Katie Hayles is an Ōtautahi based painter and recent honours graduate from the University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts. She depicts vivid abstractions of the natural world, encapsulating the poetic lessons of nature. Ahead of her exhibition Refraction at City Art Depot she spoke with Exhibitions Manager Cameron Ralston. Refraction opens 5.30pm Tuesday 12 September and runs through to 2 October.
Reverie, acrylic & oil on canvas, 1015x1015mm, 2023
Cameron Ralston: Are your paintings representative of real places? Or are you pulling these scenes from your imagination?
Katie Hayles: A bit of both. I like to go to the place where imagination and experience meet. It’s a place you could visit in your head. A third place. From this earth but also not at the same time.
Are you painting with reference photos?
I do have reference images. But I use those more for the abstracted composition than the actual subject matter within the image – abstracting the colours and shapes.
It’s hard to place exactly where these scenes could be, some feel like gardens, some swampy. Is there a space that you’re trying to evoke?
It’s meant to be a meditative kind of space. A space that only exists truly in the mind. I’m looking to evoke feelings of serenity and a peaceful, idealised world. I really like to draw inspiration from Studio Ghibli films, and their landscapes or dream spaces where there is a feeling everything is okay. So, I was trying to get that attachment, not to any specific place, but to that idea.
Has your painting practice always had this aim at serenity and peace? Or is it a reaction to the turmoil out in the world and media?
Yeah, I do feel like it’s a stepping away from the noise of the world. Finding somewhere to escape from it. I have always gone for more spiritual, metaphysical themes in my work. Going a degree away from the real and looking more into the self, the human condition.
Do you spend a lot of time in nature?
Not too long ago I actually went and visited Claude Monet’s garden in Giverny, France. So that experience was burnt into my memory while I was painting. Even though it’s a recreated garden, not the original landscapes from Monet’s work (plants don’t live that long), it was interesting to see just how Monet surrendered himself to imaginative interpretation in his paintings. Seeing the living environments behind the work, there was a sense of being completely away from society and surrendering to nature. It was really nice.
I suppose Monet has quite a large influence on your work?
I like impressionism, but I don’t want to be an impressionist. I find that I admire the formal qualities of the movement, I relate to a lot of the ideas, but I also think they can be a bit superficial in 2023. They’re maybe more about painting pretty looking pictures, still tied to the depictive, and less about abstract explorations of paint. I want to have a bit more purpose behind what I choose and why I choose it.
What’s that purpose for you?
I want to capture the meaning of human perspective, and what that looks like. Being able to paint with an awareness of consciousness and time. I’ve been reading this book called The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard. He talks about imagination and memory being where creativity flourishes. He calls it the poetic action, which is the most human thing you can do. That unique human experience of being able to understand the world around us and all these processes below the surface.
Illusion, acrylic & oil on canvas, 1015x1015mm, 2023
When you say processes below the surface, are you talking about in nature itself or in the space of mental comprehension?
I have previously thought about biological processes in nature itself – macro, micro things. Cellular patterns and organic forms such as roots, vessels, are something I draw inspiration from. With these works, and the title Refraction, I was thinking about the way light hits the eye, the way that light is always moving and changing. You’re not seeing the same image, as it’s constantly shifting. I was trying to translate that into my paintings.
That fits quite nicely with this impressionist style of brushwork. Are there other connections or themes with nature that you are translating?
Things can be taught by reflecting on the laws of nature basically. Cycles, patterns, seasons, things of the natural world. There’s a visual language to it. I was really inspired by Hilma af Klint, developing her own language to translate spiritual lessons, things about the world and ideas of balance and harmony. Those lessons you can take on board from the natural world.
I’m curious as to how you fit those themes of balance and harmony into your paintings.
I think for me it comes through a feeling of completion. The paintings can be quite busy and layered, so it’s finding that point of when to stop. I try to create as much balance and harmony as I can through composition and other formal properties. I treat each work as an abstract piece essentially, always rotating the canvas and re-evaluating the composition to see if it works no matter what. I want to stop at that point where it’s not too far gone to the abstraction and still has those hints of narrative. Especially with titles, I use those to help draw out some of the deeper meaning beyond what you might see at face value.
Abundance, acrylic & oil on canvas, 760x760mm, 2023
Do you paint these quite quickly? Or is there a longer process of plotting your next move?
A bit of both. I find I get into a flow state of painting while I’m working, but only for about an hour or so. Then I might leave it for a week. I’m quite selective when I place a brush mark because it’s staying there. I don’t like to over paint, over blend or work wet on wet too often. I like to keep things quite divided, broken apart, kind of mosaicked. It’s really important to stand back and evaluate what is needed. So, it does take a while, they need the breathing room and time apart.
These pronounced individual brushstrokes sitting above others is a feature of your work. How do you go about selecting your colour palette?
