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Artist Sarah Graham on Nostalgia, Colour and How to Create The Blur

By The Arty Teacher - January 1, 2022

Student artwork inspired by artist Sarah Graham regularly brightens up our social media feeds.  Her hyper-realistic paintings of brightly coloured sweets, stacks of liquorice allsorts, Brighton rock, shiny marbles, plastic toys and her signature Chupa Chups are clearly capturing the imaginations of art teachers and students alike.  I went to her studios in the south of England to find out more about her work and story.

Cabinet of Curiosities

The first thing she showed me was an area of her studio that was filled with a cabinet and shelves bulging with nostalgic treasures.  As you can see from the photos below, barbies, bath toys, action figures and the stars from many of her paintings have pride of place. ‘Artist as collector’ is a well-known phenomenon. Louise Nevilson and Joseph Cornell surrounded themselves with the objects that appeared in their art and so does Sarah Graham.

Dotted around the studio are more objects that appear in Graham’s work. The small ice lolly sculpture, below, was sent to Graham by Los Angeles artist Betsy Enzensberger. Enzenberger also makes large ice lolly sculptures that are 6 or 7 feet tall.

Sarah Graham in her Studio November 2021

Themes in Sarah Graham’s Work

I wondered if Graham knew why her work was so popular in schools.

“I think my work engages the students because they can relate to it. Its subject matter and its colour.  The colour is a big part of it.  It’s joyous, uplifting work.  It’s quite easy to emulate and do versions themselves.”

I think it is all that Graham has said but also the many themes in Sarah Graham’s work that make it so popular in schools.  When art teachers dream up projects about colour, close-ups, nostalgia or memory, Sarah Graham springs to mind.  On the 2015 GCSE exam paper, Graham was mentioned under the question about ‘Food’. This encouraged so many visitors to her website that it broke which was a surprise as she didn’t know she was going to be on the paper.

Also, if you consider her ‘Wilderness of Kitsch’ series, she could be used for still life, identity or modern-day icons.

Wilderness of Kitsch

The ‘Wilderness of Kitch’ series started with Lana Del Rey simply because Graham is a fan.

Graham found a picture of Lana Del Rey online, printed it out and backed it on cardboard, adding a piece of card at the back to make a stand. A still life was created where Lana Del Rey was a two-dimensional figure in the centre and was surrounded by Graham’s collections of nostalgic objects.  This is a much more narrative direction for Graham and combines her love of portraiture with what she is better known for – still life kitsch.

‘Lana Americana’ by Sarah Graham (Oil on Canvas)

Bowie fans will be pleased to hear there is a David Bowie painting in the pipeline as part of the ‘Wilderness of Kitsch’ series. The backdrop is going to be a shooting star with Marrs, and Graham is already building a collection of Bowie related kitsch to create the still life.

Wouldn’t this make a great project for your students?  They could create a still life or composition of images that include an icon and objects that speak about that person.  I’m really excited by this idea!

Artist Sarah Graham’s Art Education & Early Career

I asked Graham to tell me about her art education.  She remembers nursery school and being told she was good at art even then.  All the way through school, art was “my thing” said Graham.  Her Dad nurtured her interest in art by buying her oil paints when she was only 8 years old.

She remembers fondly her art teacher Mr Tomkinson, known to students as Mr T, at Hitchin Girls School.

“He supported me so much, he really gave me confidence and nurtured my painting abilities.”

Invited back to her school for an end of year exhibition of GCSE and A-Level work, now retired Mr Tomkinson was there as a surprise for her which was very emotional.  He enjoyed seeing current students being inspired by a successful alumna.

Graham was also academic.  Her teachers tried to push her down the academic route.  (Does that sound familiar?)  She was torn and confused.  She completed an art foundation course which she felt bought her a bit more time to decide. She also applied for a psychology degree at Birmingham University and was awarded a place.  At the end of the foundation course, she was loving the art and still felt torn.  The principal of the art college made a point of coming to see her, to tell her that she was making a mistake if she didn’t pursue art.  Thankfully, she faxed Birmingham University to decline the place and got into De Montford University through clearing. She loved every moment of her degree, transforming a large room above a pub into an exhibition space and running it as a gallery. She sold work even then.

Working in America between her second and final year at Uni, Graham was inspired by the big beaches of Ocean City.  She just wanted to paint these beaches.  Post degree and now living in Reading, she took a beach painting to a gallery that was then called, ‘The Jelly Legged Chicken‘ who hung it straight away and it sold within days.  The gallery gave her a job and helped her find a studio space resulting in Graham being surrounded by art and artists. This gave Graham the confidence to believe that she could make it as an artist when she was just a year out of university.

Beaches, fish, car parks, flowers, scrap yards all featured in Graham’s early work. Her first studio was next to a model shop.  This, combined with her interest in close-up photography and colour, set her on a path that leads to the paintings we know so well.

Sarah Graham with a doll made for her by doll designer Rachel Godfrey. Note the Chupa Chup bodice.

Sarah Graham with a doll made for her by doll designer Rachel Godfrey. Note the Chupa Chup bodice.

Influences

I asked Sarah Graham about her influences.  She immediately points to a print by Gerhard Richter that hangs on her studio wall.

“That painting is the reason I’m a photorealist. It’s called ‘Betty‘ and was painted in 1988.  I was looking in an art book whilst at Uni and saw it and did a double-take, thinking it couldn’t be a painting. It really inspired me to combine photography and oil painting, both of which I loved. It was how I could put the two together.”

