Interview with painter Bess Forrestall

“Often I actually use a projector to project one of the photos that I took onto the canvas and I do a quick sketchy-trace outline from that photograph. From there, it depends on which painting I’m using but I go in with oil paint and then I really begin the hard work.” – Bess Forrestall

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Mark: I am once again joined on the phone by one of the artists in the Barracks, Bess Forrestall. I’m gonna let you introduce yourself – welcome, Bess, to the show.

Bess: Hi, how’s it going?

Mark: Good, how about yourself?

Bess: Good, thanks.

Mark: I could call you an artist, or maybe a fine artist, but how would you describe yourself? What’s your term for what you do?

Bess: I would also describe myself as an artist and as an educator. I do a lot of workshops and programs with the community, and even though that’s not really a traditional artistic practice, I think it’s a really important part of what I do. So I would say I’m an artist and an art educator.

Mark: Well I think inspiring art in others and inspiring them to have the skills to go forward sounds like a great part of art to me. What sort of things are you doing at the Barracks this week?

Bess: This week I’m working on three different oil paintings and I’ve been working on them for a while, so this is a great chance to kind of focus a little bit longer on these three and to really get some work done.

Mark: What are these three paintings?

Bess: They’re all based on photographs that I took during my time in India…

Mark: That was just recently, wasn’t it?

Bess: Yeah, it was recently. I was there for six and a half months over the winter and I got back at the end of April. I was living in one city while I was there and these paintings that I’m working on are really more of a reflection on being so far away from home and being in a strange place than they are necessarily snapshots of India, if that makes sense.

Mark: So they are based on photographs – what do you feel is changing about the images as you paint them that reflects yourself?

Bess: Oh, so much, and that’s part of the fun of making them. I can’t anticipate how the painting is going to be different from the photograph but I have somewhere that I’m starting from and halfway through the painting, or maybe three quarters of the way through, the painting starts to kind of ‘take charge’ and lead the way, and I start to kind of follow the painting.

Mark: How far along were the paintings before you started this week?

Bess: They were in progress, so I had already started the paintings – I had done my first coat and I’d done the rough sketch-in, so I wanted to start with something that wasn’t starting from scratch so that people could see the meaty middle part of the process.

Mark: Do you normally work on three paintings at the same time? I would think that’d be a little confusing, for me, anyway.

Bess: No, I find it refreshing because you end up getting frustrated with one, or something’s not going the right way, and I find that if I just keep working on the same painting it’ll end up becoming muddy or I’ll have to take too much time away from it. When I work on three at once, I can bounce back and forth between the three and I feel like it keeps it really fresh for me.

Mark: Do you find that you’re kind of influencing each other painting by what you happen to do in one? You start to think about the other one in a different way? Is that true?

Bess: Yeah, definitely. Whenever you’re working on a painting or whenever you’re making something, I find that I learn something new every time. So I learn that if I twist the brush a certain way, I get this kind of mark and I really like that, and “oh, I could use that in this part of that other painting, so they all definitely influence each other.

Mark: To say you’re a painter is a pretty broad term – I mean, painting can be everything from “I paint living rooms to cathedrals” or “abstract art to absolute realism.” What is it you’re striving for in your art, or is there a particular style you strive for?

Bess: I would not say that there is a particular style that I strive for. Definitely everything that I’m making could be considered realism, but I don’t think that those things are opposites of one another. All of the things you just described are really on a spectrum. Where I am working kind of falls closest to realism I guess, but there are elements of painting a living room that come into play. When I do the first coat, it’s like a broad [wash] – I paint the whole canvas one colour. So it’s like you pick up on all of those along the way. I feel like that sounds a little wishy-washy but maybe you get what I’m talking about.

Mark: Now I’m kind of wondering if you ever paint your living rooms as if you’re painting a painting, and add more different layers on and more different shades and things.

Bess: [Laughing] No, I don’t – never have.

Mark: So this recent trip to India obviously is very inspiring – is this something you’ve done before, is take a trip and use it as an inspiration? Or just a happen-to-be?

Bess: No, not at all. Before I went to India I had not travelled very much at all – I had only ever travelled either with my parents or with friends, so this is the first time I went to a totally different culture and I went by myself, so it was a really different experience for me.

Mark: So were you taking tons of photographs for inspiration or just kind of soaking in everything. I’m also wondering about the palette of your paintings from this.

Bess: I did take photos all the time with my cellphone or if I had my camera – I was just constantly gathering information and I would go home at night and sift through them to see which ones I wanted to keep and which ones I felt weren’t really that interesting to me. In terms of the palette, I don’t actually think that my colour palette has been influenced very much by India. You think of India often as having all these bright colours, big festivals, lots of noise. I feel that I use a fairly muted palette and that actually, surprisingly, hasn’t changed very much.

Mark: So how long have you been painting?

Bess: I finished my Bachelor of Fine Arts in 2013 and I guess I was painting all throughout high school and my Fine Arts degree was really focused on painting and I’ve been doing it here and there since then, but this summer has been the first summer since my degree that I’ve really kind of been focusing on making artwork full-time.