I’m quite intuitive with colour, I’m not someone that mixes up all my colours before I begin. I’m someone that dips a bit here, slaps it on there, quite quick and loose. I think of it on the spot when I’m choosing my colours. I’ll be looking for that impressionist feeling of movement and warmth of light.
Do you find you work differently on the bigger pieces?
Yes, when the pieces move into that body size, there are more things to think about. Trying to stay loose and intuitive while painting can be hard, when larger canvases require more time. Especially with brush size – small brushes on smaller canvases can still look fairly big, but they become more detailed on larger ones. I find I don’t really want to go tiny and detailed with the large works. It can be a struggle trying to avoid going overboard. Those more full-size paintings you want to feel like you could almost step into them, whereas the smaller ones are framed more like a window.
Do you play with depth of field in these paintings? Just looking at this work ‘Alight’ it has a kind of flatness, which maybe comes from the shoreline being interrupted by this lighter brushstroke.
I like the uncanniness when the landscape or scene is not quite as you’d expect. I like to use equiluminant colours, which is when the hue of a colour causes it to push forward to the eye. Cool colours recede, warm colours push forward. You can really play tricks with the eye, bringing forward things that should be behind others and vice versa. It makes a really interesting experience for the viewer as you change the lighting and move closer or further away. Things come together or they break apart. Depth of field is there sometimes, other times it’s more flat.
Has nature always been a focus for you?
I’d say I came around to it in my last year of university. So it’s been roughly two years that I’ve been working around nature. I find it’s something that comes quite naturally.
The paintings don’t strike me as wild scenes. They are, much like Monet’s garden, arranged, designed spaces.
I know what you mean, there’s a manicured feeling. It’s a place where there’s nothing to be afraid of. Things feel safe. I feel like that’s quite reminiscent for people too, like a tree in a family garden or somewhere at school. I want to depict spaces where people might draw from their own experiences. Somewhere that invites that feeling of home.
Resonance, acrylic & oil on canvas, 760x760mm, 2023
Do you have any contemporary artists that you draw inspiration from?
Another artist whose work I enjoy and take a lot of inspiration from is Seraphine Pick. I find the way she allows herself to completely surrender into the art and create something that’s uniquely from her imagination really admirable. Being wholly yourself while making, not replicating another artist. I started doing the acrylic staining underneath the oil paint to get a kind of random, unpredictable underpainting based on some of her stained canvases, and the dreamy, surreal atmosphere of her paintings.
Does that staining give you a structure to work off?
It does give me a bit of shape. I tend to do a few different pours and try to nudge a few shapes together, but of course when it dries it’s a completely different shape. I like to work into that base layer. I’ll rotate it until that base layer suits the lights and darks I’m looking for. I like to let that underpainting peek through in some areas, you can only tell when you’re up close.
I suppose at different distances they have different effects. Up close some of those details can be more chaotic in effect.
They definitely get more abstract the closer you are. The brushwork can be quite aggressive, which is maybe a contrast to the serenity. But it doesn’t feel super busy either. I feel it’s more of a liveliness and movement. I was going for that active feeling of light bouncing around in front of the eye.
Do the pieces have a nostalgic quality to you?
I think because they’re intertwined with memory, they do. Because they bring up past experiences, images, they evoke a sense of nostalgia. I try to create memories that everyone has.
You’ve mentioned this idea of resonance, it could be something resonating with people personally. What is your aim with your titles?
I like to give people something more fleshed out because I really don’t want to give the impression that they’re works that are just there to look nice. With a title like Antecedent for example, I’m thinking about the lifespan of our world and the temporality of everything, trying to choose titles to suggest those ideas.
Do those ideas of temporality in nature play into your work a lot?
Yeah, but I think that we are the more temporal part of the world. These scenes are more timeless. There’s no buildings or signifiers of time, so you can’t date these or place when they might have been imagined. These scenes are more permanent in my eyes.
Antecedent, acrylic & oil on canvas, 610x610mm, 2023
How does this body of work compare to other artworks you’ve made? Is it a continuation from what you were working on at university?
I would say that it’s kind of the next evolution of what I was working on at university. In previous work I was looking at visual language through paint and how to communicate things visually in a way that’s going to be understood clearly. A lot of those techniques, such as the receding and pushing forward of space, were things that I explored in other work too. I would say the main difference in these, is that those previous works weren’t as rooted in a place. Those previous pieces didn’t feel like somewhere that actually exists, that you could go visit or imagine seeing in real life. Those other pieces were more just about light and form. This time I’m trying to weight it with something real before I take off.
What’s drawing you towards being more representative in these?
I feel it’s more interesting. As a viewer you’re more likely to be invested or even more attracted to have a look in the first place, at something weighted in the real. I’m giving more hints of form and subjects but trying to not go too far into being descriptive. I still want that abstract feeling when you’re looking at it. Something important in my work is that there is always something new to be found, or noticed each time you look. I want to get that little hook of recognition to get people into the works before they see all the other details of the paintings, and begin to understand what I’m trying to share.