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That Which Pleases Upon Being Seen

Fashion-designer-turned-painter Carla Sibal talks about beauty and the beautiful

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Interview by AA PATAWARAN

Images by Alex Atack 

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For Carla Sibal Thompson, it has always been about the finer things in life. For the most part, these finer things translate to what is beautiful, a subject Carla has been quite familiar with having worked for two decades as a fashion designer and then as a magazine editor. Now she takes her eye for beauty to a whole new level, dabbling in the arts as a painter. We spoke to Carla to find out what drove her to pursue a career as in fine arts.

AN EYE FOR BEAUTY An integral part of Carla Sibal’s  creative process is her attention to detail, which includes being extra picky about the materials she uses▬from fine grain linen canvas and handmade brushes

AN EYE FOR BEAUTY An integral part of Carla Sibal’s creative process is her attention to detail, which includes being extra picky about the materials she uses▬from fine grain linen canvas and handmade brushes

What prompted you to turn to art?

The inclination descended on me out of the blue. It was a nagging feeling that moved me to pick up a brush and paint portraits. I tried to deflect it for around a year. I knew what being an artist entailed, having taken up a fine art program as a freshman in university. In my head, it was a competency that had disappeared as soon as I graduated and sought a more “responsible” profession as a fashion designer and later an editor.

The internal “push” became so uncomfortable that if I had to describe it, it felt like a scene in the film Alien where the alien forces its way out of Sigourney Weaver’s stomach. My push to take up oil painting was that strong, I didn’t have a choice really. The last thing I wanted to do at that point in my life was spend thousands of pounds and all this time learning the technicalities of oil painting.

The tipping point came when I saw a portrait John Currin made of a very chic lady in a fur coat and stylish specs. It possessed me to the point that I just had to perfect my painting skills so I could create art with a similar aesthetic sensibility.

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You’re specializing in portraiture. What particular skills are at play in painting likenesses? 

The fundamental skill in portraiture is drawing because that is the foundation of the whole painting. The scaffolding, so to speak. An understanding of values, the play of dark and light or “chiaroscuro” in adding depth and dimension to the face. I have been fortunate to have taken drawing lessons for several years, starting when I was a child all the way to my university days in Paris and New York where we were trained in the classical atelier method of drawing. Another skill I picked up in university was understanding color theory. The nuances needed to capture all the hues and tonalities of skin come in handy when mixing paint.

Another skill is art direction. When creating a painting, an awareness of framing, composition, and design principles are paramount. How to photograph a sitter, lighting, and how to represent him/her in the best possible way visually. These are skills I picked up as a fashion designer then as an editor. My background in fashion and media is important to be able to inject the proper aesthetic I want to reflect in my work. There are many talented portrait artists out there but your personal style and aesthetic, your level of “taste,” is what sets you apart.

FASHIONABLE ART A designer and then magazine editor for 20 years, Carla’s aesthetic sense combines the modern fashion with classical art

FASHIONABLE ART A designer and then magazine editor for 20 years, Carla’s aesthetic sense combines the modern fashion with classical art

Who are your influences?  

John Currin is my favorite contemporary artist. He is also the reason I decided to pursue fine art. I am inspired by his painting style and how he creates all this beautiful, witty images that are relevant today yet reflective of northern Renaissance paintings.

Other favorites are Joaquin Sorolla and John Singer Sargent. Their masterful use of color, sense of style and fashion aesthetic resonate deeply with me.

Of the old masters, I am particularly influenced by the work of Jan van Eyck, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, and Lorenzo Lotto. Van   Eyck pioneered the use of the glazing technique, which I apply extensively in my work. Lotto’s powerful yet poetic use of imagery, particularly in his portraits, moves me to the core.

To keep up with the changing standards of art I make sure to visit exhibitions at least every other week and read about art regularly. I also like to experiment with new techniques so my art is always evolving. One of my commissions I did four times in the past year because I kept changing my palette and upgrading materials. In the beginning I was happy to use regular “professional grade” oils and mediums. After immersing myself in the superior art created by the old masters, I found myself aspiring to come up with technically more complex work and started sourcing and using the same materials they did.

How does inspiration or the lack of it affect your work, especially when it comes to commissions? 

I feel very fortunate to have access to world class art from the best artists both in the past and in the present, here in London. If I’m feeling stuck and uninspired, if a painting isn’t coming out how I would like it to, I’ll run down to either the National Gallery or the National Portrait Gallery.

There’s a ritual that gets me into the zone. Once the canvas is prepped, which can last from three to 14 days, painting starts as a “grisaille” or monotone study of values. It’s a good warm up to starting a portrait, and also allows you to get lost in color.

Music is one of the biggest factors in determining what kind of work I do. Because painting requires extreme amounts of focus, classical music is the only thing I can listen to while I’m painting a face.

Use of specialized materials is also a major factor. An example is the kind of canvas I paint on, which is usually fine grain linen; the brushes used, which are all handmade; the oils, consisting of rare, usually highly toxic substances; and lastly the mediums, which I concoct the same way Da Vinci used to do.

Before I start working on anything the most important thing is to get into a peaceful, calm state of mind in the morning. Being in a clean, quiet, orderly environment and doing a daily ritual of prayer, meditation, and yoga get me ready to work.

What are your dream projects? 

Dream projects would include large scale, full sized portraits of individuals I admire, dressed in haute couture, something that would indulge my fashion side.

I have always wanted to paint Marella Agnelli but, sadly, she passed away early this year. She signifies the absolute height of style, taste, and elegance to me. Sadly no one else comes close! The much acclaimed artist Elizabeth Peyton, whose work I love, didn’t let that stop her. So it’s something I’ve been thinking of doing in the near future.

Other than portraits, what other forms of art are you into? 

I love architecture and music, so London ticks all the boxes with regard to my favorite place to live. Although I have been going to the opera and watching classical music concerts all my life, the love of architecture only came when I moved here. I became fascinated with the history, tradition, and craftsmanship that surrounded me.

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