Open College For The Arts Interview

In conversation: Jeanette Barnes


Cranes in Thames at Blackfriars 2015-16, 150 x 200cms compressed charcoal

Jeanette Barnes creates beautiful, large scale physical works. She engages with the ever developing urban environment making sketches which influence her drawings when she returns to her studio.“These drawings are not about one single moment, but a combination of ideas and experiences, bringing together the most interesting aspects from different sketches to create the final piece.”  I asked Jeanette if she would answer some questions on her work.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I’m from a small mills and hills town in East Lancashire and did a foundation in Accrington then Liverpool to do a degree in Fine Art. As soon as I got there I realised cities would be my theme. I then went to London to the Royal Academy Schools for a post-graduate in painting and on to the Royal College of Art for an MA in printmaking, I have lived in London pretty much ever since. I love It, it’s the ultimate city; noisy, dirty, dynamic, forever changing. I’m a freelance tutor, I teach drawing on the Outreach programme for the Royal Academy of Arts and drawing and printmaking at the Royal Drawing School. I also run my own Urban Drawing workshops. I exhibit my work regularly and have been lucky enough to win some awards.

Describe your creative process.

I make a lot of pencil sketches on location over a period of time. If I’m drawing in London I keep returning to the spot, sketching my chosen subject from slightly different positions. In the studio I put all my sketches around me and will make one or two compositional drawings from these. I staple a large piece of paper from a roll on to the wall, tie a piece of compressed charcoal on to a stick, so I can work on the drawing at a distance and begin trying to fit the diverse bits of information together, seeing what works and what I need to change. With this method I can’t be too detailed early on, when I have a reasonable composition, I draw with the compressed charcoal in my hand. The work isn’t about capturing one moment in time, but more trying to piece together a history of events. The large drawings can go on for months.

Is the process of making as important as the finished piece?

They’re both tied up together, I can’t separate them.


Kings Cross Interior – 2015-16, 150 x 200cms compressed charcoal

Do you keep sketchbooks or a visual diary?

I’ve begun to do most of my sketches on loose paper so I can see them all at the same time, I didn’t like tearing them out of a book. I do have little books I sketch and write things down in, especially for my printmaking. I tend to draw on newspapers or any scraps I find, I wish I didn’t.

What do you think hinders your creativity?

Having to do too many other things that aren’t related to my art, like everyone else.

How important is it to draw in situ?

For me it’s the main thing. I haven’t got  a great visual memory so I have to be in front of something to get the particular nature of whatever it is I’m drawing.

How do you maintain the sense of energy and immediacy in your work over long periods of making?

The key for me is keeping working over the whole composition, not getting sucked in to working on one bit for too long. Once I put a couple more pieces of info into the drawing then something has to change to accommodate these ideas and so it goes on. Erasing and changing are as important to me as adding information.

What draws you to the urban environment to make work?

I love drawing the change in cities. Movement of some kind, whether that’s the construction of new buildings, people rushing by or traffic flowing. I love the city’s energy and I want to translate that feeling into my work. For me people bring buildings alive, so I like to include both architecture and figures in my work in some way if possible.


At Bank – Road sketch, 65 x 45cms Graphite on paper

Can you describe the role of tone in your drawings. How through changing the values of a single hue, your work exudes ‘colour’ and depth?

My work is mainly linear and it’s the moving around of information that sometimes creates tone. For depth, I take away or lessen information and dismiss some of the whites by wiping my hand across them. I do decide that some areas will be either dark or left white, but I rarely decide on anything in between, that’s chance.

Architecture is predominantly straight lines and angles, are you concerned with getting the maths right when making your drawings?

There’s an element in getting certain things to fit correctly in the composition, but what I do isn’t pure perspective, I have purposely never studied it. My large drawings have to work compositionally for me, but it’s not correct geometry. I struggle to get what I want, which generally adds to the energy of the piece. I often put things together from different viewpoints, something is always out of sync, but not overtly so. I don’t want to tie things together too neatly, I am always looking for a slightly uncomfortable feel.

Would you consider yourself to now be fluent in your visual language or do you think it is important to continue to experiment re-invent, develop?

I suppose my work has a certain feel, so it’s quite recognisable as mine, but I think I change all the time, I’m very rarely satisfied with what I produce. I can’t get the same drawing material I have worked with for years, so I am being forced to work somewhat differently. I have started to do monoprints which are visually different, the marks are larger and alot more fluid, I think it’s feeding through in to my drawings. I feel it’s important that I’m not too comfortable in my approach so that my work can develop in some way.

Do you consider the viewer when making work?

I predominantly make the work for myself, but I do consider the viewer in as much as I like to lead the eye around the composition in certain ways.

How important is marketing yourself and keeping your social media platforms up to date?

I think it’s good to have some social presence on the web and I use Twitter and may start Instagram. Also a good personal website is important, one that you can update yourself. That said I’m not particularly good with these but I do try.


Shard from outside London Bridge Underground St. 2011-12, 223 x 151cms compressed charcoal

Many of our students study part time, work and have family commitments. How do you balance your teaching career and your art practice?

It’s always difficult to find as much time as we need. I just try to use the pockets of time I get as well as I can. Not many artists can survive purely from selling their art work. I have been lucky, teaching drawing as opposed to another job as it’s something I enjoy and I get inspiration from the students and learn from their struggles. I have always gone out doing sketching, sometimes for just short periods and I try to go to a print class on Saturdays. Just carry on doing a bit of something as often as you can, even if that’s minutes rather that hours, just to keep things ticking over.

Have you any advice for students who may be struggling to move work forward?

I tell my students to think of three positive things about a piece of work they are not sure about, then think about what they want the work to become and try to work out how they can make those improvements happen. It’s important not to start with negatives. Often I put my drawing away, then I work on some thing else and go back to it a few days later and see if that space has let me work out what changes are needed.

How do you know when a work is finished?

I find it difficult. Sometimes I think I have finished, put the work away for a while, get it out and then change it quite a bit. That can happen time and again. In the end I have to stop when it’s framed, all other work is fair game and may be changed in the future.



How do you see your artwork evolving?

I’m always going to do my large drawings but because of the recent archaeological finds at London’s biggest building projects, I have become interested in doing work on what has been discovered before the new buildings I have been drawing, emerge. It is making me think in a very different way. Also my monoprints are different to my previous prints, more painterly, which I’m enjoying and am even thinking of painting again, black of white of course.

In terms of contemporary art where do you think Drawing is positioned, do you think it holds its own as an art form?

Yes, of course it holds it’s own. The boundary of what is or isn’t acceptable as drawing is now being pushed quite a lot but putting a set of personal ideas down in some way will always be important. I think drawing is as valid now as it ever was and I know it will always comprise the main part of my art work regardless of what other people think.

What is your favourite piece of art, yours or someone else’s?

I’m afraid I am going to cheat here, they used to be hung very near to each other so I always think of them together, it has to be Titian’s early painting of Bacchus and Ariadne and his late Death of Acteon both in the National Gallery.