London Paint Club

Artist Session:

Karla Milne-West

In my recent discussion with Sydney-born artist Karla Milne-West, we dove deep into the intricacies of navigating a career in the art world today. Karla, an art school graduate from the ’80s, candidly shared her struggles with self-promotion and the daunting prospect of gallery representation. She also spoke about her shift from drawing to abstract painting, revealing her deep-rooted passion for landscapes and seascapes that stem from her upbringing near the ocean. I offered some advice based on my interactions with other artists, emphasizing the importance of staying true to one’s artistic vision rather than chasing social media trends or commercial success. We also touched on the real-life challenges of dedicating oneself fully to art, especially while juggling other life responsibilities like family. One thing that struck me was the emotional depth in Karla’s abstract work, which I find offers a more unique and personal avenue for artistic expression. The conversation revealed Karla’s internal struggle to balance her genuine love for art with the complex dynamics and expectations of the contemporary art world.

Karla Milne West – I attended art school in the 1980s in Sydney, which is where I grew up, from ’85 to ’87. Drawing was always my passion. But, my experience in art school wasn’t the best. I left feeling burnt out and lacking confidence. At that time, it seemed that the boys were more aggressive in pursuing gallery representation. It wasn’t something I felt comfortable doing. After art school, I felt lost and found solace in traveling. Even then, I kept a sketchbook and continued to draw. It wasn’t until eight years ago that I decided to paint. 

Launching my Instagram page felt like a huge step, given my reservations about self-promotion. Lately I’ve been doing more abstract work and see them merging with my other styles. My dream is to display my work and possibly have gallery representation. I still value the traditional idea of a gallery, but self-doubt occasionally clouds my vision.

Kelly Foster – I recently spoke to another artist somewhat similar to you. She transitioned from being a banker to a painter, largely self-taught, without the formal art school background you have. I explained to her that the art world essentially operates in two primary ways: the traditional gallery structure, wherein artists attend formal schools, get represented, and proceed from there, and the more modern approach of self-promotion through websites, Instagram, and other platforms. Trying to navigate both simultaneously can be challenging. It might be more productive to choose one path. 

I was candid with her about how the conventional gallery world can be tough to penetrate, especially for someone not coming straight out of that system. In places like London, young artists fresh from art school are often scouted by curators at their degree shows, eventually getting absorbed by bigger galleries if they’re fortunate. However, breaking into this circle often relies on networking, being in the right place at the right time, and a significant element of luck.

KMW – I appreciate that insight. I’m curious about your opinion on my work too. Regarding my art, abstract work seems popular currently, especially on Instagram. I have no interest in strictly realistic work. I gravitate towards a looser style and have been experimenting with getting even looser. I occasionally use a palette knife, which gives a relaxed and unstructured feel, which I love. Sometimes I incorporate blurs into my pieces, which garner more attention, like the one you noticed. I’m torn between tailoring my style based on Instagram feedback or simply pursuing what I love passionately. What are your thoughts on this?

KF – My suggestion is to pursue what you’re passionate about, rather than getting overly focused on social media likes or trends. Let’s discuss your work in depth, its essence. While everyone hopes to sell their art, focusing solely on sales can sometimes blind us to improving our work. Rather than fixating on the commercial aspect, concentrate on refining and evolving your craft, becoming more intentional in your artistic journey.

KMW – I understand and agree with what you’re saying. My desire to sell isn’t purely about the money but more for a sense of self-worth. It feels challenging not to have my own income, and selling my art would give me some independence. Although I’d love to paint daily, it doesn’t happen consistently. At present, I aim for at least three or four days a week, though these aren’t full days. With responsibilities like taking care of my son and household chores, managing a few hours of painting feels fulfilling. Considering legendary artists like Picasso, who are known to work extensively, do you think such commitment is essential?

KF – For someone aspiring to become a prominent artist, reliant solely on their art for livelihood and gallery representation, yes, an all-consuming dedication is often required. I’ve spoken with artists about their journey, and many mention having no alternative – no ‘Plan B’. Their entire week is consumed in the studio. Such an approach, while admirable, isn’t feasible for everyone. While I don’t intend to dishearten you, I believe in being candid. My advice would be to immerse yourself in art primarily for love, knowing the challenges that lie ahead.

KMW – I engage in art because it’s a fundamental need for me. It serves as a release and helps me focus. While I believe there’s a place for everyone’s artwork in the world, I also recognize the finite space in the industry. Not every art student can make a successful career, and I struggle to see how that would be feasible.

