Open Studios: Val Pettifer

On a beautiful sunny day in June, we caught up with Whittlesford artist, Val Pettifer in her newly transformed studio. We instantly fell in love with her colourful work...

When did you start practising your art?

In 2006, at the age of 57, my aunt invited me to accompany her on a watercolour painting holiday to Cober Hill, near Scarborough. I hadn't painted since leaving school at 15; work, family and life in general had taken over, although I'd always been interested in photography and still am! But I'd been bitten by the painting bug and was soon trying other mediums. Although I was still working full-time, I made it my mission to attend as many work-shops, painting holidays, art galleries etc, so I could to cram myself with knowledge.

In 2007 I discovered a book written by pastel artist Mark Leach, 'Raw Colour with Pastels' and I was completely blown away by his use of vibrant colour and semi-abstracted painting methods. This book became my bible and pastels my primary medium, until another artist came to my attention; Mike Bernard and his wonderful collage, mixed media paintings in his book 'Collage, Colour and Texture in Painting'. Always keen to try new methods I was soon experimenting with mixed media and I loved it, but I always come back to pastels!
What are your favourite subjects to depict?

I have very eclectic taste when it comes to subject matter and rarely stick to one subject or style. I'm just as happy working on a semi-abstracted harbour scene in collage and acrylic, as I am painting a detailed animal portrait in pastels. However, I've recently started experimenting with vintage dress patterns on canvas, something that came along by pure chance after finding a stash of old dress making patterns in a charity shop, and right now I've started a series of night skies on MDF boards based on images from the Hubble Telescope. So I don't think I have a favourite subject or style unlike many artists, I just paint whatever I feel like at the time!

Tell us what techniques you employ in creating your work.
A tricky one as I work in so many styles and mediums, but here I go; my pastels are often painted on mdf or mountboard that I prepare myself using gesso and pumice grounds mixed with acrylic and occasionally micaceous iron oxide. I also work on commercial pastel papers, my favourites are Colourfix, Fisher400 and Clairefontaine, and I often apply an under-painting in watercolour or gouache to establish the tonal values, before applying the pastel.
My approach to mixed media work is very varied, for instance if I was starting a semi-abstracted urban or harbour scene I usually work on mountcard or heavy weight watercolour paper, apply collage first, before applying a wash of acrylic inks to set the colour theme. From there on anything goes, there are no set rules and I never know how the painting will develop!
On the other hand my dress pattern collages are slightly more predictable. I apply acrylic inks first to set the general colour theme, then the tissue pattern pieces are used to creat a graphical design on the canvas. The images on the pattern pack are painted in Cromacolour fluid acrylics, buttons are sewn on and the whole canvas is encapsulated in a UV protective acrylic glaze. I'm presently working on a vintage 1966 Mary Quant style pattern and a 1991 babies romper suit outfit. It's great fun and people seem to like them!
What references do you use when producing your collage with mixed media?
Since starting my collage work I find myself constantly on the look-out for interesting pieces. I have a large collection of old postcards, sheet music and magazines, much of which date back to the turn of the last century. Places like Camden Passage are great and I recently found a complete album of old theatrical postcards dating back to pre first world war! I had to barter for them, but I managed to get them for a very fair price. I find charity shops and house clearance auction rooms are fab places for rummaging and I've discovered some amazing women's magazines. I also collect handmade paper, tissue, postage stamps and anything that looks interesting in a newspaper usually gets torn out and put in my collage box!
Although you use different techniques in your practice, your works all have a strong visual language. Are there specific techniques or palettes that appear across the board?

Although my work is very varied, people always say they can recognise it; I think this is due in part to my love of colour. I'm particulary drawn to the use of complimentary colours and often refer to my trusty colour wheel for guidance, although I think I naturally have a good eye for what works!
How important is it for you to attend courses and learn from others?

I still attend workshops regularly; this is how I keep up with new products and learn new techniques. In my opinion you never stop learning and anyone who thinks they know everything is living in a dream world! I don't have a degree in art, in fact I'm mostly self-taught, but I still have a hunger for new knowledge even at my age!

Your studio is an amazing space. Tell us how it has been transformed.
Up until April this year I was working in a cramped back bedroom at home. Then by chance my picture framer mentioned she was moving into an old victorian school building in Whittlesford and invited me round for a look! Next door, but in the same building there was another unoccupied space which seemed perfect as an art studio, but it had stood empty for a long time and was in a very run down state. Together with another artist friend we set about transforming it into what we have today; it was hard work, but worth it! The staircase has been moved, a bathroom installed, a log burner fitted and every square inch painted. A hole was knocked through the outside wall and a garden has been created; it looks fabulous and everyone who visits us loves the space.
Can people come and learn pastel and painting techniques with you?
To cover the cost of renting the premises I run painting workshops in pastels and mixed media. My working background as a vocational skills trainer and HR specialist has now transferred to my love of painting! I started tutoring painting workshops for various local art societies 5 years ago and then 3 years ago I was invited to tutor painting holidays in Cober Hill twice a year. I now have an established following and a number of friends and aquantances from the south of England have travelled up to Scarborough for my painting holidays (see my website for the link
What artistic committees are you part of and why this is important to you?
In 2008 I joined the Royston Arts Society, and although I was still working full time it gave me the opportunity to attend their monthly demonstrations and meet other like minded people. I then joined the Cambridge District Art Circle which holds it's annual exhibition in Grantchester and in 2011 was selected to join the Cambridge Drawing Society, something I'm very proud of! Because of my organisational skills it was not too long before I was asked to join the committees of all three societies and in fact I'm now the Chair of the Royston Arts Society. Joining these groups has introduced me to so many wonderful people and I would strongly urge anyone who's just taking up painting to do the same thing!
Where you are in Whittlesford, there is an amazing creative hub. Tell us about your neighbours
The big benefit of having a studio in the Old School is that it's part of a small group of businesses. Essex Framing Services relocated from Saffron Walden after 23 years and provide a first class framing service. In addition there is a lovely small art gallery and gift shop where artists can display and sell their paintings for a small monthly charge. And also Oxbow & Peach, a small business specialising in beautiful collectables and shabby chic gifts, are located to the side of the building.
I operate an 'open door' policy at the studio, which means I'm happy to welcome visitors at any time when I'm there, which is most of the time!

What dates can people come and visit you during Open Studios?
This is my second year in Cambridge Open Studios and I'm opening all 4 weekends, every Saturday and Sunday from the 7th July (11am - 6pm). Visitors will have the opportunity to explore my studio and view work in progress, plus talk to me about my working methods. There will be completed paintings on display, many of which will be for sale. And if the sun is shining visitors will be able to sit in the pretty garden and enjoy a glass of wine. In addition to this the gift shop and gallery will also be open next door, and a walk around the pretty village of Whittlesford is also well worth doing!

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