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Katy Papineau

Katy Papineau is a figurative painter who lives and works in London. A faculty member at The Royal Drawing School, her colourful painting, drawing and printmaking takes inspiration from folklore, literature and art history.

For Winter 24, Katy has created a self-portrait in response to the Louis MacNeice poem, ‘Snow’, that inspired the season’s fragrance.

Snow by Louis MacNeice

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was

Spawning snow and pink roses against it

Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:

World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,

Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion

A tangerine and spit the pips and feel

The drunkenness of things being various.

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world

Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes— 

On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one's hands—

There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

Written in the winter of 1935

How would you describe your work?

I make figurative paintings that explore the deeper stories and associations that are contained within everyday scenes and objects. Recently I have been preoccupied with windows, flowers and ribbons. I paint on wooden panel or paper in thin layers of oil paint and pigment. I want my paintings to have the kind of hazy soft-focus a half-forgotten memory might have.

First thoughts when Ffern approached you about responding to a fragrance, alongside the poem ‘Snow’ by Louis MacNeice which inspired it?

I thought working in response to a fragrance was an interesting challenge, particularly as I am interested in memory, and fragrance is so important to how we form memories. Both the fragrance and the poem by Louis MacNeice evoked very particular atmospheres which I wanted to capture in my piece. I tend to think about atmosphere in colour, so I had quite a strong mental image of the palette I would use before I knew what kind of scene I was going to paint: rosy pinks and hot oranges, contrasted with cool minty greens and icy blues.

How did you approach the painting?

I knew that I wanted to incorporate the imagery of the window in the poem by Louis MacNeice into my painting. I think about windows a lot in my work: as a pictorial device, a barrier between inside and outside, a symbol for freedom and constraint. I also wanted to capture the sensory nature of the poem – the sudden clash of the interior and exterior worlds, one so rich and warm and one so freezing cold, being experienced all at once. I made several pencil and oil sketches in order to find my way to the final composition, testing out different images and colour combinations. I also incorporated fragrance ingredients and imagery from the poem into the patterns for the border around my painting: rosemary, peppermint, flames and orange and bergamot inspired the shapes and colours I used.

You used both oils and dry pigment for this piece - why combine media?

Oil paint contains a lot of possibilities and is very flexible as a medium and I like how combining it with pigment gives me even more control over the paint. For example, if I want a colour to be really intense I might add extra pigment. Using pigment also enables me to create texture, building up a velvety or grainy surface that I’d find harder to achieve with ready-made oil paint.

As well as being a painter, you are also a teacher of drawing - how do you think this side of your practice impacts your own paintings?

I teach at the Royal Drawing School on courses such as Enduring Images in Art and Immersive Narratives. Teaching helps crystallize my ideas – I love designing classes around subjects I am researching in my own work and hearing students’ responses to the ideas or stories we are looking at.

Winter 24 was created with the Bloomsbury Group in mind - does your work have a relationship to theirs?

There are a few paintings and painters that I always return to when I feel like I need to be reminded of certain things I am trying to achieve in painting, and Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant definitely fall into that category. Bell’s Still Life on Corner of a Mantlepiece could almost be abstract – each element is arranged so satisfyingly into the rectangle of the image. Grant’s portraits have a kind of effortlessly patched together use of colour I find helpful to look at when I’m overworking or letting things get too heavy in my work.

Can you describe your favourite scent?

I’ve always loved the scent of a match that has just been blown out – there’s something strangely comforting and nostalgic about it.

Where else do you find your inspiration?

Gathering imagery is essential to my work, and I find inspiration in lots of different places. I begin with a broad theme or motif, and then look at everything from film, reality TV, art history or everyday life for related imagery to make drawings from. These images act as fodder for my mind’s eye, and eventually I will have a clearer image in mind that will become a painting. I also look at literature, poetry and fairy tales for imagery and ideas: I have an amazing collection of fairy tales that track their evolution leading up to the versions we know by the Brothers Grimm.

What are you working on next?

This autumn I went to Scotland for a residency, and did a lot of drawings of woods and gardens. I’ve been painting people mainly in interior spaces over the last few years, but I am planning to do a series where my figures are starting to migrate outdoors.

What is the best advice you could pass on?

One piece of advice I have found really helpful for painting is taking the time to really understand your materials. I’m always going to exhibitions and peering at the sides of paintings, trying to work out what the artist was painting on, what mediums they used, how thick the paint is. I think it’s important to use the best quality materials you can manage within your budget and paint on the surfaces that suit your way of working. It’s not about being precious and everything being precise and perfect - for me it’s about showing myself that I care about what I am doing.


Photography by Aloha Bonser-Shaw

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