with my eldest daughter, I decided to give up work for a while. I played a domestic goddess for some years, then sadly a friend was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given only a year to live. It was absolutely tragic as she was a mum of two, and it made me reassess my life choices. I felt it was too late to retrain as a brain surgeon so instead I decided to jump back into painting to leave a legacy for my two young daughters. It was one of the bravest things I ever did, walking into a painting class under the tutelage of artist Robert Campion, however, he was nurturing and kind and downloaded his years of education and experience into my brain, and from there I had a new career!

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You work with such a wide variety of subjects ranging from florals to portraits to abstract work. What do you see as the connecting factor between all your work?

Yes, I do! I am probably like that as a person. I want to be trying new things, learning, stretching myself. Most people call me a colorist, and I do love color, it’s hugely instinctual for me, I feel what goes where and get great joy from the marks and drips and combinations. My first love in painting is the figure... life drawing, nudes, faces. But my mum asked me to paint hydrangeas for her, and they were my first sales to friends and locals.

The nudes were put on the backburner for a while. The galleries who approached me, came to me for my semi-abstracted florals, so that’s where most of my energy went. I painted a portrait of my daughter just for fun then ended up getting commissioned to paint other kids. I love the opportunity they afford me to sit down for once! I like being challenged to capture the real essence of this child, in a more classic way that will stand the test of time. They take ages, and they give me a break from the physical effort of the large pieces. Last year I studied under Martin Campos, and he inspired me to combine my love of color and paint with my charcoal sketches of the figure. A new aspect to my work developed, and now I think of myself as working happily across these three strands.

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Where do you draw inspiration from for your work?

Definitely nature, usually in the small details of plants and the effects of light. Also all of human life. I store away images from magazines and TV, fashion shows, of people on the street. There’s not enough time in my day to paint the things I want to. I screengrab so much of Instagram. Today my art hero Andrew Salgado posted a shot of himself in an orange raincoat against an orange wall, and now that’s all I want to paint! As well as the pieces I sell through galleries, I paint on A3 size Arches paper and that’s where I experiment, and they’re all stacked up in a cupboard! I need to have a sale.

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What is the first thing you do when you sit down to start a new oil painting?

So this depends a little on which one of my themes I’m working on. For the big textured botanical pieces, I almost always start with a fast, loose acrylic underpainting. I stand, listen to podcasts or music, move around and go on instinct. I may use a ref photo but often don’t. I start from a position of wanting to use certain colors or shapes, and this informs what I’m working towards. For the portraits and nudes, I tend to sit at the table and use a desktop easel. The nudes are from life or ref photos, I sketch multiple times in charcoal, rubbing out marks and rotating the support. Eventually, I will introduce a limited palette of oils. With the portraits, I dive in from a ref photo. I don’t grid up or anything. I paint the whole face at once and gradually refine.

Your paintings have a beautiful textural quality to them. What is your process like to achieve that texture?

Thank you! That came about mainly through laziness. I use so much saturated oil color that washing out my brushes each night was doing my head in. I tried a painting knife one day and got hooked! I rarely use a brush now except for the portraits. It helped me simplify, and I love the geometric quality.

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What is your favorite part about working with fluid paints?

Oh, it’s just so fun, it’s exciting. It’s a proper thrill to squeeze paint from a tube, mix it with the knife. With the washy underpainting, I love the unexpected blends. With my oils, I enjoy the thick texture and sheer glazes. The only thing I don’t like is how messy I am. Each tube is lidless, covered in paint, etc.

What advice do you have for our readers who are struggling to change their artistic paths?

My week with Martin Campos did genuinely change my life. I’d say if you can afford it, seek out artists you love and admire and try and study with them. Even a weekend will help! Give yourself permission to play, don’t feel the need to show everything. Expect changes to take time. Your audience may take time to catch up to your new style. Imagine you had a year left, what would you do with it? What is your true passion? But be practical! You need to survive, and there’s no shame in working for money to allow yourself the luxury of time to explore.