Artistic License: Orla Whelan - The Gloss Magazine

Artistic License: Orla Whelan

Dublin-based artist Orla Whelan has a new exhibition which reveals her interest in colour and in particular how she experiments with hue, tone and form…

‘Earthshine 2,’ by Orla Whelan

How did you get into art – what or who was the initial spark?

I have been interested in art since as far back as I can remember and thankfully my parents were always very supportive. When I was eight years old, my grandmother bought me my first set of paints – Winsor & Newton watercolour tubes in a black box which I still have somewhere. I started going to watercolour painting classes every Saturday morning and continued for three or four years. When I think back on it now, it was very grown up. We were dampening the paper which was very expensive, masking off areas, learning how to lay down a wash and mix colour, and reproducing traditional landscapes or floral still-lifes which we selected from a small library of art books in the corner of the teacher’s studio. I really loved being in that space and to this day, having a suitable studio space is really important for my practice.

‘Earthshine 5,’ by Orla Whelan

Where and how do you work?

My studio is a very hard working space within my family home in Drimnagh in Dublin where I have lived for almost 20 years. After working in group studios in the city centre, the decision to work from home was initially based on the financial and time constraints of juggling an art practice with raising a family and sporadic part-time teaching. Things have continuously changed, but it still suits me to make my work where I live as I like the constant connection. 

In addition to oil paint on canvas, I use a variety of different materials and processes in making my work such as wooden wedges, wood veneers, modified furniture and weaving, in an arena of activity what would be called expanded painting in contemporary art terms – painting that goes beyond the traditional boundaries/conventions of what we think of when we think of painting. So for this work, it can be very useful to have extra space to spill into when needed. I do occasionally annex the back garden, kitchen and living room.

All of my work stems from an ongoing series of small paintings on linen called Moon, Valley, Dew, Death, which forms the core of my artistic research. And then, depending on what exhibitions I have coming up, I develop series of large paintings based on the small ones, or I make expanded pieces in response to the architecture, history or context a specific space, such as my floor-based magic-carpet-painting for the RHA Gallery, or Bedroom chairs for Patrick and William for the Pearse Museum.

‘Earthshine 6,’ by Orla Whelan

What was the inspiration for your latest exhibition at Custom House Gallery, Westport?

I have a growing collection of rocks in my studio, which I consider mobile repositories of colour gathered from all over Ireland. In many ways these have been an inspiration for my recent work for the Coloured by Weather exhibition, as I was thinking in particular about the relationship between colour and place. Rocks are ancient, subterranean foreign things, as well as being inherently regional and familiar. Their colours can be quite locally specific and far reaching at the same time. The tonal geological colours somehow reflect the ethereal atmospheric colour of the Atlantic coast. Earthshine is a new series of large paintings I began for this exhibition. The series title refers to a visual phenomenon where the usually invisible part of the moon becomes faintly lit by indirect sunlight reflected back from the earth, making the dark side of the moon barely visible, creating a ghostly full moon. This resonates strongly with my approach to my work – the impulse to project onto the empty space of the vast unknown, an idea, a picture or a proposition that there might be an imaginable structure, an unseen other-side beyond the visual, and the desire to indirectly illuminate it.

‘Moon, Valley, Dew, Death,’ by Orla Whelan

You deploy colour in an original way – has your style evolved over the years?

I am particularly interested in the entangled relationship between language, perception and place in the experience of colour. Colour is very important in my work. For me it’s a magical substance, a sort of immaterial material that is always communicating with us. It carries information, it can locate us, evoke another place or another time. Employing the formal language of abstraction, I intuitively experiment with combinations of hue, tone and form, in an attempt to invoke visual connections from the local to the cosmic, and from the material to the metaphysical. While my work has changed and developed over the years, a sensitivity towards and attention to colour has remained at the heart of it.

Need To Know: Orla Whelan’s exhibition “Coloured by Weather” opens at Custom House Gallery in Westport, Co May on Friday April 5 and continues until Sunday April 28.


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