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Playfully distorting everyday objects, Munro creates scenes full of visual appeal.
By John A. Parks
English artist Jan Munro re-creates the quiet pleasures of pleasing domestic interiors in her deftly simplified pastel still life paintings. Seemingly chance arrangements of flowers, ceramics, fruit, fabrics and furnishings summon a home life where food and drink, floral arrangements, and treasured objects combine to create an inviting and sensually satisfying atmosphere.
Squared Off and Simplified
Instead of presenting a full realistic account of her subjects, Munro chooses to simplify the forms in her still life paintings. She modifies shapes in her compositions so that they become more square and devoid of much of their detail. She also flattens the space of the setting, avoiding the conventions of perspective, a strategy that allows her to compose the painting as a flat design. “The objects I choose are simple,” says the artist. “I don’t like elaborate stuff. I tend to reduce them into almost box-like shapes. Then I break those flat shapes into areas where I see reflected color, highlights or different tones.”
By painting the color and tonal changes across forms, Munro endows them with three-dimensional life even as she arranges them in a two-dimensional space. “I describe the light on an object, thus giving it form,” she says, “but I flatten the curves and ellipses in the drawing. It’s a bit contradictory.”
Breaking the Plane
Munro’s predilection for somewhat squared shapes tends to give her compositions a stable, grounded feel. “I want to get away from the old illusion of depth on a two-dimensional surface,” she says. “I’m not concerned with representation as it is. Also, I like vertical and horizontal grid design, breaking the plane into blocks of different sizes. I don’t use diagonals because they tend to indicate depth. Why I work like this is hard to explain. I like composing and designing shapes that are simple, almost abstract.”
Using squared-off elements in a flat space runs the risk of creating compositions that are static. Munro avoids this by choosing to lean many of her objects slightly away from the vertical. It is this maneuver that adds a sense of movement and rescues the composition from the strictures of geometry. “By leaning the objects, they begin to take on a life of their own,” says the artist. “I don’t want to do straight.”
A Still Life in the Making
Munro begins her still life paintings with some careful planning. “First, I select my objects, fabrics and flowers,” she says. “These are chosen for their shapes and, more importantly, their color. I often choose complementary colors. For instance, a lot of my work is in turquoise and orange, colors that I like to use in my home. The flowers are usually a starting point, nothing too complex, as they’d only get simplified into tonal areas by squinting anyway. The flowers provide organic softness. The objects follow on.”
Having assembled her props, Munro takes on the task of arranging them. “I set up the still life in my studio,” she says, “which takes time, because I try different fabric patterns under the objects and different tones of objects, fabric, and paper. Whatever’s behind the still life, such as a radiator, chair or doorway, often gets included in the design.”
Character and Composition
After finalizing the still life arrangement, Munro proceeds to make a drawing in an A3 sketchbook. “I draw using a continuous line and seek out the composition,” she says. “I alter shapes and sizes of things and work out how they fit together—little shapes and large, positive and negative. It’s here that I seek character in the objects and make them mine. I don’t think too hard about it; I put on some music and just let the line go.”
Once she has completed the drawing, Munro transfers the composition to pastel paper, usually Sennelier La Carte pastel card in dark gray. “I enlarge it by simply drawing it bigger using a hard Conté pastel on the surface,” she says.
Intuition, Color and Line
With the drawing in place, the task of painting can begin. “I start by using Unison soft pastels,” says Munro. “I’ll have selected the ones I want first, testing them on a separate bit of the same surface. I begin with the flowers—darks first where I see them, then mids, then lights.” The artist says she tends to use this approach of finding three color groups for all of the objects she paints.
As the painting gets underway, Munro proceeds intuitively, leaving plenty of openings to come back to later. “I don’t always finish something completely at first,” she says, “but go on to what’s next to it, perhaps a bit of background. In this way, I can find edges to the flowers or objects by painting negative space using different tones or colors.”
As she paints up to the edge of an object, Munro sometimes will leave a gap. This creates a thin line or channel in the warm gray color of her paper. “I think that background color is quite nice as a line,” she says. “I don’t think about it too much. It just happens as I’m painting.” At other times, she’ll add a line in pastel if she feels the image requires it.
Fresh and Immediate Pastels
Munro’s handling of the pastel is bold and direct; the painting tends to be achieved in a single layer, a strategy that lends a sense of freshness and immediacy. “I use side strokes or slabs of color, one next to the other,” she says. “There’s a bit of overlay where they meet, but I don’t tend to layer my colors very much. I hardly ever use hard pastels except for the initial drawing. I do overlay lines and patterns on some of the slabs of color with the edge of a soft pastel. Or I scrape into it with my fingernail.” The artist says that she enjoys this last process, in which her nail creates a thin line, adding to the range of mark-making in the work.
For all the directness of her technique, Munro proceeds carefully and has the ability to backtrack and make changes if need be. “As I work, I’m constantly looking at the painting in a big mirror behind me,” she says. “This gives me another viewpoint and is so helpful. When nearly all the surface is covered, I’m done.”
The Beauty in Everyday Objects
Munro says that she’d like to extend her unique approach to landscape, noting that her work may become even more abstract in the future. Whatever the future brings to her work, Munro’s pastels are richly satisfying, as well as extremely fresh and immediate, two qualities that aren’t easy to combine. “There’s a certain amount of playfulness in my work,” she says. “Ideally, I’d like viewers to see the beauty in simple objects, to love the colors and characters of the things, and the balance of the composition. I’d hope they’d have a happy response, journey through the work and keep looking.”
About the Artist
Jan Munro was born in London and trained as a nurse. She eventually become a ward sister at the Royal Free Hospital in London. Marriage and children took her away from the workplace for several years. But when her children were older, she started to take art courses, working first in acrylic and watercolor before discovering pastel. She began teaching a pastel course at a local art shop and gradually developed a passion for the medium. Over time, she found buyers for her work and became a successful teacher of workshops and classes. Munro is a member of The Pastel Society UK, and makes her home in Hertfordshire, England.
John A. Parks is a painter, a writer and a faculty member of the School of Visual Arts in New York. This article excerpt originally appeared in Pastel Journal August 2018 issue. For the full feature article and to see more of Munro’s work, check out the issue!