Spotlight: Annabel Keatley, Painter and Papermaker

From Air to Earth

Spotlight: Annabel Keatley, Painter and Papermaker

With the possibilities she sees before her, it is no surprise that Annabel Keatley creates a cohesive body of work using diverse media. Depending on her inspiration, she realizes her vision with paint, papermaking and/or collage.

Annabel Keatley head shot

How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?

My childhood was full of nature, making things, drawing and painting. From a young age I’ve enjoyed filling sketchbooks with pencil drawings. At 8 years old I began oil painting lessons with an artist in our village. 

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I always knew I wanted to go to art school. Thinking I was going to study fashion or theatre design, l applied to Edinburgh College of Art. I won the drawing prize in my first year and graduated with a BA in Painting and Drawing. In 1988 l was accepted into Chelsea School of Art in London and completed my Masters in printmaking. During this time, I travelled to India 3 times and made it into magical Tibet just before the border closed. My work was inspired by these incredible experiences and informed by the many sketches I kept whilst travelling.

When I left college I made an exchange with a Russian artist from Kiev; I lived with him surrounded by his friends and family. They were all painters, writers and poets. This was in 1990, when there were still huge shortages of fresh food and long queues for bread. While I was there l was invited to have a solo exhibition at The Artbat Gallery in Moscow. I shipped my work out the following year sponsored by the Princes Trust and British Council and spent more time in Russia. This was an “avant garde” gallery visited by many artists. I always remember the opening because so many creative people came, all with gifts for me. It was a real celebration of artistic endeavour and creativity. This show returned to the UK and was then exhibited as my first solo show in London. 

Annabel solo exhibit in Seville

So my painting and exhibiting practise was formed early on. Then I continued to paint for solo shows every eight months in London. I fell into a working practise when inspired by new places to return to my studio and work through ideas. One show led onto another, from self curated open studio shows to showing in public spaces. Then I showed in independent galleries and at the Friends Room in the V&A by invitation. 

During this time l also made theatrical sets and costumes for London productions, including the Moving Stage Barge Puppet Theatre. I travelled for the first time to Spain, winning an award to paint at the Delfina Studios in Manilva, Andalucia.

I returned to Moscow as a co-leader for a multi-media theatrical workshop, teaching papermaking and collaborating with a Russian Puppeteer. Then in 1995, I was invited to Jamaica to attend a Triangle Workshop, an initiative begun by Robert Loden to bring artists together from all over the world to work alongside each other in different countries. 

Wherever l live or travel I absorb the essence and feeling of that place quickly. Then I describe it in paint though colour, either immediately or later from memory. 

Watercolor landscape

Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people? Or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?

To me, creativity is a space or place to go, available to everyone. Children pour themselves into the process, enjoying so much being in the creative flow, normally without attachment to the outcome. When we are creative we receive inspiration. That in turn feeds our creativity and so opens us up to new ideas and expands our limited vision. I’m not sure I could have managed in my life without this.

Lovely handmade paper collage
Handmade paper and cheesecloth

How does the landscape of Spain influence your work?

I moved to Andalucia from London in 1996. Living here has had a huge influence on my work. The snow capped mountains of the Sierra Nevada and the Mediterranean sea, both near my home, the heat of the summer, the tropical and sometimes desert-like landscape, fields of fruit trees, all are sources of constant inspiration. Loving the landscape, I also have always had a big pull towards abstraction. Colour and texture have always been at the core of my work.

Oil on paper

Where does your process begin – with the medium or the subject matter? How do you decide if a work will be watercolor, oil or paper?

I love working with different materials. At college we went to Maureen Richardson’s studio, renowned papermaker, and I was hooked for life. So l am a painter who makes her own paper, and I am self-taught. I make paper from all the locally gathered plant fibres l can find, as well as recycling paper. I currently make seeded paper for Ediciones Escondidas, a Spanish book publisher. They include it as a gift with each of their new publications.

Accordion book made from homemade paper

Tell us about your collage work. Why do layers interest you?

I’ve always loved layering and making unusual book forms with paper. Over the years I’ve explored and developed my collage work by making my own paper, large light filled multi layered pieces and experimental books. 

I sew, stitch and emboss my paper. I dye it with local plants, leaves and blossoms, incorporating gathered leaves and petals. Then I use printmaking techniques to add details. My hanging paper pieces are, in a way, book forms on a large scale while they extend my interest in layers and leaves, veiling and unveiling, looking through and revealing in a 3-dimensional space.

I love the beauty of handmade paper, its soft ragged edges. The life of the leaves and petals settle so naturally in the fibres; the watery process of papermaking is calming. It’s a very subtle and quiet process, quite different to painting. 

From Air to Earth
From Air to Earth

Do you create all of your work in one studio, or have different spaces for different media? Do you combine techniques?

Alongside this practise, and in a separate studio, I paint. I make vibrant mixed media oils. I work from large to very small scale, ranging from more than a 150cm to as small as 8cm. In addition, I paint outside en plein air with watercolour. I love working on an intimate scale, but l also like the expansiveness of a large scale work. All my favourite artists are colourists, from the intricate work of Indian miniatures and the paintings of Bonnard, to the colour fields of Rothko and Sean Scully.

Three of Annabel's pieces on exhibit
Three of Annabel’s pieces on exhibit

In my studio I take risks with my paintings while working intuitively. I respond to colours and marks already there, using oil paint and natural materials like beeswax and pigment. I combine traditional oil painting with encaustic medium. Encaustic is an ancient Greek method of painting, meaning “to fuse by heat”.

