“The look in the eyes is the most important”
an interview with Karien Deroo
When Karien Deroo guides me around in her studio, I wonder if the studios of the old masters she admires so much would have looked similar. There are works in various stages of completion; some canvases only consist of a background, while in others the figure is already fully painted in gray tones where later on color will be applied. There are few works she considers completely finished; here she wants the color of the background to be adjusted, there she thinks that the shadow of a hand still has to be dealt with. The works take their time coming into existence, and partly this reflects the technique used. Oils take days, sometimes weeks, to surface dry before they can be painted over; hence all those canvases in the different stages of their genesis. This slowness, however, gives the artist the opportunity to look at work for a long time and think about what should be the next step. It invites perfectionism.
I met Karien fifteen years ago when she was a graphic designer. She worked on the layout of brochures and had her own company. That is something completely different to her current occupation, isn’t it ?
Karien: “Yes and no. Layout and composition is essentially playing with volumes and that remains very important in the paintings I’m working on now. But I walked quite a trail before I devoted myself full time to painting with oils. As a child I was most happy when I could draw and be creative without any restrictions. I studied commercial graphic design at Sint Lucas in Ghent because it offered more job opportunities. However, in my spare time I took classes at the Art Academy of Roeselare. There I could enjoy the artistic graphics techniques and pick up again drawing from live model.”
Filip: “Graphic art, like oil painting, requires a good mastery of the technique. It's about etching, woodcarving, linocuts, prints and so on. Are you someone who is keen on the technical side of art?”
Karien: “If you want to get somewhere, you need a car and you should be able to steer it. In my view technique is a way to express something, not an end in itself. I can spend hours in books and on websites to find out about how the painters of previous centuries worked, what colors and what binder, for instance, they used. The effect you achieve with a technique is the most important. You can learn from the old masters how human skin can sparkle with life, how you should paint the folds of a dress or how metal can shine on canvas.”
Filip: “You worked for some years as an illustrator of children's books. Was this a logical step to be taken after your period as a graphic designer?”
Karien: “My journey as an artist is to a large extent the result of chance. A friend recommended me to participate in the selection of a children's book fair in Bologna, the largest in Europe. I was selected, which resulted in several commissions to illustrate children's books. There was a lot of drawing involved and also working with color and yet I still felt limited in my artistic freedom. I started to paint these illustrations on a larger scale. This stimulated me to create compositions on large canvases. Previously I had already, rather hesitantly, ventured into painting faces, so those two things came together.”
Filip: “This was also the stepping stone to start with oils?”
Karien: “Firstly I painted with acrylic paint and that had everything to do with the space in my studio. My studio wasn’t properly separated from the rest of my house and the pungent smell of oil, delicious in a studio, is not pleasant throughout the whole house! Only with my transfer to Bruges, where I have a proper studio, could I fully start with oil paintings.”
Some works show fragments of people; sometimes there are several characters in a painting, and sometimes it's just a body part like an arm. The gaze of the characters lingers most with the viewer, never seeming to express explicit emotion such as joy or anger. Their gaze is often rather melancholic and mysterious. The context in which these people find themselves is not evident in the painting, but it certainly exist. You can see that something moves those characters but what, exactly, is never clearly visible; not unlike the situation when we encounter strangers on the street. Their faces betray a history but what kind of history? We can only speculate. Karien Deroo paints characters with different layers, not only in the literal sense of layers of paint on paint, but also in the complexity of their feelings. It makes me think of Rembrandt.
Filip: “Which old masters inspire you?”
Karien: “There are some obvious names such as Rembrandt, Velasquez and Van Dyck. Sometimes I find the oil sketches they made more fascinating than their well known works. Those sketches show a great virtuosity. Caravaggio fascinates me because of his chiaroscuro: characters loom up against a dark background as if they were exposed by spotlight. I love the warmth with which Caravaggio immortalized simple people. Lately I learnt a lot from the American painter John Singer Sargent, who was in his days a great fan of Velasquez, it is incredible how subtlely he can paint a character. Lesser-known masters I find interesting as well. Do you know William Bouguereau? Hardly anyone knows him and if they do, it is from the sugar sweet scenes he painted. But he also made very strong work, always classic but rock solid in its pictorial qualities.”
