News / REALITY Artist Blog - Caroline Walker: Life, education and influences

REALITY Artist Blog - Caroline Walker: Life, education and influences

Life, education and influences

From a very young age I was drawing constantly. My first studio was a large cupboard in the kitchen from which I drew countless pictures of women. So my interest in this subject matter started early but thankfully the cupboard I work in is larger these days.

I'm the first artist in my family but my parents took me to lots of galleries, museums and historic houses as a child, which I loved. I remember trips with my mum to our nearest public gallery in Kirkcaldy, which has an excellent Scottish colourist collection. We also went regularly to the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh where I saw Gainsborough portraits, Titians and nineteenth-century Scottish realist painters like James Guthrie, whose painting A Hind's Daughter was a favourite of mine. I later did a copy of this for myself, which hangs in my parent's house. I like this painting so much because it uses a somewhat banal subject of this little girl standing in a field of cabbages but the knife she's holding in her hand and the way she's looking out at the viewer give it a more troubling atmosphere. I think it's that quality of making the familiar seem suddenly unfamiliar that I try to create in my own paintings. I'd definitely say I was most drawn to a Scottish painting tradition from Enlightenment artists like Raeburn and Ramsay up to the colourists like Ferguson and Cadell. These were probably my earliest painting references and I still love these painters now.

Caroline Walker, Consulting the Oracle, 2013. Oil on linen, 193 x 175 cm. © Caroline Walker

In 2000 I was lucky enough to be accepted onto the painting course at Glasgow School of Art where at that time they were still teaching the fundamentals of life drawing and painting. Life painting classes at which there was one pose for a whole week seemed pretty tedious at the time, but they really taught you how to make a painting. It wasn't until my final year, though, and the influence of my tutor Moyna Flannigan, that I worked out what I was interested in and it was at this point that I started painting figures in interiors, which has continued to be my subject matter.

When I was in my final year at Glasgow (which was 2004), figurative painting was having a bit of a moment. I remember going to London and Tate Modern had Luc Tuymans and Edward Hopper shows on at the same time. I can't think of a time since when they've programmed figurative painting like this. A lot of my fellow students were making figurative paintings, which would have been very unfashionable in the painting department at Glasgow a few years earlier. There was some really exciting work being made, and on a big scale, so it was a very productive environment to be in and I feel lucky to have been there at that time.

I had three years between finishing my BA at Glasgow and starting my MA at the Royal College of Art during which I stayed in Glasgow and had a studio. I felt that the RCA was really the only place for me as a painter. I wanted to be in a painting department where the discussion would not be one of justifying the use of painting as a medium, which I felt might be the case on more general fine art MA courses, but one of the possibilities with painting. I also really wanted to get down to London.

My subject matter remained the same while I was at the RCA but the MA gave me a chance to really pick it apart and find out what I was interested in. I had been painting figures in interiors for a few years but it wasn't until I got to the RCA that I started to question who the figure was, where they were, and how I wanted the viewer to look at them.

I wanted to spend some time working more directly with my subject matter rather than relying solely on photographs. I was thinking about paintings I liked looking at most and how these explored an artist/model relationship. I met a life model at a drawing class and she seemed an ideal starting point for this. She was a dog and cat sitter for various people so I would go to visit her when she was at someone's house and draw her there before working on the paintings back in the studio. Every time I worked with her she was in a different house so this gave me a new set of problems to work with each time. It interested me that we were in a house which wasn't a 'home' for either of us, which made it become like a 'set' somehow in which I could ask her to play different roles.

During this period I spent a lot of time looking at paintings of women with an interest in female archetypes, which seemed recurring in my own work. I was particularly interested in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century European painting and I remember going to see a show of Walter Sickert's 'Camden Town Nudes' at the Courtauld Gallery, which had a huge influence on me. They're such psychologically charged little paintings because of the intimacy of the artist/model relationship. There becomes something intrinsically sexually threatening about the scenario of him as a male artist alone with his female prostitute subject. It made me start thinking about what the relationship between artist and subject meant to a viewer and how it changed our feelings towards an image. Would the paintings still have been so threatening if they had been painted by a woman? At the same time I was working on my thesis, which explored the 'female gaze' in contemporary painting and the subject area of how women look at images of women, so these things started to join up in my work.

After I finished my MA in 2009 I started to consolidate some of the things I'd been thinking about in my work. While I was at the RCA I'd been concentrating on who my subject was, but now I started to look more specifically at where she was and to make decisions in relation to this. It was at this point that choosing a location became the starting point for each series of work, and that's how I've continued to work since.