Alix Fairbairn

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 By Celeste Hawkins

Whilst strolling around the Wynne Prize exhibition a couple of weeks ago at the National Gallery Of NSW; I overheard a woman commenting on Alix’s work, “William Street aglow”. Marvelling at her attention to detail and especially the depiction of glowing water on the road at night, the woman chatting to her friend was most impressed that this ‘girl from England’ had produced such a stunning piece. Born in 1980, Alix’s formative years were spent growing up in the South West of England in Somerset and Gloucestershire. She now resides in Sydney and has a healthy addiction to painting Sydney’s urban landscape. Alix happily shares her creative journey in detail:

 

Why Australia?

 I travelled around a lot before settling in London in 2006 where I met my husband, Vimal. When he was offered a job in Sydney in 2009, it was an easy decision for us to make.  I had never been to Australia before but had only heard positive things about the quality of life out here. We arrived in October 2009 and haven’t looked back since!

 

Why do you favour watercolour over any other medium?

I have never really made a conscious decision to work exclusively in watercolour but over the years it seems to have just panned out that way.  It arises from my passion for detail and my love of paper. It’s like a guilty pleasure! I love perusing the shelves of paper in art shops and if my husband and I buy art for our home, it tends to be works on paper.  I paint on the heaviest watercolour paper available (640g per square metre) You can’t roll it or bend it so it is sold individually by the sheet.  It’s great because it will take layers of washes without buckling or damage to the surface. I have a wonderful framer who float mounts my paintings on foam core backing so that the paper appears to be suspended beneath the glass.  I love this effect as it showcases the piece of paper as an artefact in itself and really emphasizes the uneven, rustic edges of the sheet.  For me, it’s not all about the image- the surface I paint on is also an important component of the final work.

 

Please tell readers a little about the process.. 

My process varies according to the painting but I always start with a detailed pencil sketch, which I erase as I paint.  I usually tackle large areas of block colour first using masking fluid to create nice defined edges.  I also tackle the trickiest parts of the painting first.  That way, if I make a mistake, I can discard it and start again without having wasted too much time and effort!

 

What attracted you to enter the Wynne Prize?

The Wynne Prize is Australia’s oldest art award, having been awarded since 1897. It is a prize for the best landscape painting or for the best figure sculpture by an Australian artist.  It’s a prestigious art award which attracts a large number of entries from among Australia’s most eminent artists.  In 2012, 32 finalists were selected from 783 entries so it really is a huge honour to have been selected!  As a finalist, my painting is hung in the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW until mid June.  It’s an amazing opportunity for an artist as the exhibition is viewed by over 150,000 people.  It’s an exhibition which attracts a lot of media attention.  It’s also a very inclusive exhibition in that it can be enjoyed by anyone regardless of whether they know anything about art.  Every Australian has heard of the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman and the exhibition attracts a lot of viewers who might not regularly visit art galleries. I have spoken to a number of people who have told me that it is the only public exhibition that they attend and that they go every year. My work is very accessible- I paint urban scenes which people recognise.  I like to think that my painting might have made a positive impression on people who do not look at much art and perhaps inspire them to look at more!  I feel strongly that art is there to be enjoyed by everyone.  

 

Any new works underway?

I have just finished a portrait of my husband. He turned 40 this year and it felt appropriate to commemorate his landmark birthday with an up to date portrait.  I love portraiture but I do find the pressure to achieve a likeness quite stressful so I only tackle them once in a while!  I am very excited about my next project, but I am only in the planning stages so I have nothing to show just yet.  It will be another twilight urban scene but bigger than anything I have painted before.  The size of my work has always been limited by my choice of paper. The cold pressed heavy weight paper I love is only available by the sheet.  I have just discovered an outlet which stocks extra, extra large sheets.  I am also keen to work with more than one sheet to produce a diptych or triptych and create a wide panoramic urban scene.       

 

Tell me about your urban landscapes, how did that interest develop?

I grew up in the quiet English countryside so I have always been fascinated by cities with all their contrasting grit and chaos.  I have travelled around quite a lot and spent time living in many different cities.  Drawing and painting my surroundings has always been part of the process of getting to know a city and its people.  As a student, I spent a year living in Italy.  It was during that year that I started wandering around with my sketch pad.  I lived in Bologna which is a fascinating city from an artist’s point of view.  It’s a labyrinth of marble and arcades in washed out terracottas and pinks.  I used to hop on the train to Venice and spend the day drawing or painting ‘en plein air’, before catching a train back in the evening.  I have always been drawn to crowded urban scenes, pulsating with human activity.

 

Can you recall any names of influential artists or people in your life?

I had a wonderful art teacher at school.  Funnily enough, she actually dissuaded me from taking art as one of my three A’ levels.  She encouraged me to pursue my degree in modern languages, telling me that I didn’t need a qualification to be an artist.  Although I wasn’t enrolled in her subject, I spent a lot of my free time in the school’s art room and attended the weekly life drawing sessions at her house.

 

The Sydney Landscape:

I paint Sydney scenes with a focus on the Eastern Suburbs because it’s where I live.  For me, painting is an important process that helps me define my relationship with a city. Initially, I was drawn to paint the streets of rickety terraced houses and huge, sprawling trees…busy cafes and other scenes that characterise life in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs. Recently, I have painted a series of Sydney twilight scenes.  I am fascinated by the way the urban landscape changes with the fading light and takes on an almost fairy tale quality.

 

What moment inspired you to take your art more seriously? 
That year I lived in Italy was a pivotal time for me in furthering my skills and began the habitual practice of exploring the city with my sketch pad.  It was also during that year that I developed a tendency to work in watercolour, partly because it was so easy to carry around with me!  After university, I dedicated myself to a career in the charity sector.  I worked for an HIV/AIDS awareness charity which toured around 14 countries in West and East Africa in 2003-’04.  It was a mind blowing experience and I painted a series of watercolours inspired by people I encountered and places I visited.  When I moved to London in 2006 to work for an international charity, I found it difficult to find time to paint on top of a demanding full time job.  However, when a friend showed my work to a gallery owner, I was invited to hold a solo exhibition at Flaxon Ptootch Gallery in Kentish Town, North London.  This was the push I needed.   The more I painted, the more I realised that it was something I needed to dedicate myself to on a full time basis.

Do you have any advice for young emerging artists?

Go and look at lots of art to develop a critical eye.  Think about what it is that makes a piece of art really work and apply those principles to your own output.

Don’t be afraid of rejection, accept it and learn from it!

You can see more of Alix’s work here: