Sometimes art that has the most significant impact on us depicts familiar scenes from our daily lives. It causes us to feel, reflect take a minute, possibly think, and conclusively connect. The Realism Movement is an excellent example of this as the practice emphasises deep emotion as an authentic endorsement of an artistic experience.
It was pioneered in the 1800s by Gustave Courbet due to The French Royal Academy’s influence of art and their ideology of visual representations that did not represent many people’s reality. He believed paintings should represent real people and circumstances.
For British rising artist Olivia Smith, Courbet ideology is at the core of her practice as she emerges with a new contemporary take on the movement.
Colour plays a crucial part in my work. It nods to the pop art vibrancy and fun that I try to incorporate into the pieces
Smith examines identity as a running theme throughout her work, fusing fine art with cultural icons and brand motifs, all authentic representation of modern-day culture. Inspired by her influence of pop culture, fashion and fabrics, Smith creates precise yet vibrant depictions capturing her figures’ emotions on canvas in a unique innocent aesthetic that embodies Realism in its purest form, resulting in an unforgettable artistic experience.
Q: For those who don’t know you, can you please introduce yourself?
A: My name is Olivia Smith. I’m 25, British with Indonesian roots. I am an emerging artist who specialises in oil painting. I have a BA Hons in Fine Art Painting from the University of Brighton. At the heart of my work, I create portraits which explore the theme of identity, whilst looking at fabrics and textures within oil painting. My portraits are informed by cultural identity, pop culture, music and fashion. I’d say that my style is painterly realism. I like to paint to look like paint and not a photograph, but I still attempt to give the viewer a genuine experience of the person in the portrait.
Q: What is your inspiration, and why do you do what you do?
A: I am inspired by my love of clothing and fashion. I grew up surrounded by women who equally loved styling and dressing, and it’s always been a part of me since I was young. My mother taught me that when dressing, a woman should never be without three things; great hair, a good bag and a fabulous coat. This way of thinking has never really left me or the emphasis of great style. Designer or the high street, it has woven its way into my portraits.
I am also inspired by creating autobiographical work. Last year I visited a Paula Rego exhibition and I saw a real determination for her story to be seen and heard but also for other women and their own stories to be told through pastel and paint. I remember leaving the exhibition with the feeling that I wanted to incorporate more personal moments in my portraits, such as in my painting The Year Was 2020.
Colour plays a crucial part in my work. It nods to the pop art vibrancy and fun that I try to incorporate into the pieces. I use colour and light as a tool to emphasise individuality. The use of colour can speak without the artist having to explain the narrative, and it sets the tonality of the painting in a way that is fascinating to me. In my portrait of Michael Dapaah, the use of ‘Permanent Orange’ reflects richness and boldness of his character that speaks to the viewer and makes an entrance before you take in the figure. I am also inspired by identity and human values, and as a Christian, I am inspired by people who are boldly confident about their faith. Many of the musicians I paint honour God in their songs. I believe that kind of strength shines out through the painting.
Q: What would you say your artistic background is? How long have you been working?
A: I’ve been creative since I was a little girl. My mum devised a game where she would draw a scribble on paper and invite three girls to join in. My sisters would colour in the scribbles, but I’m told I would see shapes and make them into pictures. I have always been surrounded and influenced by art as my dad has worked as a graphic designer for forty years. I am very fortunate to have had an exceptional art teacher at school called Kirsty Maureau-Jones. She was more like a friend to me, and she really encouraged me to follow my dreams. I wouldn’t be pursuing art if it wasn’t for her.
After school, I studied at a Foundation course in 2014, where my love of oil paint and expressive use of colour came to light. I then applied to Brighton University and wanted to study there because it was one of the few courses in the U.K which specialises in painting and still feels like an art school. I was honoured to receive an unconditional place on the course and studied there for three years. During my time there, I honed in on painting people. My work started picking up pace, and I had my first solo show at 21 in London, 2017. I graduated in 2018 and have been painting from my studio ever since.
Q: Can you tell us about your creative process?
A: My first ideas come to me in different ways. Sometimes I will be listening to a gospel song that moves me to want to paint. Or it could be just feeling a luxurious furry coat, that will trigger me into thinking how can I convey this in paint and give the viewer a way to experience it. I do know that I can figure out the painting in my mind and finish it before I’ve done a small sketch. My sister Harriet once told me that “if you can dream it then it’s already made” and that has always stuck with me.
