Sarah Joncas is a Toronto based artist who has been showing in galleries since she was 16 years old. Her work has matured into a fine combination of highly skilled realism and whimsically graphic beauty. The following interview delves into her process, perfectionism, and continuous growth. Be sure to stop by the gallery to see her current show "Suburban Surreal" before February 25th, if you are in San Francisco.
"..In places where nature has mostly been tamed and controlled, I like the idea of it becoming this ghost-like entity slowly taking over our familiar world.."
JV: Your new show, "Suburban Surreal" is so beautiful in its imagery as well as technique. Can you talk a little, in general, about the concept behind this series?
SJ: Thanks for the kind words! I hadn't gone into the work with an exact idea of where I wanted to go originally, but kind of felt my way through the themes I would eventually adhere to. I've found, over the years, that my work works better if I give in to intuition rather than forcing an overarching objective. In a vague sense however, I knew I wanted the show to be about the strange emerging from the ordinary. Our everyday landscapes giving way to something more magical. In the end I adopted nature as the main way of expressing that sense, using it to illuminate my characters inner psyche or present an imagination stirring amongst the familiar scenes of suburban/urban communities. In places where nature has mostly been tamed and controlled, I like the idea of it becoming this ghost-like entity slowly taking over our familiar world, in ways that also seem very private and intimate to the characters themselves.
JV: That is such an intriguing description. I'd also love to know a bit about your process. How long before the show did you begin the paintings?
SJ: For big shows like this I often start my work nearly a year before, this one was eight months previous to the opening. I'm conscious of time management and cautious about getting stuck, close to a show, with a ton of work to accomplish. I was the same way in school, finished everything early with time to spare. It can take many months to finish a piece, and alongside these big shows I'm also producing paintings for group exhibitions, so it's a bit of a balancing act. I'll work on about eight paintings at a time too, switching it up each day in between drying layers.
JV: Which did you start with and which was the last?
SJ: I started with the show card image actually, "Street Beats". That painting, in particular, was a lot of fun for me and inspired me to experiment more with an acrylic and oil combo for the show (the paint used separately in different areas, of course, not combined). The last work to finish was "Atropa Belladonna". I had a little time to spare and had this image in mind, so I went for it! Glad I did, the friends whose opinions I sought about the show seemed to really like that one.
JV: Is there anything significant behind the one piece that is clearly a self portrait?
SJ: I didn't intend that one to be a self portrait initially. I just really needed a model at the time and I was a convenient body! The lighting wasn't my usual choice so I couldn't just make it up without possibly compromising it in some way. For me the image was about nature lighting our path, like a lantern in the darkness.
There's also something about the bottling of it in the image as well, this taming and manipulation that happens between people and the world. The painting has both a positive and critical lining when I look at it.
JV: Interesting. Now I am wanting to revisit that image! What do you think you've learned and improved on the most since you started painting?
SJ: Technique over time, in the realness of my figures. It has taken a lot of time for me, no doubt. The characters have changed frequently in their proportions and rendering. I started out doing more strictly cartoon-like characters with some form, but over time I've started using photographic reference and visual aids to help me get better with realism. My work certainly still contains illustrative characteristics though I don't think it's something I'd ever really wish to abandon. It's too much fun.
JV: How long ago was it that you first started showing in galleries?
SJ: I was 16 when I started showing my work. I thought I wanted to go to school for animation or illustration, but then after I started painting and working on canvas for the first time, I got really into it and into the independence of it. I had a little community show in my hometown at the time and actually sold most of the work. After that, I had done some local news interviews and another town nearby caught wind so they invited me out their way and it all went on from there. I switched to studying Fine Art at OCAD rather than illustration.
JV: Some of the paintings in this show include a more graphic technique than others. Was it intentional to vary this piece by piece or just a result of experimentation?
SJ: I was trying to play with that more for this show. I also played more with using acrylics in the background rather than entirely oil. I would like to get better with my acrylic rendering because they're less toxic and help me move along faster with my work, but I also like how they change up the mood. I don't think I could ever give up on oils for rendering skin and figures though, I love the smoothness and blending too much, but overall I feel the graphic elements just allow me more freedom and experimentation with my imagery.
JV: I completely agree about the smoothness of oil for figures. Your depiction of hands and skin in general is quite amazing. Does it take you longer to do components like that?
SJ: Yes, I spend most of my time rendering the figures. I can be a little obsessive about smoothness and blending! Sometimes I think maybe my work is sometimes too clean? I do find that process meditative for me though.
JV: No, I personally think the cleanness is beautiful! What is your absolute favorite thing to paint?
SJ: Portraits. Maybe that's easy to tell? haha. I like painting the facial features more than anything and pretty much always start my work by rendering that, despite my old art professors telling me to work with background first.
JV: The lighting on your subjects is painted so beautifully. Can you talk a little about how you source references? And do you light your own subjects?
SJ: It varies from work to work. Lately I've been using myself to help correct proportions though, or get lighting right, but I'll use friends when they're available as well. I'll also cobble together things from the net in photoshop, like if I need a striped button up shirt and don't have one myself, I'll find one I like and manipulate it for my own figures. I've stolen facial features from random celebrities and models too, say if I need a different kind of nose or eyes, I'll cut them out to use as reference. Some of the characters are completely made up too (though I'll try using some kind of visual aid just to know how shadow correctly casts upon a face). I can share a couple pictures where I used myself as reference, just not of my friends for the sake of their privacy.
JV: Great, thank you. That's fun to see. Lastly, do you feel like working on murals has influenced your more recent paintings in any way?
SJ: Two of the works I made for this show were actually directly based upon murals I did this summer with POW!WOW! and the LBMA. "Night Life" and my drawing "Fish Bowl". I really haven't had a lot of experience with murals, but it was an incredible experience participating in those events last July in Long Beach. Enough fun that I wanted to translate those murals into my more traditional approach.
Sarah Joncas' show Suburban Surreal is on display here until February 25, 2017. Pop in anytime Wednesday through Saturday from 12pm - 6 pm.