Alison Watt is widely regarded as one of the leading British painters working today. Born in Greenock in 1965, Watt is the daughter of a painter. She studied at Glasgow School of Art, and in 1987, while still a student, she won the National Portrait Gallery’s prestigious annual award. She subsequently became well known for her paintings of figures, often female nudes, before beginning in the late 90s to focus on the fabric which had previously acted as a prop or backdrop for her figures.
In 2000, Watt held a solo exhibition entitled Shift, at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. In 2001, we acquired Sabine, a painting from this series. Watt focuses on images of draped cloth and its suggestive power to explore ideas around the human body through an interplay of absence and presence. She creates a powerful sense of movement through the folds and tucks of the fabric she paints. Although the human figure is no longer explicit in Watt’s work, it is often implied.
In 2011, we also acquired an early self-portrait to mark the re-opening of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Painted while she was still at art school across the years 1986 – 1987, and while she was ill, this self-portrait shows Watt with her right hand across her forehead, as if she is taking her temperature or about to faint.
Across the last two decades, Watt has been exhibited internationally and her work is held in many important public and private collections around the world including: Uffizi Florence, The US Embassies Collection, The National Portrait Gallery London, The British Council, The Gallery of Modern Art Glasgow and The Arts Council Collection. Her most recent exhibition ‘A Shadow on the Blind’ was held at Abbot Hall Museum and then at Parafin, London in 2019.
Here is Alison about to begin painting Volvere, a monumental work which took six months to create. Volvere was completed in the summer of 2019, and is made up of four large canvases. The first two had just been installed on her studio wall when this shot was taken.
We are very excited to learn more about her painting Volvere (2019) this International Women's Week.
NGS: How do you feel when you're about to begin painting on a blank canvas?
AW: This work, Volvere (from the Latin: to envelop or to turn over in one's mind), came from a prolonged period of study of Zurbarán's magnificent portrait of Fray Jerónimo Pérez from Real Academia de Bellas Artes in Madrid. The work of the 17th century Spanish painter Francisco de Zurbarán has long been an influence on my painting. Perez is depicted draped in white robes so sculptural they could almost have been carved rather than painted. Zurbarán's unique visual language which goes beyond naturalism has had a profound impact on my own.
NGS: Do you tackle one project at a time, or paint multiple canvases at once?
AW: I worked on all four canvases simultaneously. If I’m painting for an exhibition I'll always work on two or three paintings at the same time. It helps to approach a canvas with a fresh eye and a mental agility. Moving between canvases allows for this.
The form is the space. So there is a blurring between the interior and exterior. It was an all-consuming experience to make Volvere, but a painting is never really complete. You just choose to stop.
NGS: Have you been able to continue working in your studio during lockdown? How has the pandemic affected your creativity?
AW: I’ve been lucky in that I have been able to visit my beautiful, peaceful studio every day. With most of the world in lockdown there are none of the usual distractions, and of course, there has been no travelling. I sorely miss visiting the great art collections which I have always found inspiring. But in terms of my own painting, I have been incredibly productive.
NGS: We're also itching visit the galleries again, and can't wait to welcome you back when it is safe to do so! Thank you, Alison.