Artists View, feature RA magazine, Spring 2024 by Charlotte Mullins

As a painter during the 1990s, the British artist felt like an outsider
Clare Woods originally trained as a sculptor but by the time she finished her MA in Fine
Art at Goldsmith’s College in 1999 she was committed to painting. ‘At that point it felt
like no-one was painting. Certainly nobody was painting landscape so I always felt on the periphery.’ She has since become known for her assured large-scale paintings of our world, of flowers, landscapes and mountains, and
the inevitability of death. There is a latent tension in her works, in the fault line between this emotive threat of decay and her energetic brushstrokes. ‘I had been using gloss paint because it used to pool and go flat – there was no brush mark in it. It has taken me a long time to be brave enough to trust the brush mark.’

The process starts with a photograph

Throughout her career she has used photographs as a starting point for each painting, print and collage. ‘I’ve got photographs now that I’m painting that I may have taken or found ten years ago but didn’t know how to use at the time. I knew there was something about them, a feeling. Nothing conceptual, just an actual feeling about each image.’ She looks through her files of accumulated images regularly, printing some out and pinning them to the wall of her studio in Hereford, waiting for the moment that one reveals itself to her, the moment she realises how to unlock it. She then translates it into a line drawing, scales it up on a giant aluminium panel that she lies flat on trestles and then gets ready to paint. ‘The image is the catalyst,’ she says, ‘but ultimately it is just the starting point.’

She mixes paint directly on the surface

Woods is an early riser, often beginning work at 6am and always completing a painting in
a single sitting. She uses her whole body to paint, transferring her energy to the surface.
‘A lot of the mixing and painting happens
wet on wet. It’s controlled, but there’s also an element of letting the materials do what they do. For example, it was only when I painted the Wedgwood still lifes [such as Old Blush, 2021], dragging the white through the background, that I realised how I could paint clouds.’

Still life communicates what it means to be alive
In recent years Woods has been studying the still-life paintings of Édouard Manet, Giorgio Morandi and Rachel Ruysch. ‘I began looking at still life in 2014 but it really kicked in during 2020. It had so much to do with lockdown. Still life is an index of us as humans and I was interested in what the genre can tell us about the past and about now.’ While recovering from a gallbladder operation in 2020, she began to focus on objects she found around her, including bouquets of flowers sent to
her by friends. She decided to photograph them when the flowers had wilted in the vase, translating these memento mori into richly moving still-life works.

Printmaking takes her out of her
comfort zone
Still life completely absorbs Woods today.
She curated a room of two hundred examples for the 2023 Summer Exhibition and herself created meticulous collages, complex screenprints and brushy monotypes of flowers. ‘I really like print,’ she says, ‘because there’s always a space where you’re not in control, when it’s not your hand. So I like that controlled chance – it’s a challenge.’ Woods has been working on prints with the Cristea Roberts Gallery since 2016, pushing the flat mechanical process of screenprinting beyond its natural boundaries and towards the painterly.

Fear is a great motivator

With still life, or nature morte, death is never far away in Woods’s work, the transience of fruit and flowers a metaphor for our own fragility. Look at Woods’s titles: Between Before and After (2022), The Fear (2019), Dead Already (2018; above left). She grew up with
a father who believed that Armageddon was just around the corner, his survival bag packed and ready by the front door every night during her childhood. ‘All of my work, if I strip it back, is about fear,’ she says. ‘The fear in me is good because it has been a driving force but also with lockdown, I thought, wow, it’s really happening. The apocalyptic thing that I’ve always been scared of is actually happening.’

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