Filip: “You live and work in Bruges, a UNESCO world heritage city with rich art collections, for example the Flemish Primitives in the Groeningemuseum. Has this determined your interest in old masters?”
Karien: “No, that evolution could take place anywhere. I admire the Flemish Primitives but their style is not mine. In my work you will always find the brushwork. I always have a central focal point in my paintings. In the Flemish Primitives, the lace of a robe in the corner of the painting is as sharp and hyper-realistic as the eyebrow of the Madonna. In my work there is a point, usually the face, where the attention of the viewer is drawn to.”
Filip: “Did you follow a specific training to learn the techniques of the Old Masters?”
Karien: “I am self-taught, and find pleasure in discovering those techniques myself. Social contact in a school is nice but you should not be distracted from the real thing. I do not think that you can learn the techniques in a school around here. I learned a lot from certain blogs and websites on the Internet; in the USA especially, a lot painters are involved in these kind of techniques. In old times the painters knew each other personally; Rubens admired Caravaggio, and had met him. Today, those contacts are made online. Still, it should be very instructive to travel around copying old masters as was usual in previous ages. The quality of a photograph on a computer screen can never replace the thrill of seeing the light reflecting from real paint.”
Filip: “It is obvious to look for parallels between your work and that of contemporary Flemish painters like Luc Tuymans or Michael Borremans. Do you feel a kinship?”
Karien: “Of course, like Tuymans and Borremans I am figurative painter and I use photos as a base of my paintings. I start by making a composition of pictures that I find in the media and photographs taken by myself, reorganising these 'collage' to become a new image that gives me the right feeling of what I want to express. I would rather start from a live model, but this requires a serious investment in time of the model. Overall although I feel little affinity with those artists. Tuymans work often refers to an emotionally charged history like our relationship with the Church, or the war in Congo. My work does not stimulate the viewer to think critically about history. For me, the look in the eyes of my characters is most important, and I always start with that. I'm working with a rich range of human emotions but I do not intend to make a puzzle of them, an element you do find in the works of Borremans.”
Filip: “It is obvious that your work is not an illustration of a philosophical treatise. Yet it is more than just a pretty picture. The work 'Our Father', for example, which shows a fragment of a girl, gets a certain charge by its title alone.”
Karien: “Of course, I am a child of my time and what stirs our society seeps through into my work. The title "Our Father" refers to the prayer, but also to the religious father figure. This combined with the innocence of the little girl is reminiscent of the recent child abuse scandals in the Church. Whether it’s connected to that or not, I leave to the viewer. When the image touches the viewer and makes him or her shiver, I am moved by it because it’s what I want to accomplish, but the association that my work evokes, and the thrill it causes, takes place in the mind of the viewer. Hopefully the images I paint put something in motion, but the feelings they evoke are not necessarily the same ones as those that inspired me for this work.”
For three years now Karien has been working in silence on this new collection of paintings, taking her time to refine and enrich her technique. This is the first exhibition of this period of her painting career but not the first time she reveals it. Her work was selected for the Saatchi Online Showdown final by the Saatchi Jury, and over the Internet you can order postcards and posters. There is an exciting contrast between the old techniques of painting she is so passionate about and the possibilities of the new media by which her work gets a wider public. That may be the uniqueness of her work, for despite the age-old techniques, the subject is very actual. It is not because it is about our contemporary world problems or that characters often wear modern clothes. It is so actual because it probes in the ocean of thoughts, dreams and inner life proper to man. This ocean has been sailed by artists since the dawn of time, but can never be fully discovered and mapped. I look again at the painting "humble" where a woman in an outfit from the sixties looks at the viewer with an undefined gaze. It reminds me of a phrase of John Updike: "We can never really know another human being. At best, we're only slightly off. "