A Lesson in Craft: the enigmatic depths of Tuesday Riddell’s japanned artworks
Inigo peels back the layers of the London-based artist’s mysterious lacquered scenes of nature in conflict
- Anna Souter
Tuesday Riddell’s artworks brim with enticing details. Whether you encounter them under the spotlights of a gallery exhibition, or in the more subdued environs of her London studio, you’ll find their glossy surfaces shapeshifting as you move, and observe. A turn of the head conjures precisely observed grasses and tree roots that emerge from dark backgrounds. A slight shift in stance reveals the intricate gossamer veins of a dragonfly’s wings.
Tuesday creates such richness through japanning, a technique originally developed in the 17th century as a means of imitating Asian lacquer work. Having learned about japanning at City & Guilds Art School as part of the Painter-Stainers’ decorative surfaces fellowship – a programme which seeks to provide students with specialist training in endangered crafts – Riddell uses her work to bring new life to this long-lost craft, creating unsettlingly beautiful scenes of the forest floor from using layers of varnish, lustre powders, and gold and silver leaf. Below, she takes Inigo on a tour of her studio, explaining the intricacies of her labour intensive practice, and how, for her, this particular method has a meaning far beyond tradition.
“A single piece can end up with forty layers.”
“All my works start with a wooden board, which I sand and polish until it’s as smooth as possible. Then I prepare it with about 25 to 30 layers of European lacquer, which I mix myself from different pigments and varnishes. I use a brush in the traditional way rather than spraying it on, so between every three layers I have to sand and polish the lacquer to remove the brush marks.
“After all the layers have been applied, I leave it to cure and harden fully until it forms a black, mirrored surface. Then I start building up my main composition by marking out silhouettes, before starting to work on the background using lustre powders. Once the background is finished, I fill out the silhouettes of the plants, animals, and insects using layers of shade and line, and gold- and silver-leaf gilding. I then seal it all in with shellac or varnish at the end. Sometimes if there are still visible brush strokes or imperfections, I might need to polish the surface once more and then seal it again. So a single piece can end up with about 40 layers!
“Because it’s a long, slow process, I have to work on a lot of pieces at once; at the moment, I’m working on around 15 pieces. I rotate between tasks throughout the day, giving the different layers time to harden. When I apply gold leaf, for example, it can take between three and 12 hours to cure, depending on the size of the area. There are parts of the process that are just extremely labour intensive; the sanding does get quite tedious. But it becomes part of a cycle that’s so repetitive that it becomes almost meditative.
“I’m drawn to the darkness and the transformative effect of the forest.”
“I rely on my imagination for a lot of my inspiration. I also take a lot of photographs and videos when I go out on walks, or in my little patch of garden. I spend a lot of time watching nature, just sitting staring at things. Sometimes I’ll even create compositions within nature; if I’m sitting watching a bee, I might move some strands of grass to frame it and experiment with how it looks.
“There’s something staged or theatrical in a lot of my work. I think this draws on how animals are presented in natural history dioramas or in the stylised imagery of children’s books and fairytale illustrations. I find inspiration in very diverse places. For example, I’ve always been obsessed with horror movies and I’m also fascinated by 17th century Sottobosco or “forest floor” paintings. In both these genres, I’m drawn to the darkness and the transformative effect of the forest. These artforms show us the horror of the world – and how that horror can also be beautiful. That contrast really interests me; although my compositions initially look very harmonious, on closer examination you’ll see I incorporate a lot of conflict into them, because I think it reflects both the reality of the natural world and what’s happening around us.
“I find it really powerful to capture something we’re endangering – plants, animals, insects – through a technique that is itself endangered.”
“It’s really sad to see endangered crafts disappearing. With all these traditional skills, there’s something so beautiful in the handmade. It’s important that these skills are taught, because when we have to repair things – such as all the gilding and stone-carving and wood-carving around our cities and in our historic buildings – it’s important that we use authentic techniques. Otherwise we’ll end up living in a plasticky, Disneyland version of the world.
“In my own work, I find it really powerful to capture something that we’re endangering – plants, animals, insects – through a technique that is itself endangered. In the midst of the ecological crisis, I’ve found that japanning perfectly reflects the fragility of our ecosystems and our complex relationship with the natural world.”
Tuesday Riddell on Instagram
The development of English black japanning 1620-1820, Katja Tovar Azuero, V&A Conservation Journal 2006
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