Jemma Appleby makes immaculate explorations of light and shadow from charcoal dust; the surface quality is velvet-like and perfectly smooth, making the hand of the artist almost invisible.
She talks to curator Becca Pelly-Fry about the interplay between light and shadow in her architectural drawings, creative discipline, and the edition she’s made for our newly-launched Curated Editions collection, New Mythologies.
Q: Can you tell us about your journey to becoming an artist?
A: I grew up in a very creative household. My dad is a product designer, so I was always really interested in art. I went to City & Guilds of London Art School to do a painting degree and it was a very traditional course.
We did a lot of drawing before we were allowed to paint which, initially, I found really frustrating. But, as soon as we were allowed to do our own projects, I began to realise that I actually quite liked the drawing part.
I also did a lot of medium format photography: lots of black and white forest landscapes. Eventually, I translated those into charcoal drawings which have since formed the main part of my practice.
Q: Can you tell us about your starting points and references?
A: I spent a lot of time in the New Forest as a child so I used to do a lot of large scale charcoal forest landscapes. Gradually, architecture started to creep into my work: I really liked looking at simplified geometric structures such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian houses and rooflines.
Now, the landscape has almost completely disappeared and architecture has taken over. But, every now and then, glimpses of landscape can be seen in my work, cutting back through the architecture.
Q: What makes an interesting space for you to create?
A: I’m inspired by different types of spaces. It could be a domestic interior or a huge art gallery. All of the everyday details get taken away, though. There’s never anything left that gives a sense of scale which makes the spaces I create quite ambiguous.
There’s a lot of space for, not necessarily imagination, but your memory of spaces you’ve been to before, and what the drawn space actually depicts.
‘‘People tend to think of charcoal as something really messy and free, but it can also be really controlled and precise.’’
Q: How did you come to use charcoal in the way that you do?
A: I love that it can be so tactile and I use it in a very physical way. It starts from a big chunk of compressed charcoal and then I use it in its powder form. I usually rub it with my hand or a piece of tissue. People tend to think of charcoal as something really messy and free, but it can also be really controlled and precise.
I like the contradiction of the messiness of charcoal and the crispness of the finished drawing, and the discipline that you need to produce the final piece.
Q: Can you tell us more about the process of making a new drawing?
A: I guess a drawing can start anywhere. It might be from something I’ve seen in real life, a little shadow, an image I’ve come across in a magazine, or an exhibition. Then I’ll start to do some research to find out more, often going down endless Google rabbit holes.
I tend to end up drawing something quite different from the original idea though. The drawing process is quite meticulous. I start by creating a 3D-generated version of a space on a computer, manipulating the lighting and the dimensions. Once I find a composition I like, I translate it onto paper.
‘‘Sometimes I make much bigger works drawn directly onto a gallery wall. The experience is completely different, especially if it’s a very dark, enveloping space; the drawing really draws you in and hugs you with its presence.’ ’
Q: How does the scale of the work effect the way it’s made and the experience of the viewer?
A: I work on a variety of different scales. Some are tiny, and become really intricate, almost like tiny little precious jewels, a tiny object that takes you to another world or another space.
Sometimes I make much bigger works drawn directly onto a gallery wall where the physical movement of drawing is much bigger.
The experience is completely different, especially if it’s a very dark, enveloping space; the drawing really draws you in and hugs you with its presence.
Jemma Appleby, 'The Light in the World is Without a Significant Plan', Daniel Benjamin Gallery
Q: Can you tell us about the edition you’re creating with King & McGaw?
A: The inspiration for this piece came from a very large open space. Because I knew that the end product was going to be very different to my normal charcoal on paper, I looked for a space that had very specific lighting qualities. It was important to me that the light source within the composition emitted from the drawing within the light box.
It was really interesting to work with King & McGaw. I usually make all of my drawings alone in my studio. I don’t usually show anyone the process beforehand, it’s more of a ‘Tahda!’ moment when a drawing goes out into the world.
It’s been really refreshing to hear King & McGaw’s opinions and ideas – their perspective of what the light box is for, where it might go, questioning print quality, paper texture and so on. It’s been really fun for me and very inclusive.
And it’s been good to work with a team to change little things and understand how it’s going to technically work. I’m delighted with the final piece.
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