Our Q&A with abstract artist – and main prize winner at the 2019 Friends’ Exhibition – Nina Dolan…
“…. I think of painting as a never ending process of investigation, which builds up over a long period…”
Nina Dolan is an abstract artist known for her paintings and drawings composed of many layers of linear shapes, which create a distinctive ‘shimmering’ quality. A frequent contributor to the RWA’s Open and Drawing exhibition, Nina is also a Friend, and at the 2019 Friends’ Exhibition she won the ‘Best in Show’ prize for Tranquil Radiance I. Here’s our Q&A…
When did you realise you were an artist?
In primary school I had an art teacher who asked us to ‘take a line for a walk’ and colour in the shapes. From that moment on I was completely absorbed. After that drawing, my father bought me a large tin of Caran D’ache coloured pencils for Christmas and I would spend hours making patterns and colouring.
When I was sixteen I went to work in an artist studio during the school holidays, helping set up his studio for classes, priming boards etc, in exchange for art classes. The seed was planted for wanting to be an artist, but I ended up working in a gallery and setting up lecture courses on contemporary British art, whilst going to adult education art classes before going to university.
Why do you make art?
I have always made pictures in my head. Even when reading I think in pictures. Painting and drawing has always been an integral part of my life, from the days when I would sort out coloured beads into piles for my mother (who was an amazing dressmaker), I was thinking colour and design.
I am at my happiest when making art; otherwise I can get very cranky!
What is your usual process for making an artwork?
Walking about the studio, another cup of tea, doodling… and then I start mixing up my paint.
I will start with a few small gessoed boards and then start to work up a woven mesh of colours which turn into a monochrome ground. During this process shapes, lines and grids start to evolve in my head. These ideas may come from images in my sketch book, lines on the pavement to shapes in the sky, architecture or even a novel I am reading. I achieve this by drawing with paint, finding the form, adding something or taking away paint, using different instruments to score into the surface to leave a trace of history behind…
As I work in multiple layers a shape may appear behind a surface or on top, shapes dance across the painting, a shape placed within another shape, edges touch, depth is important – so surprises happen all the time. I don’t have a clear image in my mind but through years of painting I rely on technical skills while embracing chance and the unpredictable. To show the different calligraphic marks, I make up my own mediums, which holds the brush mark.
After making a body of work, I then start to work on large paintings. I think of painting as a never ending process of investigation, which builds up over a long period. Alongside my paintings I have always made drawings – originally because of the drying time – but over the years I find the drawings actually open up many new ideas for the paintings.
What other artists, works or art traditions have most influenced you?
Turner’s paintings at the Tate have influenced me for their abstract quality. I’m always amazed he painted Snow Storm at 67: it feels very abstract, I love the way he drags the paint across in a sculptural way.
Miro’s Woman in Front of the Sun…Miro once said, “In my opinion, mastering freedom means mastering simplicity. Then, at most, a line, a colour, is enough to make the Picture.” I lived in Spain for a few years so he was a big influence on earlier work.
Matisse’s Blue Window: one of the greatest colourist and engaging with cubism. He simplifies what he sees before him, eliminating details, always looking at his sense of colour.
Then there are post-war artists like Patrick Heron. American painters, Thomas Nozkowski; Brice Marden a big influence, I’m fascinated by his drawings of Cold Mountain and how he brings them into his paintings. Abstract expressionists William de Kooning, Pollock for his calligraphic movement through pictorial space and the building up of layers that have a sculptural feeling in painting and his influence on painters like Pat Steir and Joan Mitchell. I often go to the V&A to see the Indian miniatures for their jewel like quality. Agnes Martin for her inwardness and silence and belief in her work – a big influence on my drawings.
How has your work changed or evolved through your career? Was there a particular turning point?
Even when I was making traditional landscape painting I was more interested in the surface and the marks I could make. I had seen an artist called Nicholas De Stael: his landscapes ‘presence’ results from a pictorial depth that he never stopped working on; I was very drawn to this work.
At some point I realised I was no longer interested in making representational painting and started spending the time exploring the possibilities of what I could do with paint, from staining, pouring and working with glazes and just looking at what paint can do.
Also at this time I was looking at Japanese prints and how they sparsely captured a moment in time. Over the years the work has appeared minimal, gestural and now a combination of the two.
Definitely each artwork is born directly from preceding work, even if it is a long way back. The turning point was in 1984 when I showed some line drawings at the German Gallery ASB with a constructivist Sculptor Hardy Rensch. This was a turning point in becoming very focused about my practice.
“…shapes, lines and grids start to evolve in my head. These ideas may come from images in my sketch book, lines on the pavement to shapes in the sky, architecture or even a novel I am reading…”
You won the ‘Best in Show’ prize at the 2019 Friends’ Exhibition for ‘Tranquil Radiance I’. What can you tell us about that work – and what did winning the award mean to you?
I was reading a book called Snow by Orhan Pamuk and it was about a village that was isolated by the weather; it just happened I live in the countryside and we were snowed in. The light from snow just radiated and I wanted to capture this in a metaphysical way. Capturing the silence, the icicles melting, tracks in the earth.
I have been making similaiar black and white drawings for over twenty years and whenever I make them they are related to events that are happening in the world or to music or even stories in my head.
It was a complete and utter surprise when I had heard I had won this award – it is a wonderful feeling to know the public, friends and my peers liked and appreciated Tranquil Radiance.
What does the RWA mean to you?
We are so lucky to have the RWA which is steeped in history on our doorstep. To be able to go and see excellent contemporary and historical exhibitions of the highest quality is a privilege. Whenever I have showed work at the Annual Open Exhibition and the Drawing Exhibition, it always feels such an honour to be showing with all these talented artists from around the country.
I always find Friends of the RWA generous in spirit and often we engage in conversation about the current exhibition. I also like the fact the RWA plays a big role in the community, creative projects, lectures and courses on drawing by Academicians.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a very large painting that has gone through many transitions; a lot of unearthing exposing the deeply embedded layers of the under painting, it is nearly finished and is the spring board for a new body of work. Alongside this I am working on my mixed media drawings; some of them have been shown in London and the South West this year. I now need to follow up some leads to show the work in their entirety.
A fairy godmother waves her magic wand and says you can own any artwork in the world. What do you choose?
This is the hardest question of all, but I remember seeing Matisse’s painting The Dance in Shchukin’s house in Russia, at the top of a staircase. As you looked up you felt these dancers were engulfing you, the colour just radiated joy, the fluid circle isolates the dancing group which creates rhythm. It is a very modern painting, no shadows, just the essentials…Blue, green and orange creates harmony. It was a special moment to see such a famous painting in a domestic situation. This painting is now in the Hermitage with its companion piece Music. I hope one day I can go back and revisit this work of art.
You can see more examples of Nina’s work on her website.