I have quite a funny relationship with preliminary drawing; we can sometimes be very close, but it varies. For example, If I’m trying to understand how a man’s hands clasped together, I will draw them multiple times to get it into my own drawing ‘muscle memory’ so to speak, so that when I move onto the canvas, I have it locked down. However, sometimes I am so eager to paint that I let the drawing and figuring out stage unfold on the canvas. Once I have a stretcher I then stretch the canvas myself and then give each canvas four to five layers of primer. This is then wet sanded to give it a super smooth finish and then it’s ready for me to start putting paint down.
Q: What is the reason behind your fusion of pop culture and fine art in your work?
A: When I started painting portraits in 2017 I was heavily influenced by exploring subculture such as Grime music. It was a really exciting time in British music and for these artists who were now being seen and on the rise, it had a profound effect on the way it shaped my work and the culture around me. It was because of this that my work aspired to celebrate black musicians and their identity. For me, identity and style go hand in hand; both completely individual yet too irresistible not to take inspiration from. I was really inspired by how fashion and brands made up a ‘look’ for many of these musicians and wanted to capture that in my portraits.
A person’s choice of clothing, whether it’s camouflage print or Nike Air Force 1’s says a lot about a persons identity and how they choose to reflect themselves. Someone who embodies identity and fashion in their work is the great Barkley L. Hendricks, whose slick and dynamic portraits speak to 1960/70’s urban fashion. Similarly, my paintings attempt to reflect and diary what fashion looks like for my generation today. I believe fashion and art have been an inevitable fusion for centuries and they inform one another continuously.
Q: What was the first piece of art you made that cemented your path as an artist?
A: I made a painting called Sitting Pretty in 2020 which is a self-portrait. The focal point of the portrait is a pink, plush faux fur coat which I bought from Debenhams. This painting is significant to me because it’s the first painting that isn’t really about it being a person or me for that matter. Rather, the focus shifts to the coat, the materials, the textures.
I felt I was able to add something new to my portraits, which could encourage the viewer to linger for longer, and get lost in the furry swirls and follow the motion of the coat. There is a stillness and quiet confidence that I feel comes across, it has a slight regal quality due to my stance in the portrait. I had such fun and freedom with the brush – I tried to push past my boundaries and was so delighted of how lifelike I could get the fur to look. I also have a slight obsession with painting earrings and I like how the hoop earring sits on the fluffy mound of the collar.
Q: Who are your biggest inspirations?
A: God. Strong women like my mother, who has a relentless work ethic and became the CEO of a mental health charity. J.K Rowling and her resilience to get her books out into the world despite every knock-back. Artists who inspire me are El Greco and the way he would use colour, Barkley L. Hendricks, Elizabeth Peyton, Alex Katz, Andrew Wyeth, Paula Rego, Charlie Schaffer and Otis Quaicoe.
I am very inspired by my generation who have a ‘go out and get it’ mentality, people who strive to make it happen for themselves in an entrepreneurial way such as starting a business or Youtube channel. Rather than waiting to be discovered by other people, they are making it happen by making their own seat at the table. I also believe excellent businesswomen such as the Kardashian/Jenner family is largely responsible for shaping just how driven people are to become successful.
Q: What do you think about the current state of the art world?
A: I feel that due to the struggles of the pandemic, many artists have been confined to showcasing their work on social media. Because of this, I think the art world has certainly changed and adapted.
There are definitely pros and cons of artists utilising platforms like Instagram. I know for a fact that the algorithm can be damaging to get artists’ work recognised and there is that dated concept that art with ‘shock factor’ is favoured over others. I have always taken the approach of stay true to yourself and what you want to paint and if you do it enough then people will see it.
Q: What role does the artist have in society?
A: I think the most simplistic answer would be that the artist’s role is to reflect society and record it. This is the case for many artists, however, not all artists set out to become historians. Therefore, I think the role of the artist is to show people new ways of seeing and thinking by expressing what is important to them.
Unlike recording artists who can have their art streamed and downloaded in the blink of an eye, I’d like to think that one of the roles of the artist is that they can help people to actually slow down by taking in their painting or sculpture. For example in a gallery, the space is usually serene and quiet and constructed to help people take their time with their thoughts and perhaps teach people more about patience.
Q: What’s next for you as an artist?
A: That’s an exciting thought. Exhibiting my paintings is definitely a main focus of mine at the moment. My dream would be to collaborate with brands and create portraits from it. I feel like I’ve only just scratched the surface of painting textures and fabrics of coats and jackets in particular and I have big plans to pursue that.