Graham went on to try her first photorealist painting which was a photo her Dad took of her as a baby. At University, Graham was told that she wouldn’t get a first if she continued with photorealistic work.  Luckily for us, Graham was undeterred.

“I’m quite headstrong when it comes to my art.  I know what I want to do. I knew I wanted to become a photorealist when I saw that painting. I stubbornly went on.”

Of course Richter, like Graham, skilfully creates a blurred effect in some of his paintings. More on ‘the blur’ below.

Recent Work

Sarah Graham played with Sindy dolls as a child.  She had already painted six Sindy dolls when a collector encouraged Graham to paint ‘Gayle’ the black Sindy doll, even locating one of these rare dolls for her.

“I love painting hair. I’ve got a real freedom within it to do my own thing.  It looks nothing like the photograph.”  

She showed me the photo of Gayle that she worked from, and all the blues and greens that you can see in the painting below just weren’t there. ‘Artistic license’ is something our students sometimes find hard to understand.

'Gayle' by Artist Sarah Graham

‘Gayle’ 2021 by Sarah Graham

I wondered if Graham knew roughly how long the painting above took her.  She said about 6 days working 6 hours a day. You do the maths!  This made me reflect on what we expect our GCSE exam students to do in 10 hours. She explained that she did the hair in one day, and that was a long day, and that the skin was done in one day, and the eyes separately.

“I might do a couple of hours in the morning and about 3 or 4 in the afternoon. Physically that’s my limit now just because I stand to paint…My back tends to ache.” 

Oils and Underpainting

Sarah Graham uses acrylic for the underpainting and then this gets completely covered up with oil paint. Graham, referring to the painting below that show several Subbuteo players states:

“This is rough, it’s quite crude, I always say it’s like a map, that’s how it acts and almost like it’s a guide, so I can reference the photograph less as I work as all the information is already down.” 

Artist Sarah Graham with a work in progress

Underpainting of ’80’s England’ work in progress by Sarah Graham

There was some mild controversy from the gallery where this painting is going.  The gallery commented that there are no black players depicted.  Sarah Graham responded that this was authentic to the game of Subbuteo at the time and that her work is largely about nostalgia.  Of course, this honest response was understood.

To make this forthcoming exhibition even more interesting, all the artists are black, except for Sarah Graham, whose exhibit will include ‘Gale’ as she was underrepresented at the time – rare and hard to get hold of.  This is an interesting side note to this exhibition.

The Blur

One of the major challenges that our students face when they want to take inspiration from Graham’s work is creating the blur.  Highly detailed areas and areas that appear blurred is a major feature of Graham’s work.  Many schools don’t use oil paint and creating the blur without it is incredibly difficult. There are mediums you can add to acrylic to extend the drying time which may help.  Graham talked about the photographic term ‘Bokeh’ which refers to the aesthetic quality of a blur produced in an out of focus part of an image.  Graham went on to tell me how she creates the blur and I was shocked by the size of her brushes.

“I lay the oils on fairly loose and fairly thick.  I add a painting medium to make it malleable. Then it’s dry brushwork.  I sweep the paint.”

She motions with the brush, moving it out from one of the Subbuteo players.

“There are different levels of focus.  Technically the blending is the hardest bit.”

“I see my photography as my sketchbook work.  That’s where I formulate the composition and play with composition until I get it right… I might spend a week on the photography alone…I easily take 50 – 100 photos and then one will eventually leap out having all the right elements.”

‘Pop Duo’ by Sarah Graham 240 x 180 cm

Chups Chups

It’s hard to talk about Sarah Graham without mentioning Chupa Chups.  It is her paintings of Chupa Chups that she is perhaps best known.  Perfetti Van Melle who make Chupa Chups have one of Sarah Graham’s paintings in their office in Spain. In fact, Graham has painted over 50 Chupa Chup paintings and sells them all over the world and into collections.

Kaiser Chiefs Album Cover

Graham described doing the Kaiser Chiefs album cover as a career highlight.  She was approached by Ricky Wilson from the Kaiser Chiefs in 2008. They became friends, even though the album cover didn’t happen at that time. In 2012 the Kaiser Chiefs had a ‘best of’ album coming out and Ricky suggested doing the band name in a stick of rock, and it all came together.  The technical skill of the clear wrapper and the blur in this painting is exquisite.

Kaiser Chiefs Album Cover

Kaiser Chiefs Album Cover by Sarah Graham

Ambassador for Mental Health

Sarah Graham is open about her mental health issues on social media.  Sectioned in 2017, Graham has made it clear that she has had a difficult time over the years battling a biopolar disorder.  In the 3 years in the run-up to being sectioned, she cycled between crippling depression and hypomania approximately every three months.  She told me that the past two and a half years is the longest period of time that she has been well.  Her openness and honesty about this is admirable.

“When I look at that undone me, I am so deeply grateful for the happy, stable person I am now.”

She is a patron for the creative mental health charity PoetsIN.  PoetsIN helps those that struggle with mental health and wellbeing by offering a creative mental health programme and wellbeing workshops.

Working with Schools

Booked up with commissions for a least 6 months, working in-person with a school every month and zooming with schools every week and her first book in the pipeline, Graham is an artist worth following.

Follow Sarah Graham on Twitter and Instagram.

Click the image below for a free presentation about the work of artist Sarah Graham for art teachers to use in the art classroom.

Sarah Graham Presentation

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The Arty Teacher

Sarah Crowther is The Arty Teacher. She is a high school art teacher in the North West of England. She strives to share her enthusiasm for art by providing art teachers around the globe with high-quality resources and by sharing her expertise through this blog.

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