Frances Bell is a Northumberland-based, Florence-trained portrait painter who has exhibited regularly at Mall Galleries with the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. Perhaps most well-known for her portraits, it is her painterly landscapes of the Northumberland farmland that have gone down a storm on Buy Art | Buy Now. Mall Galleries' Anna Preston talks to Frances about animals, portrait painting and capturing her working process in time-lapse films.
You have seven oil paintings on Buy Art | Buy Now, comprising a selection of seascapes and animal-inhabited landscapes, four of which have sold. Can you tell us a little more about the works and why you chose them to feature on the site?
My love of landscape and animals stems from a lifelong interest in the countryside and the painters who’ve represented our rural environment. I’ve always lived rurally, so I feel an affinity with farm animals in their created habitats and how they interact with the human world. It’s not that I particularly knew that animals would be appropriate; it’s more that the landscape themes inspire me most currently and I’m pleased that they are appealing to the Mall Galleries’ online audience.
You are also a renowned portrait painter, with works featuring in the upcoming RP exhibition including a self portrait. Your portraits seamlessly tie together traditional and more modern, experimental methods of human portrayal. What is the secret to painting a good portrait?
Portraits are unscripted real-life interactions between painter and sitter lifted onto canvas. I sometimes have an overarching narrative to a painting (I once painted a Primavera that commentated on which side of the easel women have historically occupied) but most commentary creates itself within the mind of the viewer, so I often simply construct real spaces within which the painted figure can dominate. I start with an idea of what light and atmosphere most interests me or my client, and build from there. I look to make a likeness correct and impart as much character as I can, which comes over the course of the sittings from life and conversation. I have an oscillating view of painting self portraits. I am both sitter and painter, and this is an odd position. Portraits of others often seem more dynamic due to the integration of both people, but self portraits are a curious thing to pursue, and I’ve enjoyed my recent attempts.
You trained in the ‘classical tradition’ in Florence at Charles Cecil Studios from 2001 to 2004. What is the ‘classical tradition’ and how has it informed your present technique and aesthetic?
My training was purely figurative, in the style of a classical atelier. We drew casts, busts and the nude intensively for a year before we even used paint. Then we continued in paint with the nude and portrait models for another two years or so. The training borrows from an Old Masters tradition of intense drawing and observation from life. We used the 19th century Sight Size technique, but 17th century masters probably used the same ideas of looking at models from a distance and painting alongside each other. The training equipped me for painting direct from life and using my eye to make measurements, rather than relying on tools. I use my training in every painting I paint, and it’s been an amazing tool box with which to proceed through ideas and phases of my artistic life.
I would ask about your creative process but you have some brilliant time-lapse videos on your website. How do you think these make your works more accessible, and do you have any other technological innovations up your sleeve?
Technology is a great boon to artists, especially the rural painter, to get the word out. I use time-lapse and progress stills to show the painting process. This is helpful to sitters, so they know what to expect, but is also a way of putting your process out there for all to see. I love watching other artists’ videos and social media feeds, as one would never know how other painters work otherwise.
Finally, what is next for you as an artist?
I am a compulsive painter! So as for the future, I will be doing some more portraits and landscapes, and pushing a few ideas around.