KF – I’m currently viewing your Instagram, and a sketchbook piece with oil pastel caught my attention. Given your mention of drawing, do you ever post such works?

KMW – Not recently. I’ve shared a few older drawings from my sketchbooks, but my focus has largely shifted towards painting, particularly colorful landscapes and seascapes. Drawing used to be my passion— I even majored in it during school. But lately, my mind is filled with colors, especially associated with the sea.

KF – Drawing, particularly with color, can be captivating. Could you share more about your fascination with seascapes and landscapes? How did this interest develop?

KMW – Growing up by the sea in Sydney, I’ve always been captivated by the ocean. It brings me peace and a deep connection to nature. I often try to capture the essence of the sea in my art, as seen in the abstract painting behind me. It reminds me of the Mediterranean and induces a sense of tranquility.

KF – It’s fascinating to hear about such a profound connection. While I didn’t grow up close to the sea, I do understand its allure. There’s a universal appreciation for beautiful landscapes, especially coastal ones.

KMW – Exactly. As for my artistic process, I sometimes sketch on location, but I primarily work from photographs. Most of the pictures are my own. Although I lean towards seascapes, I’ve been considering more varied landscapes lately. My process typically involves sketching on canvas or paper, followed by painting. I’ve come to love using a palette knife; its textural effect prevents me from being overly detailed, which I favor.

KF – Working on a larger canvas might allow you to further explore this loose style. Given your love for the sea and color, experimenting with watercolors could be rewarding. Some pieces on your page, though acrylic, have a fluidity reminiscent of watercolors. Do you use them occasionally?

KMW – Yes, I’ve experimented with watercolors before, and you’re right about the fluidity they offer.

KF – Regarding your artwork, could you shed light on your creative process? Do you primarily paint on location, or do you work from photographs?

KMW – While sometimes I sketch during my travels, the majority of my work stems from photographs. They allow me to bring the vastness of nature into my confined workspace. I dream of having a larger space to work more freely. Nonetheless, each photograph is one I’ve taken myself. They serve as a base, and from them, I quickly sketch out the general layout on my canvas or paper. Using a palette knife, I aim for a more abstract texture. It prevents me from becoming too rigid, which can happen when I draw.

KF – Considering your abstract pieces, like the one behind you, perhaps exploring these feelings further could prove rewarding. Using colors and gestures to embody your emotions might be an avenue worth exploring.

KMW – I’ve been posting some of these experiments on a separate page dedicated to my abstract works. While I’m still navigating this style, there are moments where it feels just right. I often grapple with whether I should continue pursuing both avenues or hone in on one.

KF – From my perspective, some of your abstract pieces seem to capture the essence of your connection with the sea most genuinely. Landscapes can sometimes feel repetitive, but with abstraction, there’s a world of possibilities. It allows for a personal touch that’s truly unique.

KMW – Regarding the sketches in my sketchbook that I do with acrylic, for some reason, despite their small size, they feel looser when I paint them. Some may seem blurred, but for example, the one you mentioned earlier – that was really small. The smaller it is, the less control I feel I have. It often means I don’t fret over the edges, which works better for me. Sometimes, though, they feel too tight. As for watercolor on a large scale, I’m not sure how I’d control that, but it might be fun to try.

KF – When you talked about the abstract piece behind you, I thought maybe it would be interesting for you to focus conceptually on what you love about these landscapes. Your connection to the sea and memories from growing up in Sydney comes through. Maybe you could explore depicting these feelings just with color and gesture?

KMW – I’ve been playing around with abstract work on my other page. Some pieces work, others don’t. That piece behind me, for instance, gives me the feeling I’m trying to express. Sometimes I debate whether I should only focus on abstract for a while or keep doing both as I currently am.

KF – Personally, certain abstract paintings of yours feel stronger to me. When you talk about the energy of the sea, it feels genuine. For instance, the painting titled “To the Sea Acrylic on Canvas” captures this perfectly. However, with landscapes, I feel they can become repetitive unless they have a radical element.

KMW – It’s interesting you say that because I’ve thought the same about my work. Sometimes, I wonder if a piece is too simple, but it feels right to me. I remember a sketchbook piece from June, where the strokes felt heavier. Letting go of the need to represent landscapes has been freeing. However, sometimes I feel like a fraud when I delve into abstracts since no one was doing such work when I went to art school in Sydney during the mid-eighties.


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