Mark: Is painting the main focus or do you do other similar drawing or other forms of art?

Bess: I do a lot of drawing as well. Over the past three years especially, I was working on my drawings, and I also used to do a lot of printmaking which is something I’d like to get back into as well.

Mark: As in prints of art or prints of something else?

Bess: Prints as an art form, so making screen prints or etchings or engravings – those kinds of things.

Mark: What is the typical subject of things you paint? Or is there a typical subject? Are these three characteristic of that, or different?

Bess: I don’t know if there are typical subjects. I think looking over all of the work that I’ve made there’s probably a lot of trees and foliage because I’m often painting about the places that I’m in, and often the places I’m in have a lot of trees and foliage, so that becomes an interesting part of the painting for me. There are also a lot of architectural elements that are kind of clues to where I am but not necessarily super indicative of those spaces.

Mark: Do you tend to paint a lot of different topics? Is it still about exploration for you?

Bess: No, I don’t think so. I try to develop certain bodies of work. The three paintings I’m working on right now, even though they’re all different, they feel as though they’re about the same topics, so I feel like in that way it’s pretty tight and pretty cohesive and it’s not super exploratory in that way.

Mark: Take me through the process of developing a painting like this. Do you start from a blank canvas and start painting a background, or do you sketch out what you think you’re gonna paint, or what?

Bess: Like I mentioned earlier, I start all of my blocking them with one bright colour in the background. For all of the paintings in this series, I’ve chosen to start them all with a very bright, vibrant, orange background. Because I use a muted colour palette, I like to have something bright behind all of those layers that tie the whole canvas together. So even though I’m looking at one painting right now and I would say 80% is a very light grey and white, there are still bits of that orange that come through the paint and kind of tie the whole surface together. So that’s the first step. Often I actually use a projector to project one of the photographs that I took onto the canvas and I do a quick sketchy-trace outline from that photograph. From there, it depends on which painting I’m using but I go in with oil paint and then I really begin the “hard work.”

Mark: So after that initial sketch is done, do you have an image in your head that you’re trying to reach? Or is it more that you add elements until the whole picture comes together?

Bess: I think it’s more about adding elements until the whole picture comes together. I kind of think about paintings as in reaching different levels. So level one might be to fill in part of the sky in one way and level two might be to fill in the fence in the background. I try to work on paintings in a way that I’m painting what’s furthest away first, so the paint is actually kind of furthest away from the viewer, if that makes sense. So I paint the whole sky in first and then I have a fence in front of that sky, and the paint on the sky is actually further away from the fence and it makes logical sense that way.

Mark: How big do you paint? I know some people have a 1ft x 1ft canvas; some people prefer something 5ft wide. What’s your preferred size?

Bess: I work in a bit of a range but they’re all fairly modest. The largest one I have here is maybe 5ft by 4ft, and the smallest one is 1ft by 1.5ft – it’s pretty small.

Mark: Is it harder to work in a small space or is it a matter of the other side, having to fill up a large space?

Bess: Well I don’t think the difficulty really has much to do with the scale of the painting so much as the subject matter and how you want to represent something – that’s what I find more difficult – so it totally depends. There might be one corner of a large painting that I find really difficult, and then there might be one corner in a small painting that I find hard. It doesn’t have to do too much with the scale.

Mark: Describe some of your past paintings. What have you been able to do before? What’s intrigued you, or what’s impressed you?

Bess: Do you mind if I talk about a past drawing? Is that okay?

Mark: Sure.

Bess: The last body of work I did, I made while I was living in Montreal. I wasn’t using a ventilated studio so that’s why I chose to work in graphite and with gesso [a white paint mixture consisting of a binder mixed with chalk, gypsum, pigment] on paper, and those are actually all images from Fredericton that I had taken. So I was reflecting on not being too far away, but being away from my home and the space that I grew up in. I was doing very light, subtle, large drawings, so I was filling in areas with very subtle shading, and it was all on a cream-coloured paper, so it was kind of like a beige paper. Once I finished filling in all of the grey graphite areas, I went in with white gesso. Parts of it came forward and were highlighted. So I was working in both directions from a mid-tone – I was making the surfaces both darker and lighter. I felt that they worked really well – I was really happy with them.

Mark: This reflection back on other places you’ve been: is that a common thread in your painting or your drawing? Is that something you do is to reflect on places you’ve been?

Bess: That’s basically what I’ve been working on. These past two bodies of work have been about places that I’ve been and spent time in once I leave that place. So it’s interesting because I’m not working on paintings about Fredericton right now while I’m living here, but I was while I was away. That’s something that I’ve noticed that I’m doing. Before that when I was working throughout my undergrad degree, I was more interested in objects and I was doing a lot of still lifes and thinking about the objects that surround us, so I guess this is kind of a newer thing for me.

Mark: So with these three paintings, I think I could say very explicitly that they’re all a set – they’re all related. Do you typically do related sets of drawings and paintings, or is this a different element for you?

