Artists & Illustrators Magazine – March 2022
‘In the Studio’
by Rebecca Bradbury
Pearl-wearing, chain-smoking grandmas, boys in white cotton socks buckled into T-bar shoes, and bouffant-haired beauty queens armed with bouquets: the haunting subjects of Amy Dury’s figurative works fizzle with nostalgia for days gone by.
The retro colour schemes help, too. From the bold shades of the sixties – think grape, olive green, plum and garnet – to the sunshine hues of the seventies, not-so-long- ago eras are called to mind with an ever- changing palette. Yet fragmenting our perceptions are the unrendered facial features, unfinished bodily forms and loose flourishes of abstraction.
Abandoning the rules of realism in certain sections, the work of the Hove-based artist awakens within us a longing for a time and place that cannot quite be grasped in its entirety. It leads us to question the reliability of our memories. Many of us can recall a particular moment from our childhood, for example. Yet on closer inspection, many of these ingrained images will have been formed by exposure to a certain photograph, probably taken by a parent. Darker themes are also at play in the artist’s figurative work, especially the family scenes. Group photos are often reserved for those more special occasions, but the unclear expressions on the faces of Amy’s subjects hint at potentially harmful family dynamics brewing beneath the surface.
“I do think about relationships a lot and how sometimes people are maybe not as happy as the photograph might suggest,” the artist reveals. “People usually take photographs when there is something fun or nice happening, but as we know from real life, that’s not the whole story. I suppose
I allude to more difficult things happening in the background. Quite often it’s to do with the power balance, between parents and children, or men and women.”
Looking through this series is like diving into an old family album, and the references Amy uses are in fact vintage photos from the 1960s and ‘70s, found while rifling through charity or antique shops or researching social documentary photographers.
Another method is to sift through old amateur video footage. “Most libraries around the country have archives of home movies,” she explains. “I look at them and freeze frame stills to use.”
“Because of their age,” she adds, “the photos and videos will often be bleached out or discoloured in some way, which gives you an idea for the colours and techniques to use in the painting. So, the actual quality of the [reference] is inspiring as well as the subject matter.”
Before seeking out her subjects in the Brighton University library, Amy referred to old family shots of her mum, brother, and husband. This happened to be the artist’s first foray into oil painting for 25 years, having studied printmaking at the Glasgow School of Art. She had kept up the screenprinting, in-between having two children and working as an art teacher, but in 2017 could no longer resist the urge to pick up her paintbrushes again.
“I’ve still got the first three paintings I did,” she says of her rediscovery of oil paints. “I just found some horrible old canvases in a charity shop and painted over them. It was very exciting to suddenly see my ideas coming out onto the canvas and, really, they weren’t as bad as I thought they’d be… I suddenly realised I wanted to do lots more.”
While this trio of paintings hang upstairs in Amy’s house, her studio takes up what was formerly the dining room. It’s a paint- spattered haven; a freeing space where the artist is at her most fruitful during the early hours. Being at home, it’s also possible to sneak in for limited snatches of time later in the day, something she missed while hiring a larger space at Brighton’s Phoenix Studios for a few months in early 2020. As she continues to teach at a local sixth form college for four days a week, time is not something the artist has an abundance of and painting from home has proved to be the most productive.
Often the planning stages are the most time-consuming part of Amy’s process. A composition might need to be manipulated, as in Personality, Character, Intelligence, where hands (modelled by Amy’s daughter) were added to connect the figures and enhance the narrative element. And when the painting process begins, the less time taken to reach completion, the more successful the finished product usually is. “If I’m lucky it will go very quickly,” she says of laying down the paint. “My favourite [paintings] are often ones I will do in a day and feel confident about when to stop. It doesn’t always go quickly though; some I have to work on for quite a long time.”
This is often the most enjoyable part for Amy, particularly the more instinctive, abstract passages. “I don’t want to replicate a photograph,” she explains. “Therefore, it’s important to show the painterliness of the painting and have fun with the mark-making. My biggest influence is probably Degas. When you look at his work, he’ll have quite a lot of detailed areas and then some really sketchy unfinished areas in there as well. And I find that combination of realism and expressive painting really exciting.”
It’s a mix the artist also brings to her portrait paintings, as she replaces the mystery of her figurative scenes with the more direct presence of a face captured with lifelike luminosity. Remaining, however, are big buttery brushstrokes bringing out unexpected flesh tones, uncovered areas of the support and thick drips of oil paint left unattended as they run down the canvas.
The result is portraiture that pulsates with energy, but this magic can sometimes prove elusive. “It’s very easy to start overworking things and then suddenly everything looks too tight or too detailed,” she admits. “There’s a skill to being economical with your brushstrokes and to work in a more expressive way, which I’m striving for now and it’s not easy. It’s a constant battle to know when to stop and when to add or withhold detail. I think it’s a lifelong journey.”
Like any good artist, these inward struggles are absent from the final piece. What is particularly impressive, however,
is Amy has been painting portraits for just three years, only turning to it seriously in September 2020 after being diagnosed with breast cancer. Taking eight months off work to recover, she was able to spend more time on her art, racking up credentials, such as leading a livestream portrait painting session of Cornelia Parker for Tate’s Instagram and appearing as a contestant in 2021’s Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year.
“The whole experience led me to work harder and finally do the painting I wanted to do,” she reflects, having been clear of cancer since January 2021. “It was a weird blessing in disguise. All the great things that happened for my art that year arose from that experience.”
What Amy has achieved in such a short space of time is remarkable, and there is more to look out for. Her portfolio also features a series of drawings, includingSelf Defence, which was selected for last year’s Trinity Buoy Wharf Drawing Prize exhibition. New work will also go on show at the Cameron Contemporary in Hove this spring, as she continues her exploration of power and identity, as well as gesture and atmosphere, and uniforms and bodies
– Holding Out for a Hero being one such example of the paintings to be included.
This title is, of course, taken from Bonnie Tyler’s iconic eighties power ballad, with song lyrics often playing a part in Amy’s naming process. “A title can definitely influence how an artwork is viewed,” she says. “People can choose to look at my titles or totally ignore them. It doesn’t really matter, but I hope it gives another layer of access into what I think is happening in the picture.”Indeed, just like life itself, Amy’s work manages to manifest a multitude of different meanings.