Grace Mattingly: Colour as a Creative Catalyst

Interview / February 2022

Grace Mattingly: Colour as a Creative Catalyst
By Millie Walton

Millie Walton: What kindled your interest in exploring art as a career?

Grace Mattingly: I wasn’t really exposed to the idea of becoming an artist until I moved to New York City for college. There, for the first time, I met people who talked about and studied art seriously, considered the arts to be as important as academic subjects, and imagined careers in the arts. That said, it wasn’t until my final year in college that I took a painting class as an elective and fell in love with it. But I feel that the choice wouldn’t have even occurred to me if I hadn’t spent time in New York City.

Millie Walton: What made you then decide to come to London to study?

Grace Mattingly: I was drawn to the program at Slade. A lot of contemporary art schools are more interdisciplinary and research-oriented, but Slade takes a pretty traditional approach and has a clear-cut painting department that is focused on traditional materials. I knew I wanted to concentrate on painting, and I already had an academic background so I thought I’d grow the most in my MA by learning about the language of painting: material and surface. I also got the sense that not only at Slade, but also in the London art world, there is a real emphasis on painting.

Millie Walton: How do you think your own approach to making art was impacted by your time at Slade?

Grace Mattingly:  My studies at Slade had a huge impact on my practice. Before Slade, my paintings were informed by photographs, and I was using a completely different palette and set of materials. But one day my tutor, Lisa Milroy, suggested that I stop using photographs as source material. I took her advice and it felt like the rug had been pulled out from under my practice. I found myself in a pit of uncertainty where I had to assess what I was doing and what I even liked about painting. I started to experiment with different coloured grounds and found that there are certain colours that especially catalyse my creativity—like yellow. If I cover a surface in yellow, it feels like sunshine or an open, activated space. Generally, warm colours open me up—I mix a few on the palette and then, I start to improvise. This experimentation led me to discover that colour is the foundation of my practice and also what compels me to paint.

I think that Slade primed me to reach this discovery. Jo Volley, the head of the materials research project at Slade, would regularly send out emails with poems about colours and information on pigments and how they’re made. At Slade people seemed to be interested in the way colour interacts with feeling and can tell a story.  

Millie Walton: So, your process is very much grounded in an emotional response?

Grace Mattingly: Yes. It starts with a colour rather than thinking about what the painting is going to be about. I work intuitively and let the composition emerge spontaneously. It’s often surprising, which is fun. I like to feel like I’m on the edge of my seat, otherwise I get bored.

Millie Walton: Does that mean you tend to work quickly?

Grace Mattingly: Yes and no. I often get the skeleton of the composition down in one sitting while the paint is still wet. I draw and wipe away, wet into wet, until I end up with something I’m happy with. It can take a bit of time, but once I have the basic composition down, usually in one day, it’s about fine-tuning—and that can take longer.

Millie Walton: We’ve talked quite a lot about painting, but you've also made sculptural pieces and experimented with some more unusual materials such as nail varnish. How and when do you decide what tools to use and what form a piece will take?

Grace Mattingly: My inclination is definitely towards painting, but other materials can be fun to play with. What I like about clay is it has this immediacy and malleability to it. You can use your hands to mould the material, so it has this direct connection to your body. I like when you can see where my fingers have pressed into the surface. I would love to do more ceramics at some point or work with a transparent material like crystal. I see the objects as being a complement to the world I’m exploring in my paintings.

Millie Walton: Which artists or movements have had or continue to have the most influence on your practice?

Grace Mattingly: Colour Field painting helps me think about how colour and layering fields of colour can create a psychological space or state. Even though my paintings are representational, I think that I’m aiming to use colour in that way. Abstract expressionists like Joan Mitchell help me think about the energy contained within a mark—in her case, forceful and quick. I’ve also been influenced by collections of Japanese erotic prints, which have shown me how sexuality in art can be playful, complex, and even humorous. I’m also hugely influenced by Lisa Yuskavage and Rose Wylie.

Millie Walton: In terms of your contemporaries, do you see yourself fitting into a particular group of artists?

Grace Mattingly: I feel like there are so many artists today who are exploring the body and materiality, and these sort of hybrid animal/human forms that I feel really connected to. Some of these artists whose work I love are Sofia Mitsola, Sara Anstis, Sophie von Hellermann, Lisa Brice, Elizabeth Glaessner, and Naudline Pierre.

Millie Walton: Speaking of the body in terms of its relationship to materiality, does this influence the kinds of paints that you use?

Grace Mattingly: I just love oil paint—it’s so bodily. The experience of mixing it and moving it across a smooth surface is very sensual and physical. I think this facilitates the imagery that I end up gravitating towards—the work is almost like an allegory for the playful and physical experience that I’m having, which the viewer can hopefully feel too.

Millie Walton: Are there any themes that you can see emerging in your work at the moment?

Grace Mattingly: There’s definitely an exploration of gender, identity and sexuality. I’ve been using animals and various motifs to explore these ideas and maybe even challenge certain expectations around gender or create a degree of ambiguity. But I like to think that the colour, sensuality of painting, and the playfulness of the process guide that exploration rather than the other way round.

Millie Walton: Do you have a sense of the direction your practice might take in the future?

Grace Mattingly: Lately, I've been scaling up my work. I love how it creates a world that you can step into and I love being able to make my figures life-size or larger so that they create the feeling of a real space or landscape in which many different events are happening at once.

In the long term, it would also be fun to explore some other ways of working with the themes that I’m interested in. A big part of my process is listening to music and dancing while I’m painting or before I paint. So maybe that could become an element of my practice: some kind of movement or performance. And as I mentioned earlier, I’d also like to explore more sculptural materials and ceramics.

Image Credits:
1. Courtesy of Grove Collective