Bess: I typically like to do a set. I really like to take one idea and try to work through it in a bunch of different ways, or even like when I was working at Mount Allison [University], to take one object and try to look at that object from a bunch of different perspectives and try to do multiple paintings and drawings of that object to really get a feel for it. Here it’s the same thing. I’m doing all different kinds of elements of that place to create a more fully-rendered impression of it, I guess.

Mark: Do you feel like these always want to remain a set or are you going to look at, say, selling them individually?

Bess: I would definitely sell them individually – I don’t think they need to stay together. It would be nice to exhibit them together at one point, but I’m not too fussy about stuff like that. I’m making them all at once but they don’t stand alone, either.

Mark: When you finish with a painting, does it kind of pass beyond your current memory and you kind of put it aside, and it’s done? Or is it always a matter of going back and seeing what you’ve done and reflecting on that?

Bess: That depends. I think I try to put them away as much as possible. There are a couple where when I really like a painting, it stays in my memory and I kind of go back to it continuously. But I try to put them away and move forward for the most part.

Mark: So you mentioned at the beginning, the idea of being an educator. How have you been able to pursue that?

Bess: That’s actually what I did my Masters degree in – Art Education – with a focus on museum and gallery education specifically. I’ve been able to work in a lot of different museums and galleries. I’ve been really lucky and this summer I’m doing a small project with the Beaverbrook Art Gallery – I’m teaching a Thursday night painting class there, and I’m doing some summer art programming with the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax. So that’s part of what I’ve pursued.

Mark: I’m wondering about the teaching of painting, because obviously, like you said, there are things even you still discover while you’re doing it. Is it as much about teaching people to see as it is about doing, or what?

Bess: I think a lot of it is about doing – you really have to get your hands dirty – but another really great educational tool is just looking at paintings themselves. A reproduction or an image of a painting isn’t the same as the actual painting itself. We’re really lucky at the Beaverbrook – they’ve got such a fabulous collection in such a huge range. Every night I take the class into the gallery and we look at a variety of paintings. Anything from totally abstract images, to local artists, to masterworks – it’s a really great range. We talk about one element of a painting. Last week I talked about value and tone, and I talked about how value is used across a number of different paintings. Then we went into the classroom and got our hands really dirty doing an exercise exploring value and tone and painting with tone.

Mark: Has there been a particular painting or artist which has inspired you for a lot of your work? Or for any of your work?

Bess: There are a lot of artists that I really admire and look too – I just mentioned that I love looking at paintings so I’m constantly trying to do that. I guess one of my favourite artists is a man named Serban Savu who is – I think a Scandinavian artist – and I really like his work because he deals with ideas of place and stuff as well.

Mark: What visually about that intrigues you?

Bess: I think the subtlety of his work is really compelling and the way that, kind of similarly, he does a lot of paintings about the same kind of places and spaces. Then, through his entire body of work, even from a distance, you start to get a semblance of what that place is like.

Mark: That’s got to be really tricky – subtlety is, well, it’s difficult.

Bess: It is difficult – I completely agree. That’s part of what I admire, definitely.

Mark: You mentioned wanting to potentially exhibit these three paintings together – do you have any exhibits or any places where people can see more of your work?

Bess: I don’t actually – I don’t have anything lined up as of yet, no.

Mark: Is that something you want to do or is it more of a nice-to-have?

Bess: No, that’s definitely something I want to do. I have been away the past year and I’ve just been getting back into the groove of things and back into making art a lot. Once I have a better handle on this body of work I’ll start to put together applications for different galleries to try and get something on the go.

Mark: So clearly your time in India was inspiring, ironically your time in Montreal was inspiring for your time in Fredericton – do you think more travel is in order for you to continue getting more inspired?

Bess: That’s a good question, actually. I would really like to go on another project and do a residency, or do a project abroad again because I enjoyed this one so much, but I think that there’s also a lot of reflecting I can do on the places around me, so I’m not gonna discount the Maritimes just because I grew up here. I’m interested in exploring this place more as well.

Mark: I’m curious because in Montreal you said you reflected on your time in Fredericton. In India did you have the same experience of reflecting on where you’d come from?

Bess: I did have a bit of a chance to reflect, but I was so busy – I was working like six days a week – so I didn’t really have much time for art making while I was there.

Mark: Well I’m sure you’re happy to have the time to do it now.

Bess: I really am.

Mark: I’ve been talking to Bess Forrestall – she is a fine artist working on three paintings now at the Barracks. Have a lot of people stopped by to say hi?

Bess: Yeah, tons of people have. It’s been really great, it’s been really busy. I think I had 60 or 65 people come through and talk to me yesterday, so if you’re downtown and you’re wandering around, definitely stop by – I’d love to chat.

Mark: Sounds great. Again, Bess Forrestall, a fine artist working in the Barracks this week. Thanks, Bess, for joining me today.

Bess: No problem.


Find the audio podcast of Bess’s interview here:

The Lunchbox Interview: Bess Forrestall (Oil Painter)


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