Based in Leicester, Jane French is an accomplished figurative artist and portrait painter. Having originally studied Fine Art at Newcastle University, and later an MA in Design at De Montfort University, Leicester, French worked as an illustrator and graphic designer before focusing professionally on her own practice. She is also an art and design tutor, working at art centres and FE/HE institutions.
A member of the CBPP (Contemporary British Portrait Painters), French participated in the Portraits for NHS Heroes initiative, started by fellow member Tom Croft, with the portrait she created of nurse Jo Habben included in the virtual exhibition created by The Net Gallery to showcase a selection of work from the project. Speaking about why she decided to take part, French said, “I really wanted to do something that might, in some small way, lift the spirits of those who were working for the NHS. I saw all the news reports and heard how awful the situation was in hospitals and care homes and realised that this was something I could easily do that would have a positive effect.”
With her work filled with warmth and charm, as well as a real sense of the individual people depicted, we were pleased to again capture a painting by French in the scan for the ‘Perceptions’ exhibition at The Space at Cass Art. The first group show ever staged by the CBPP, ‘Perceptions’ provides another reminder of both the quality of French’s own work, as well as that of the wider group. We thought it was a good time to learn more about French and her art.
The Net Gallery: Does your interest in portraiture go back to when you first started to study art, and when did you decide to focus your practice on portrait painting?
Jane French: Yes, it definitely does! I studied Fine Art at Newcastle University (1984-88) and I focussed on portraits back then too. I produced quite a number of self portraits as well as various other portraits and commissioned pieces. I think I’ve always been drawn towards the subject of portraits. I love watching and listening to people. I love reading books about people and, in an art gallery for example, I am interested mostly in paintings of faces. After my degree, I worked as an illustrator and graphic designer and it is therefore only in the last ten years that I have practised portrait painting full-time. I have completed hundreds of commissions and I work on paintings of people as personal projects too.
TNG: Is the approach you take to your portraits and the way the subjects are depicted something that you consciously decided to aim for – in terms of the aesthetic that’s achieved, the brushstrokes and warm tones – or is it something you’ve arrived at more organically?
JF: I believe my method of painting has just emerged naturally, however, I am very much inspired by those artists whose brushmarks can be seen and who obviously love working in the medium of oil. I love to focus on colour and composition, and so I do consciously aim for a certain look sometimes. I am keen to achieve a likeness in a portrait, but I prefer it not to be photorealistic.
TNG: How did you first become involved with the CBPP and what has the organisation provided that was perhaps previously missing or unavailable for portrait artists like yourself?
JF: I have been a member of the CBPP for about a year and a half. I applied and was selected: I feel very honoured to be part of such a great group. I have met with other members of the group a couple of times and I really like that we are all passionate about portraits. The group promotes our achievements and our work – and we follow and like each other on Instagram and some other forms of social media.
TNG: For the painting you made for Portraits for NHS Heroes, how did you become connected with JoHabben, and how did you go about selecting am image or perspective to base your portrait on?
JF: Jo sent me a message saying that she’d seen my portrait of Dr Ronnie Biggs and hoped that I could paint her too. She particularly wanted me to use, as reference, a selfie she’d taken on 26th March at 8.55am. Here’s what she wrote to me:
“I am so very proud to be a nurse. I have been nursing since 1984. I was upset at the thought that if I wore PPE, patients and staff would lose so much non-verbal communication, including the warmth and reassurance of seeing a smile. I wanted to show people what I looked like if they had never met me before. I also wanted to show a really positive picture to my friends and family to show them I was well, happy and okay. They were – like everyone – feeling extremely worried.”
TNG: Were you able to get to know Jo and learn about her work? And has painting her portrait given you greater insight into life in the NHS during the Covid-19 crisis, or made you feel more connected in some way?
JF: I felt that I connected with Jo from her first communication with me. We discovered that I grew up in the same part of the UK as she now lives and that we are a similar age. Her specific situation – of being seconded from her normal, managerial role in the organisation to work clinically with the infection, prevention and control teams – had an impact on me. It gave me an insight into how the lives of different healthcare workers were being dramatically affected. When Jo saw my completed portrait of her she sent me the following message:
“This is truly amazing…such a boost! I think (the Portrait Project) is one of the best things that anyone has done for NHS staff. It’s a history of us all, how we were, our different roles, how we adapted to change and how proud it made us all.”
TNG: As well as creating your own work, you run workshops and courses teaching painting and drawing. When did you first start to teach and do you find that the act of teaching and interacting with students feeds back into your own practice?
JF: I first started to teach about eight years ago. I feel that it very much feeds back into my own art practice. I often demonstrate my method of oil painting and I give constant advice and guidance to my students. This process of teaching raises multiple questions that require solutions and I often find that answers are learnt together. I’m a strong believer that we never stop learning and I really appreciate the benefits of self-analysis that teaching provides.
Artwork in Focus
To get an insight into the stories and context behind her work, we asked Jane to tell us about the people depicted in two of her paintings: ‘The New Coffee Pot’, which was selected for the Society of Women Artists Annual Exhibition, 2019; and ‘Eliza’, the portrait she created for the CBPP ‘Perceptions’ exhibition at The Space at Cass Art.
“Kim came along to one of my workshops and I found her interest in collecting and dressmaking and fabrics really fascinating. I actually have a small collection of mid-century crockery items myself and I love the graphics and style of them. Kim makes all her own dresses and probably has a different dress for every day of the year! I painted her holding a newly purchased coffee pot and I decided to meticulously depict the patterns on the pot and dress because I felt that it was an important part of her character. It was extremely time-consuming, but it was worth it!”
Interview by Richard Unwin.
To learn more about Jane French and her work visit her website, here.
All images courtesy of the artist, Jane French.
The image shown at the top of the page is ‘Lucy’ by Jane French. The painting was awarded the Rosemary and Co prize at the RBSA (Royal Birmingham Society of Artists) Portrait Prize Exhibition, 2019.
You can view virtual walkthroughs of the ‘Portraits for NHS Heroes’ virtual exhibition and the ‘Perceptions’ exhibition at The Space at Cass Art by visiting the CBPP’s profile page, here.
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