Artist profile - Emma Franc
PUBLISHED: 00:00 26 February 2020
Emma Franc’s often ethereal oil paintings reveal a vision of the world that seems just beyond reach, like the fragments of a dream on waking.
Emma Franc's terraced house, close to the centre of St Albans, is unremarkable. The Victorian architecture is familiar, so too the solid construction. But apart from the instantly recognisable style, one would easily pass by without a second glance. The old adage don't be fooled by outward appearances applies here though, because stepping into this house in which Emma has lived with her family for five years is to be transported into a melting pot of creativity. Here, with authenticity and skill, Emma creates memorable oil paintings which subtly defy convention and boldly entertain.
'I've always wanted to paint, it's part of my DNA,' explains Emma who, after growing up in Berkhamsted, moved to London where part time work was boosted by her occasional art sales. That was until the milestone of her 30th birthday which prompted her to sign up for a life-changing masters degree. As we sit in her light, compact dining space, she recalls her 'brilliant experience' on the course at Wimbledon School of Art and the lessons which continue to inform her work.
'You can't be a good artist if you think everything you do is great,' she says. 'During my MA you had to defend your work, question everything, justify contextually, historically, step back and look at it as an art critic would.'
So the impact was pivotal to her work? 'Yes, yes! I developed faith in my work. I'm no longer scared to try something new.'
That self-belief fuels the contagious enthusiasm of this 44-year-old who goes on to animatedly discuss her residency at St Albans Abbey Theatre in 2016 where props became centre stage and 'turning performance on its head' made her rethink still life. 'At that time I painted more dramatically-lit scenes with reference to the theatre,' Emma says before we head down a spiral staircase to her basement studio.
I'd like to report that the first thing to catch my eye is a dynamic work in progress. Instead I find myself face to face with a tarantula and family of stick insects - no, not on the loose. The species are housed (separately) on the desk of Emma's husband, Richard, whose fascination for these creatures she shares. On inspection, the insects' stillness is mesmerising. However, I stay on brief and revert my attention to Emma. In the studio she says she paints accompanied either by Radio 4 or classical music, 'Nothing too upbeat because I can't concentrate.'
Usually working on a series, she favours painting on four MDF boards simultaneously, often recreating the same or similar subjects. These range from still life to domestic scenes and portraits, connected by an often melancholic, dreamlike feel.
'I sketch and work on each a little bit at a time, sharing the same palette - you don't overwork that way. First I prime the board with white then use thin layers of oil paint and quite often charcoal, drawing into the paint. Theatre lighting is an influence and I pick out light using a scalpel to peel away the paint, drawing light into the image. I also use sandpaper to add texture.'
Favouring the rich tones of oils, her colours are nevertheless endearingly muted.
'Recently I've been painting some domestic scenes focusing on patterns and textures, light and dark, from natural sources like the sun streaming through a window. Paintings with still life objects often have a personal connection to me. I like to think of those objects as having had a life of their own. They are often reminders of people, a time or a place.'
A two hour stint is followed by time away 'for objectivity.' Such a sensible and focussed approach is surely a sign of maturity. Has she worked out the secret to creating paintings she is happy to say are finished and she is satisfied with? Laughter greets my suggestion. 'Umm, no! You have to live with your work for a bit. It's rare to finish something and think, right, that's brilliant.'
During the creative process is she conscious of selling her work? 'It does influence you a bit but it depends on your goal. I try not to paint to please, but this is a factor. You are surrounded by a lot of commercial art; you try and be happy and know others will be happy too.'
The juxtaposition of a lighter palette on top of darker, moodier tones is a more recent development for this artist who enjoys the challenge of change and 'playing around' with different techniques. The process is the most inspiring element of the work for her and she is not immune to allowing that process to evolve in an unplanned way. 'I like it when things go off from what you were originally thinking - relying on an inner confidence that it's gonna work out. It's all about having faith.'
For an artist whose sole ambition was to follow her passion for painting, Emma Franc has surpassed her expectations. So what next? 'It would be nice to sell my work internationally.' My hunch is, watch this space.