Valérie Pirlot is a Belgian artist who has been living in Bath for the past 10 years. One of her favourite subjects is her local allotment so we chatted with her about art and the lure of the veg patch…
You produce most of your oil paintings outdoors in situ. What do you like most about painting ‘en plein air’?
I just love it. Working in plein air, directly in front of the subject, is a real treat for the eyes because you can really see all the colours and subtleties of the landscape. A photograph can’t quite capture that. Even more importantly, it gives you an experience and a thrill that I find impossible to get in the studio. You are there, battling the elements, braving the snow, the pouring rain or the scorching sun, chasing the light and working against the clock trying to capture the beauty in front of you. It makes you feel alive!
How would you describe your painting style?
Probably loose, painterly and spontaneous. I always try to depict the maximum amount of things with the minimum amount of brushstrokes, so every one of them counts. Light is always at the centre of my work. Some call my style ‘impressionistic’ too as my paintings are always an ‘impression’ of a scene, as if you just blinked and shortly captured the essence of a place.
Who are your artistic influences?
There are many! When I’m not painting, I usually spend my time looking at art online, in books, on dvds, in shows, and I think every single painting I look at is influencing me one way or an other, whether it is from an old master or just from a fellow artist painting next to me. If you need names then I’ll say I particularly look up to Ken Howard, Edward Seago, Peter Brown, Marc Dalessio and John Singer Sargent.
You’ve produced several paintings of your local allotments in Bath. What inspired you to paint them? Are there any specific allotment features you find especially interesting from an artistic perspective?
I discovered a great allotment spot just five minutes walk from my house as I was taking my daughter on a walk in her pram a few months ago. Straight away I saw the painting potential in them and promised myself to go back with my paints. They have everything I look for in a painting subject: great variety of greens and flowers, a view, and last but not least, the addition of old, weathered and shabby sheds, fences, nets, compost bins, bonfires and gardening tools that bring movement, emotion and character to the painting. The beauty is in the imperfections: the more the shed is skewed and falling into pieces, the better painting subject it will make! And, if you are lucky, you even get to bring your painting to life by adding people working on their plot. What more could you want?
Do you find them a suitably relaxing environment to paint?
Yes they are indeed. Don’t get me wrong, plein air painting is never really relaxing – because of the rush, the conditions, and the elements – but I found myself as relaxed as I could be painting those allotments because there is a real serenity about the place. It is peaceful; if the birds weren’t singing you could almost hear the tomatoes growing. People usually work on their plot in a quiet, respectful and devoted manner as if they were praying in a church: I often catch them lost in deep thoughts, a spade in their hand, staring at their harvest with pride (or perplexity!). If they come to talk to me they usually whisper, as if not to break the spell of this peaceful place.
Have any of the allotment owners paid attention to your artistic activity? What do they make of your paintings?
Quite a few people have come to speak to me and look at my work. Their reactions are varied and unpredictable, but they are always lovely. Looking at my paintings, several people asked me if I was planning to get a plot myself, thinking I was doing a sketch of where I would plant my carrots and potatoes! Another man made a mission of naming every building he could spot in the view I was painting. Most people check with amusement to see if I have included their plot or shed in the painting. Some of them have commissioned me to come back and paint their own plot.
You also paint people’s gardens on a commission basis. Have you been asked to paint any particularly memorable gardens?
From all the gardens I painted, I probably most enjoyed painting my grandma’s garden in Belgium. She has a real passion for gardening and her garden has won several local awards. She is now 92 years old and doesn’t show any sign of slowing down! She definitely gave my mother and I the love for gardening. She says that through tough times, her garden never let her down, you can always count on it!
Finally, do you have any tips for budding allotment painters?
As for any plein air painting, make sure you come prepared: get plenty of clothing layers as standing still will make you feel the cold; and a hat and sun cream for the hot days; have some snacks and drinks handy to keep you going; and bring your lightest painting kit possible. Limit your time to 2.5 hours maximum per painting as the light will be too different after that time to keep working on the same painting. And don’t try too hard to find a suitable painting spot, because everything makes a good subject. But most importantly have fun!
Main image ©Gareth Iwan Jones