Dee Donaldson

We caught up with local artist and teacher, Dee Donaldson about her latest body of work produced from the Alter Ego exhibition at the Rust en Vrede Art Gallery and about her love for exploring new mediums and using her work to communicate ideas that words can’t.



DIY: How would you describe your art? What drives you to create?

Dee: I suppose contemporary, figurative painting is a way of describing it. I work in oil mostly, although I do dabble in other media. Artists often find it difficult to describe their own work, especially stylistically. This has, historically, been more the arena of critics and academics. I’m a painter. Painting is how I express myself.  I’ll leave it up to those with the gift of words to describe, define or create labels for my work.

I guess what drives me to create is a search for a visual “language” that will best communicate what I need to communicate at a given time. This language is continually evolving as I progress. I use images symbolically at times and sometimes simply representationally. I have always been fascinated with different visual planes and layering. This is something that we take for granted in film and digital media; I’m drawn to exploring this on canvas. I love the physicality of painting and the tangibility of paint.

Style, I believe, is a secondary thing.

DIY: Your latest body of work originated from a piece called STAG that you completed for a group show (entitled Alter Ego) at Rust en Vrede Art Gallery in Cape Town. What were the underlying themes of this body of work and why did you feel compelled to explore them so extensively?

Dee: I was invited to participate in the Rust en Vrede show at a time that my work was beginning to shift again. The theme, “Alter Ego”, makes one initially question oneself and what one’s own alter ego might be. It was when I gave myself permission to let go of the idea of working with myself as the primary subject that a world of possibilities opened up. Working in the realm of self-portrait, or “self” as the primary subject, is always extremely subjective. I am interested in global, human themes at the moment and seeking a visual and emotional language that is understandable to anyone who looks at my work. Universal themes like society’s perception of ‘manliness’, the destruction of war, the actor versus the character, the fragility of our bodies and of our planet, lost innocence and our perception of beauty are some of the themes that emerged, wanting to be explored, as I created this body of work. I am fascinated by street art/graffiti as a language of contemporary society, in dialogue with traditional, academic painting. The theme of creation and destruction was quite a strong driving force for me; not only in subject matter, but also in painting technique.



DIY: Your pieces are quite visually arresting. They seem to have a narrative that is created and nurtured through every brush stroke. How do you go about planning your work? Is it a natural process as you paint or do you meticulously workout what goes where and when?

Dee: It’s very much a case of starting with a sensation or an image and an idea about them, and then allowing what emerges to dictate the next step. I am working more and more in this way. I spend a lot of time looking, waiting and pondering and trying things out.  So, yes, each step or layer is considered, but it’s never worked out beforehand. I often scrub off and re-paint numerous times. I’m trying to shift from images that are carefully rendered and “well painted” (in a traditional sense), to images that are only painted to that ‘polished’ degree if it enhances the content or emotional pitch of the work. I am trying to become more playful in my approach – shifting styles in one piece; juxtaposing highly realistic rendering with clumsy spontaneous drawing etc. Becoming lot more ‘irreverent” with my imagery and surfaces has freed me up considerably.



DIY: Do you think an artist needs to have a style that is easily recognisable or should they be experimenting with different media constantly? How hard is it to stay true to your craft and convictions?

Dee: I think most artists who work consistently are pretty recognizable, no matter what media they work in. It’s a bit like recognizing a voice or a personality trait in someone.  Style, I believe, is a secondary thing.  I think it’s important to challenge your ideas and methods constantly, to keep trying to find better ways of exploring ideas and methods of communicating.



DIY: You have hailed from a teaching background, what advice would you give to aspiring painters looking for their own voice and style? What practice exercises do you believe are important in order to improve and maintain the quality of your work?

Dee: My background is actually as a painter. I began teaching a few years after I had returned to South Africa, after living in London, Paris and Savannah, Georgia for a few years. I enjoy teaching for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that it gets me out of my own studio and in contact with other people during my work week. Painting can be a very insular occupation.

My advice to aspiring painters would be to look at as much art as possible. The internet gives us remarkable access to all the best contemporary painters around the world. Through Facebook I have found the most incredible painters, some of whom are ‘big names’ and some are still emerging artists.

Also, make sure you become as technically proficient as possible. Draw and/or paint daily. Keep extending your technical skills and that will free you up to discover more and more ways of expressing yourself uniquely. Master your skills, then let go and play. Find something personally meaningful to say and then find a way of saying it through your work. It’s extremely difficult for me to describe a visual language with words, so I guess the most important thing is to be able to connect to a feeling when you paint. Mastery of your medium allows for more freedom of expression, always.

Specific practice exercises? Wow – there are many. Come to class and I’ll teach you some.



DIY: Is there any specific reason as to why you produce your art on such small canvasses? Surely it’s more difficult?

Dee: I generally work quite big (“Zero-hour” is over 2m long), but because I am trying out a whole lot of new things at the moment, I’m working smaller so that I can process faster.  I don’t find it more difficult. It requires a huge amount of energy and conviction to start a really big canvas, so I find its helpful to play out similar scenarios on a small scale first.



DIY: Are you a fan of using recurring imagery in your work?

Dee: Sometimes I need to repeat an image a few times before I get tired of it or understand what it’s doing there. It’s not really a divisive thing. I choose my images as a communication vehicle, not as a stylistic device. If a previously used image will best express what I wish to in a new work, then I’ll use it.



DIY: Do you think of the title ‘artist’ nowadays? Do you feel it’s become not only self-serving but too broad a categorization and therefore has lost its impact and meaning?

Dee: Lol! Seriously? I honestly don’t care what people call me. Isn’t everyone an artist in some way? Some of us are just lucky enough to get paid to do it.


DIY: With 2013 just around the corner, do you have anything big planned?

Dee: Always



Check out more of Dee’s work and find out more about her on her website.

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