Encaustic painting by Annabel

I make a medium of beeswax and dammar varnish. I add pigment and textures like sand and earth, paper and fabric to the canvas while I paint. A hot air gun or blow torch can melt it on the surface at any time. Apart from the richness of colour, at any time I can reveal the very first colours and marks. I simply remelt the wax medium or scrape back the top layers. Then I get new colour combinations and textures I could never achieve by myself. I like pushing materials, and at the moment I am rediscovering acrylic paint, which also has its unique qualities.

Paper made by village people in India

Have you ever taken your papermaking studio “on the road” to share your skills with others?

Papermaking, which I often combine with printmaking methods to bring in a drawn and detailed element, lends itself to project and community based work.

l have just returned from India. I worked with 24 artists from all over the world and local children in a small tribal village in Rajasthan. This was part of the 7th Sowing Seeds Residency, organised by Indian artist Chiman Dangi. I taught the children a simple monoprinting technique and made paper dyed with the local clay paints. Then we incorporated their works into a large paper piece and accordion books.

Annabel working with paper in a village in India
Annabel working with paper in a village in India

The paper was made from mulberry fibre from the kozo tree growing on the land and in the school playground. Some of the artists wanted to learn papermaking, which they incorporated into their projects.

The village people Annabel worked with in India
Paper made in a village in India

How do you know when a piece is finished?

Sometimes I have shown a painting which has taken 6 months to complete, only to work on it again when it comes back to my studio. I believe in being a perfectionist as an artist. But sometimes, if rarely, we don’t know if a painting is really finished until we see it with fresh eyes.

When you begin to create, do you visualize the finished piece? Or does the work evolve?

A painting seems to, at some stage, have a life of its own. So all we can do as artists is provide the tools and know-how for them to grow. It’s a conversation between mark making, colour and composition, which is changing all the time; a balance between head and heart, inspiration and judgement. 

Solo exhibit by Annabel in Seville
Close Up of Annabel's handmade paper

How often do you start a new project? Do you work actively on more than one project at a time?

I am self-motivated and prolific. So at the moment I am working on a large number of paintings, a paper piece and an accordian book. All of this is happening in different areas of my house and studios.

At other times l wonder if I will ever make anything again. I take advantage these periods to do other things. We need breaks, and being in the studio like a job is not my way of working. I do like working towards an exhibition, which helps me organise my time. I left art school with no idea how to manage as an artist in the real world. Being very single minded with a strong work ethic, I didn’t learn until much later on that as artists we benefit from the other things in our lives, too. 

To survive and succeed as a practising artist in Andalucia, I have had to constantly adapt. I keep an open mind and try many things.

Over the years  I have participated in group exhibitions, craft fairs and art fairs, art events and art walks. I have also had solo exhibitions and shipped work for sale to galleries in the UK. In 2016 I opened Espacio Creativo in Almunecar. I sold my own work alongside that of other local artisans and artists. In addition, I curated shows and taught papermaking, watercolour, mixed media painting, bookbinding and printmaking. I ran this creative space for 3 and a half years. During this time, I provided The Rowley Gallery and Moorwood Art, galleries in the UK, with my paintings. In addition, I had a solo show in Seville and one in London. 

Not surprisingly this was difficult to continue long term; I have now closed this venture so I can concentrate solely on my own work. I began feeling overwhelmed; it’s hard to do everything! The timing has been perfect. I could participate in the Residency in India before the current isolation period kicked in due to Covid 19.

What are some of the challenges you have faced as an artist? How have you overcome them?

A huge part of my life as an artist has been my journey inwards. When I lived in London, I suffered from ME/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. I would have long periods, days and weeks, of sleep and no energy. Those days were followed by energetic times of work, exhibitions and travel, trying to catch up. It was a demoralising cycle which lasted 5 years. During this time I needed therapy, l visited many doctors and tried a long string of alternative medicine.

Many of these professionals advised me to leave London and spoke of the benefits of meditation. Eventually, after an 8-day water fast with an Indian Naturopath, l was strong enough physically to pack up my van. I left London, moving to a little mountain village in Spain. After being here just 8 months, l learnt to meditate. This daily and constant practise has completely changed and transformed my life. Knowing myself better, learning to disconnect from my work, my mind, other people, and to pace myself better has helped my artistic practise more than anything else.

Falling Leaves paper piece
Falling Leaves

Tell us about the Costa del Arte Collective and the Artists Support Pledge. How did they come to be?

Now we are all in lockdown and experiencing a different way of life; it’s not much different to our sometimes isolated life as artists. Now more than ever we need to be self-sufficient alongside helping and sharing with our artist friends and colleagues. The joy in having my own public space was in helping other artists sell their work, sharing and teaching interested people, as well as selling my own work.

Two great examples of this idea of collaboration and support between artists are the The Costa del Arte Collective and The Artists Support Pledge.

Two years ago, 5 professional practising artists including myself, formed The Costa del Arte Collective. We live in Spain, the Netherlands, Germany and the UK. This group of female artists finds ways together to exhibit and promote art here in Andalucia. We are very supportive of each other and the group works well as each artist has their strong points. We divide tasks and promote each other.

During lockdown I have participated in a brilliant initiative, The Artist Support Pledge (founded by Matthew Burrows in London). The program helps artists sell their work through their Instagram platform during this uncertain time. Artists offer work for under £/€/$200. When they reach 1,000 in any of these currencies, they pledge to buy another artist’s work. It’s a great way to support each other. 

Quote from Annabel Keatley

What can we expect to see from you in the future?

Now I have a clean slate. I have no plans until the autumn as all galleries are closed and exhibitions are cancelled or postponed. My work is suspended in shows and galleries in Spain and the UK. I have spent the past 8 weeks of isolation learning new techniques and beginning a fresh body of work. This has been a time for me as an artist to just paint, make art and enjoy being with my family. I hope it has been that for all you talented artists and artisans out there too.

Learn more about Annabel on her website and Instagram.

Interview posted May 2020

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