They say fact is stranger than fiction. And fact does sometimes make good fiction – as evidenced by the story of Wendy Phillips. There were two distinct junctions in her life where she was suddenly shunted onto the track of creating art. She maintains, when you talk to her, that she has nothing to show – yet once you scratch the surface painting after painting tumbles out of hiding.
SWITCHING TO ART
Wendy Phillips was born in London. She does not remember being interested in art as a child and left school at 16. Roll forward a few years and you will find her in Sicily, Italy, teaching English as a foreign language. And it is there that the first set of points on her track were switched. While in Sicily she realised that her Italian peers who had gone through a classical education system knew a great deal more about art than she did. She also realised that she wanted to go to university and so she returned to the UK to study Italian and History of Art. At that point in her life, her engagement with art was merely theoretical.
“The greatest pleasure is painting outdoors”
Then Wendy got married, had children. And now, based in Cirencester, the man in that great signal box in the sky threw the switch again to lead Wendy down the art route: she went on holiday with a friend who had brought along a box of watercolour paints. They painted together and Wendy found that she greatly enjoyed the experience – this was the start of her love of watercolour.
Today, several house moves later arriving in High Halden via Ealing and Sandhurst, watercolour is still her first love. She has attended many classes on watercolour technique and only recently got interested in oils after doing an oil painting course en plein air. Her route to oil came to pass after another fiction-worthy twist: Wendy was canoeing on the river in Newenden and saw a group of people on the river bank with their easels, asked for their details and the rest is history…
“A watercolour glaze gives an interesting effect”
When Wendy tried oils she was surprised how easy it was to use them and found she got good results as you can apply light on dark and go back to your piece many times to improve it. She has also experimented with using a watercolour glaze over her watercolour paintings which gives an ‘oil’ effect. Looking at her body of work laid out on the floor for our conversation and displayed on her walls and the many sketchbooks she has filled, it’s easy to see that Wendy likes experimenting – using watercolour, oil, chalk, pen and ink, doing portraiture, sculpture in clay and life drawing. The latter she feels is her strength and she considers it paramount to concentrate on drawing as a skill if your work is to amount to something. Wendy tells the story of how during a course at London’s City Lit the tutor made her draw the same life pose many times over until she practically knew it by heart. Then she had to draw the outlines of the pose in water and drop some paint into the watery outline. The effect was amazing.
Despite Wendy’s protestations that she is simply an amateur painter – a figurative painter who copies reality – her quest to master some of the trickier aspects of painting is evident. She is fascinated by composition and feels she has a lot to learn in this respect. Composition entails altering reality: seeing a view and paring it down to the essentials is not easy when you are painting in the open. Far easier to paint from a photo since this has already converted the scene into 2D for you – so Wendy often takes a photo of the scene she is painting as a backup.
“Composition entails altering reality”
When you ask Wendy whether she can see an evolution in her work she says no, she has stayed the same. Her take on that is that in life there are skills and there are talents. Painting and drawing are skills she has learnt but she doesn’t consider herself naturally talented. For her art is a pastime and the pleasure lies simply in the doing of it, of enjoying the moment. And the pleasure is heightened when Wendy can paint en plein air for her great love is painting outdoors, in the open. This has been tricky over the course of the last year with the pandemic keeping everyone at home and isolated. It has stifled Wendy’s impetus to paint but she is working on getting it back.
IN THE OPEN
So what have been the highlights painting has given her? Wendy mentions memories of sitting on the beach painting – her sketchbooks feature an abundance of beach scenes with people in deckchairs. She says she has spent many a happy hour sitting outside in parks, drawing people on benches. And she talks about how she used to get her sketchbook out on the Tube in London and draw the people travelling in her carriage. If ever proof was needed of Wendy’s confidence in her drawing skills then this is surely it.
“Oils will give you the confidence to know that you are better than you think you are”
So what advice does she have for others? ‘Do oils early on as this will give you confidence to know that you are better than you think you are – then you can go back to watercolour which is harder.’ She recommends painting a scene in both watercolour and oil at the same time and seeing how each one turns out. And, echoing many other painters, Wendy highly recommends getting some drawing skills under your belt by practising life drawing.
WOKAS has been a fairly recent addition to Wendy’s life – she joined a couple of years ago and was fairly quickly asked to come onto the committee. She really enjoys the talks and demonstrations that WOKAS organises and rates them highly. It would be nice, she muses, if more of the many WOKAS members emerged from their silent membership and took an active role in the society’s activities. There is much to be gained from members sparking off each other, discovering new things and creating together. And members voicing what they would like WOKAS to be and do for them is crucial, says Wendy – like any society, the Weald of Kent Art Society has to evolve with the times if it is to remain relevant and attractive.
At the moment of writing Wendy’s creative impetus is, to continue the railway image, temporarily stabled in a siding. But the carriages are being cleaned and the engine overhauled – just waiting for the signal to go to green to fill more sketchbooks and canvases. Without hesitation Wendy has her wish for the Painting Fairy ready: ‘to be able to achieve a good composition’.
Wendy Phillips is based in High Halden.
Gunda Cannon was in conversation with her in July 2021.
Click on images to enlarge
Study of girl - watercolour
Study in black and white - chalk
Footpath in Sandhurst - oil
Rain at Camber - watercolour
Cushion - pen and chalk
Young man with glasses - oil