London-born Sophie Milner studied at Chelsea College of Art and the University of Edinburgh. The artist is known for her album cover artwork which include Mumford & Son’s, Laura Marling, Rachel Sermanni and Emily and the Woods, as well as her figurative paintings. Her works demonstrate processes of deep contemplation and a step between reality and a dream-like state. Aesthetica catch up with Milner about her new show Sleepwalkers at Arusha Gallery, Edinburgh.
A: Having roots in other art forms – notably being a record cover artist – what made you want to start creating paintings and to exhibit them?
SM: I had always painted but I rediscovered the practice on my own terms around three years ago; working large and quickly in a process-led and tactile way. I hope to form a presence in a room in the way that is particular to painting, and that each piece is sensual to encounter such as a reproduction cannot be. I have always enjoyed exhibiting as it feels conclusive to a time period, part of the natural cycle of making and sharing. Also, I get a cathartic kick leading up to and after a show from the closing of the chapter. This means that I often feel a sense of freedom after exhibiting – to take the work in a new direction, a self permitting of kinds.
A: How would you describe your practice in terms of technique and the elements you consider and the process taken towards creating new works?
SM: My knowledge is experimental and experience based. I’ve always been keen on having extensive material knowledge because I like technical aspects of working with paint to become natural and intuitive. I continually experiment with different resins and waxes as mixing mediums and am very particular about paint consistency. At the moment some personal favourites include Old Holland paints for their translucency and Michael Harding painting mediums for their traditional components.
In the studio I can get quite “techy” about my set up, I like everything to be on wheels so that I can re-organise the space quickly to break away from old ways of looking and thinking. My “pallet” is a large table that I have added wheels and a cut-to-measure glass top to, this gives me a large mixing surface which stops my colours muddying each other. I am drawn to luminosity and clarity of colour. I like to build my own canvases, using a fine grain linen. Saying this, some of them are getting too big for me to build in the studio so I am having to have them custom made!
A: With a bright, fluid quality, your works seem to contain a dream-like minimalist abstraction. How do the ideas develop for your pieces?
SM: It is interesting you say that as it’s not a comparison I would have have expected. However, I could say that there is a distilling of forms and compositional concerns which I probably have in common with some of the artists in this movement. I never see my work as abstract as I often try to hold something figurative in a moment of transition or becoming.
In terms of developing pieces, I rely on notebooks for allowing me to observe re-occurring thoughts or visual emblems. They form a kind of cryptic reservoir within which ideas can interact and reappear. Reappearing notations that continue to nag me find their way into a painting at some point. I used to turn up with no idea at all of what I was going to put on the canvas. Once in the process of painting I would often turn the canvas around a few times at different stages before an image settled, or consciously break attachment with an image which I felt appeared too early.
The paintings are more premeditated at the moment and I will decide on my main colour scheme and rough idea before beginning. However, I never do under-drawings as I feel this can kill the energy of my work. Instead I like to cover the whole canvas in a thin oily layer of paint which I can shift around easily and do the whole under-painting in one session. If I can get the energy right by the end of that first session I tend to feel confident that the painting will pull through.
A: Your bold colour schemes use tonal nuances to create dimensions in the work. In this way your compositions have a strong sense of emotion attached to the colour. Are you interested in colour theory, and does this affect the pieces?
SM: It is definitely more intuitive over theoretical, and certainly is an emotive decision. I’m not interested in academic colour theory but I do analyse other painters’ uses of colour all the time. Pierre Bonnard, Ernst Kirchner and Dana Schutz are some examples of artists heightening and detaching colour from reality in ways that I admire. It feels natural to me to subvert colour to communicate psychological atmosphere or tension, or communicate the mood of my characters.
A: How far do you think that painting is a mutually-beneficial act? i.e. being a practice that creates works but in turn informs a type of meditative reflection in the artist?
SM: I love this question as I think about these kind of ideas a lot. I think painting is an intrinsically self-reflective act, and quite literally too in reflecting back at you the marks which you make. In this way it has huge potential to become “mutually-beneficial” to the artist as a tool for developing meditative qualities such as self-observation and practicing presence.
Three years ago I spent some months living in India where I stayed in Ashrams (yoga monasteries) studying meditation and this transformed my practice. Specifically it opened up my ability to continually observe my thoughts and feelings whilst painting. When a painting practice becomes meditative in this way you bring another voice into the dynamic and into the interior dialogue. It is an addition that encourages and develops intuition – steering oneself to make decisions in paintings that are poetic over logical and for you to place trust in these judgments. I think that when embraced this can be a very powerful driving force behind moving the work forward that also instigates personal growth in the artist on a deeper level. It can become a habitual need to touch base with yourself through the painting practice in this way.
If I have taken a few days off from painting this is what pulls me back into the studio – a certain kind of desire for time spent with self. A dedicated painting practice develops qualities such as patience, focus, restraint, courage and self awareness. I think a lot of studio based practices can be quite monastic in their challenges and rewards!
A: Is there a narrative behind Sleepwalkers that you’d like the audience to engage with?
SM: There is yes, depicted in this show are night-wandering women having dream like encounters in nature as literal sleepwalkers. This wasn’t a pre-conceived theme for the show but more something I noticed was naturally becoming recurrent in the paintings. The title stuck as it also worked as an analogy for the painting process. Specifically painting in relation to lucid dreaming – having one foot in the waking world and one foot in the dreaming and finding your place in the balance between control and happenings.
A: How do you think curating your works with Arusha Gallery has helped to develop your intentions for the show?
SM: Having a supportive team in Arusha who respect my process has allowed an authentic collection of works to emerge gradually. There is a shift when working towards a solo show in that you have an increased awareness or even anxiety surrounding how the works are going to be perceived together. It introduces an element of collectivity that I try to not focus on when making the work as I think it can hinder the nurturing of the individual life in each piece. I don’t like to dictate connections between works – I like realising connecting traits which feel as subtle or accidental as they do between friendships or other relationships in life.
Sophie Milner, Sleepwalkers, runs at Arusha Gallery, Edinburgh 2-27 September. For more information: www.arushagallery.com
1. Sophie Milner, Sleepwalkers. Oil on linen 180 x 160cm. Courtesy of the artist and Arusha Gallery.