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An interview with Moira Huntly

13 April 2016



Tell us about what you remember of art from your childhood.

During the second world war, after we were blitzed, I stayed with my aunt in Perth, and went to Perth Academy for a term and I remember the drawing lessons. There was a great shortage of art material during the war, so we used pencil, and had spheres, cubes and prisms made of wood to draw. I cannot remember drawing anything else, it was so boring.
Apparently I started drawing when I was one and a half. My father worked in Spain, where we lived, until the Civil War, when we had to escape.  Summer holidays were spent in the U.K., boarding a liner to get there. My parents loved dancing, so left one of the ship's stewards to look after me. Reportedly he took all my drawing materials away, to encourage me to go to sleep. but I did find a pen, and drew all over the pillowcases when he wasn't looking! The steward got into trouble! 

You say that you always hope your next work will be your best, do you feel that about your exhibits here in the Pastel Society Exhibition this year?

I favoured one or two over the others, and if I feel a painting is not going well, I leave it out. However, after many alterations I thought they all passed muster, so I put them all in.

What were you pleased with in them?

I love the colours. I love colour.

What is it about colour that you love?

I like experimenting. When you paint every day in the studio, you can sometimes go in and think,
'What on earth will I do today?' So I often set myself a little project by experimenting with opposite colours, and the mixtures between. It is colour that usually sets me off into a painting, deciding what colour to use.

So you start with the colour and the painting comes from that choice?

Yes, it's a back to front way! So I will decide to use warm colours for several paintings, and do that for a while and then I might change, and use more subtle colours. There is no real reason, it's just a feeling.

You work in the studio, but you sketch on location,

what kind of sketches do you make?

I am a draughtsman, so they are pretty accurate and I just get as much information as I can in the drawing. Then I play around with it in the studio.

What process do you go through in the studio from these very accurate drawings, to your semi-abstract paintings?

I don't look at the drawings. I start a painting with some abstract shapes, an underpainting of tones, an arrangement. Then I will look through my sketchbooks and make an association, that a certain sketch would suit that arrangement. I can only describe this as instinct.
The underpainting is usually monochrome, using watercolour or acrylic to establish the dark tones, which I find especially useful as a basis for the vibrant pastel medium.



So when you start putting the colour on the paper, you don't know what the picture is going to be?

No, not always, unless the work is for a commission
The actual painting then is not a viewpoint that you have seen, it's a mixture?

It's my own interpretation of my sketches. Sometimes I use more than one sketch, selecting the parts I want.

You do still life as well, do you experience that differently?

No.  I do lots of drawings of pots, and fruits, accurate drawings of shapes. And then it is the same process really, I will do an underpainting of abstract shapes, then develop them into some of the pot shapes that I have drawn.

How do you know when a painting is working well, when it feels balanced?

I often get a mirror, and look at the painting in the mirror. You see it in reverse and that helps to show you where things are not working. It is quite revealing. You can see that one colour next to another is not working, or the composition is not balanced. Or I put the painting at a distance and leave it in the studio for a couple of days, then come in one day and suddenly realise what to do with it. In fact there was one painting hanging around for over a year in the studio before I knew how to resolve it. Something works subconsciously.

When I look at my sketches, I am looking to see the shape of, for instance, one house next to another, not thinking of them as houses, but as abstract shapes. The aim is to create a very pleasing composition for the onlooker. But it is very hard to do.

How have you mastered that?

I wouldn't say I have mastered it yet, but it comes more easily the more painting you do. You are training your eye, just like you do at Art School when you are life drawing.

You work in different mediums, what are their qualities?

Very different, but I can use the same underpainting techniques with different mediums. I am just interested in whatever medium I am using and don't really have a favourite, it depends where I am showing. I think the subject is more important than the medium.

As we are here at the Pastel Society Exhibition, is there anything particular about pastel that you like?

I think pastel is such a direct, spontaneous medium, it is a wonderful medium to use. It is so tactile. When you are using a brush you are holding the end of the brush, but with pastel you are holding the pigment, and putting it directly onto the paper There is a freedom about pastel, though it is not an easy medium.

When you worked with mixed media, why do you do that?

I started doing that because I'd seen other people's work in mixed media, which I liked, but I was also asked to do a book on it. I did a bit of research, and found there is nothing new. Leonardo did many of his wonderful drawings on different coloured papers, and throughout history you can find artists experimenting and trying different combinations of media. Degas, I believe, worked with pastel on top of monoprints. He also experimented with pastel on an oil base. I tried the technique, and found it quite interesting.

So you enjoy experimenting, what is your favourite discovery?

I did some paintings where I started with Indian ink, some of it diluted, on wet paper, so it was running in different directions. I did a painting of a Welsh farmhouse on top of this, and some of the ink areas I kept, some were covered over. Some of the ink looked like the texture of a stone wall! You get unexpected little surprises, and then you have to decide how to use what you have found.

How could younger artists be encouraged to use pastel?

n the past, there has been a lot of prejudice, thinking pastel is like kids' chalks for a blackboard! Overcoming that prejudice is difficult I think. Taking children to see Degas paintings would be good. There are some Degas works in the Burrell collection in Glasgow, where you can stand very close to his work. They remain as fresh as when they were first painted. Pastel never loses its vibrancy, it doesn't deteriorate.  We need to get the fact over that pastel is a really permanent medium, and been used by artists in the past. We do our best to promote this in the Pastel Society and are pleased to have an increasing number of young artist's showing with us.

How did you start with pastel?

I did a bit at art school. But later, when my children were quite small, my father-in-law, who was a professional artist, gave me his box of pastels. I tried them and was hooked. This was in the seventies and I became a member of the Pastel Society in 1978.
So giving someone a box of pastels might be the right thing to do!


You say you are always searching for something new, do you have something in your mind when you are searching?

I don't have anything definite in mind. When I am painting I am just trying to satisfy myself, it's quite a selfish business really! My tutor at art school, said in my last year that if you produce one in fifty paintings you are happy with, that is what to expect. I was hoping he'd said one in fifteen, but I think it was actually one in fifty! Just occasionally you do a painting that you really rate! The others are o.k. and other people rate them, but for yourself there are not many.

When that happens, that you really rate one of your paintings, what causes that do you think?

I wish I knew, then I could tap into it. Things just all come together. Some paintings flow, and some just come to a halt, and you have to struggle with them. I don't know why really.

Is the reward of that one in fifty enough to make you want to continue being an artist?

Oh yes! I keep on trying. Some artists can churn out the same thing again and again, but they won't make any progress if they are too self-satisfied. They won't get anywhere!

A degree of humility, of objective self criticism is important then?

No I wouldn't describe it as humility. It's really try, try, and try again. Determination!
Not to give up. Painters do get ‘artists’ block’, but it comes and goes by itself. However, it can make you quite depressed, taking paint on and off the painting! You either discard it or if like me, being a prudent Scot, you just turn it upside down and re-use the support.

So flowing and not flowing just come and go by themselves?

I believe Bernard Dunstan said that if he comes up against artist’s block, he changes his medium, or just does a lot of drawing. Don't struggle! Then you can come back to the ‘flow’.

What is the best advice you have ever been given?

Not to put work into an exhibition unless you are completely happy with it yourself.
Sometimes there is pressure to put in a certain number, but if they are not working, just put in the ones you are happy with. Then there is no regret, and there is always another year.

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