Painting in Paris. Being selected as a finalist in the Archibald. Comparisons to Tamara de Lempicka. Australian artist Catherine Abel, who started painting later in life, is creating quite a storm. Here she shares the journey she's taken.

As a self-taught artist, how did you arrive at the point where you could pursue painting as a career? The decision to become a fulltime artist – to treat it as a profession and not just a hobby was in 2000 when I moved to Paris. Art is such a fickle profession; no guarantees. There were no guarantees that it would work – that my art would be appreciated/accepted and that it would generate an income to support the advancement of my career. But it was 10 years in the dreaming. I had wanted to paint for that long but had my daughter to raise first. By the time I finally had the opportunity to begin, I was afraid to take that first step but i knew that in taking a great leap of faith something to support me would happen. My French boyfriend at the time offered to take me to Paris and support me in taking that first step. I knew that if I didn’t take that window of opportunity I would regret it for the rest of my life. It has definitely paid off.
What hurdles did you encounter along the way? The hurdles were my own inner doubts …. I managed to push through those only by sheer willpower to succeed. I really had to trust my own creative instincts.
Who was your mentor or inspiration? Tamara de Lempicka, right from the moment I laid eyes on her work back in the late 1980s. I was stunned. She became the teacher i never had. I spent a lot of time in the beginning studying her techniques. Now I think I’ve branched out further than her stylised Art Deco rendering and softened my women more than she did. People are beginning to say to me that I paint better than her but I know that can never be true. She is the master. I am grateful to be eternally her student.
Why did you decide to live in Paris? The most amazing experience of Paris was the saturation of art and culture that fed the creative urges inside me. Ever since I was young I was drawn to Paris and the artists who lived there in the 1920s and 30s. When I was a little girl doing ballet I was inspired by Anna Pavlova and Les Ballet Russes. Then as a teenager it was the Surrealists and the Cubists – Picasso, Dali, Tanguay who inspired me to do my art. But all I had were pictures and stories from books. I was deeply moved to finally see the paintings from these artists in real life at the museums in Paris, and to walk the streets that are so alive with the memories of a by-gone era that it’s easy to visualise their presence.
What took you to the US? A gallery in California called one day out of the blue wanting to represent me. In the beginning you go where your career calls you.
What sacrifices have you made to be able to paint full-time? Not much really. But perhaps the drive to work all the time! Seriously, I would like to take more time off to travel and recuperate and regenerate the creative flow. My biggest challenge is to keep balance in my life. I’m one of those artists who shuts out the world and isolates myself to get my work done but it comes at a price – that my personal life is put on hold. Since turning 40 last year, my one promise to myself for the next leg of the journey is to be mindful of keeping the balance. To allow life, love and art in exist in equal measures
What inspires you? I’m very passionate about the 1920s and '30s – the art, fashion and photography, the architecture, the lives of the artists at that time and their struggles and achievement of their dreams. I am passionate about art, of course – it is my life, but I’m very specific about what I like and what I don’t like. I don’t like art for art’s sake and sometimes I can be very critical especially when it’s obvious that certain art has been produced from a place of exploitation because of a current trend in the market. What moves me the most is the intrinsic process of making art and how every artist expresses their internal dialogue of creativity individually.
Women feature strongly in your works. Has this been a deliberate decision? The inspiration and depiction of the beauty of women in art, design and decoration always was and always will be. I am just carrying on a fine tradition!
Can you describe the process of creating a work? Each piece takes approximately 3-4 weeks to complete. After doing many sketches to decide the poses and theme of a particular piece, I do a photo shoot with my model and props (ie, vintage shawls, flowers, etc.) and often new material emerges from that as it becomes a co-creative process between model and artist. I use oil on linen – I like using traditional methods, materials and techniques – and layer the paint in a glazing technique to give a finish without obvious brushstrokes. I like the finished, blended look. Like the old masters. I feel their spirit with me as I work. I love bringing the past and the present together.
What has been your proudest moment so far? Being one of the finalists in the Archibald last year. As this was only my second year of entering I didn’t expect to be chosen as finalist at all. The first year I entered a painting of Katie Noonan and although it wasn’t chosen, it was then selected for the Salon des Refuses, which I was very excited about. Last year I painted author Julia Leigh who wrote an exceptional book called The Hunter. I was hoping I would at least get into the Salon again with this painting. I was so excited to receive the phone call saying i had been selected as one of the finalists that I couldn’t concentrate on anything for the rest of the day! I was so proud to see the painting hanging in the exhibition.

images courtesy of catherine abel

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