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Devon Smith, inspired...

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Our latest exhibition, Current, features nine creatives and their works inspired by items in the Museum’s textile collection. In a series of blog interviews we introduce the artists.  

How would you describe your work and aesthetic?

All my work’s quite soft and physical in a way, not just because I’m painting the female form, but feminine. It’s all very soft and lush, maybe a little bit ethereal as well.

What attracted you to paint as a medium?

I work with watercolour and gouache. Watercolour is pretty much instantaneous – there’s no slow buildup like with oils; what you paint is what the painting looks like, so it’s instant gratification. Gouache is more like a drawing medium. It’s flat and the colour doesn’t change much when it dries, so it’s just like drawing with paint.


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How did you transition through drawing and watercolours to tattooing?

After Art School I was living in Wellington working as an artist and working part-time in an art gallery. I was doing art, but I wanted to translate this to a job. All my work is to do with the body, so making the jump from drawing things on bodies in paintings to drawing things on bodies with needles in real life, made sense to me. I needed to adjust my style for tattooing because my painting is so soft and so delicate that it doesn’t transition easily. I had to harden up a little bit in a lot of ways, stylistically and emotionally.


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Describe your creative process from conception to completion.

I’ve got my little sketch book that I carry with me everywhere and it’s just for scribbling in. So I start really messily and I try not to fuss about it too much. I’ll do a thumbnail – if I’m doing an A1 painting, I’ll do a couple of centimetres just to get the idea of how things are going to sit – then I’ll do some slower, tidier, more refined sketches. For something small, I’ll just go straight onto watercolour paper and draw it up. But for anything bigger I would be making more of a mess and ruining the paper if I did that, so I take my sketches into Photoshop and tidy them up and lay them out how I want, and then print them. I’ll make a tracing from that and then transfer it to watercolour paper. I do the base washes, and then go back with pencil and refine the details, and start adding more colour and gouache.

So how many layers could you have?

I will do a flat watercolour layer, a pencil layer, a tonal watercolour layer and then usually gouache for detailing, followed by a little coloured pencil sometimes on top of that as well. Because gouache is water soluble it has to go last. I can’t do a watercolour wash over that or it will smear.

What environment do you like to work in?

I need a dedicated space. If I have people bugging me I get thrown off track and get nothing done. Sketching I will generally do in front of the TV or at a café or wherever, just to get things flowing. But to get the final drawing I need to be quite focused, as I’m easily distracted, so it’s my internet-less studio. I have my record player out here so I generally listen to music but when I’m in the zone I tend to forget about it.

Afternoons are better, I’m not a morning person. But I need really careful lighting if I’m going to work at night. Because my work is so light, daylight is best to work in.


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Do you have any particular favourite artists?

I’m really into Henri Rousseau at the moment, because his work is so full of plant life, green and lush. Lush is my word of the day. I’ve been painting a mural on my bathroom wall – a jungle scene. Henri Rousseau’s jungles are my idealised jungle, very lush but a little bit sinister.

Where do you draw your inspiration from?

I always have trouble with this question because the answer is pretty much everything. A lot of it is quite personal. Art for me is quite cathartic; just the act of drawing is what’s important to me – I do it all day every day and I don’t get sick of it. But as for ideas, it’s so many things… TV, comics, nature, friends, other people’s art as well. I try to go to the art gallery regularly and I always come away inspired to do something large scale, or use more colour, or do black and grey, and so on.

Why did you choose this particular object from the Museum collection?

I knew that I wanted something with embroidery. I wanted a fine pattern, and embroidery is usually considered traditionally female. It wouldn’t have been called an art form, although embroidery seems to be having a real moment right now which is really lovely. It would be a decorative art, not a fine art. But it’s amazing and beautiful. I love embroidery and I’ve got friends that do beautiful embroideries. I chose these items in particular because they are so physical and shapely. They’re fleshy and when they are not being worn they seem almost weird and a bit off-putting. They reminded me of a snakeskin and also of tattooing as the silk looks like stripped-off skin that has had a tattoo applied to it.

What do you think the value of museum collections are?

I mostly go straight to Animal Attic and draw up there which is really nice. I think that our Museum is a bit old-fashioned in a lot of ways which I really, really like. It’s just ‘here are the artefacts and here’s where they came from’. It’s informative. You know you can look at these things online or in photos, but it’s not quite the same as seeing something in the flesh. It’s not just an object if it’s something ancient, such as the mummy. You go into that room and there is an atmosphere; you can feel it. 


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Check out more details about Current exhibition and programmes here.