Interview: Angela Bell

Angela Bell is an Irish artist based in Worthing, England. Covering a wide range of subject matter, her beguiling and immersive paintings often make use of found photographs, engaging with themes such as memory, nostalgia and a sense of home.

Bell completed a BA (Hons) in Fine Art at the University of Ulster before undertaking an MA in Fine Art at Norwich School of Art & Design. Her work has been exhibited extensively in the UK and abroad, including a number of different times at Mall Galleries, and in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. Awards Bell has received include the Dry Red Press Award, the LARA Portrait Award and Third Prize at the Jacksons Open Art Prize.

Pieces by Bell features in two exhibition scans produced by The Net Gallery this year. Bell’s depiction of Mark – an ambulance service worker – features in the ‘Portraits for NHS Heroes’ virtual exhibition, while her portrait of fellow Contemporary British Portrait Painters (CBPP) member and Portraits for NHS Heroes founder, Tom Croft, is part of the group exhibition ‘Perceptions’ at The Space at Cass Art.

Ange Bell portrait of Mark
Angela Bell’s portrait of ambulance service worker Mark, which features in the
‘Portraits for NHS Heroes’ virtual exhibition.

The Net Gallery: What was your experience of art school like, both in Ulster and Norwich, and is the way you work today still strongly influenced by what you learned?

Angela Bell: My time at the University of Ulster studying a BA (Hons) in Fine Art encouraged me to explore and develop my practice and push my conceptual understanding, as well as my practical skills. I specialized in sculpture early on and I was intrigued by the notion of creating an object that took up physical space and communicated through having a physical presence. I continued my professional development studying an MA in Fine Art, again specializing in sculpture. I thoroughly enjoyed the MA: my practice became driven by my response to the materials I was using, namely polyurethane foam. 

After the MA, I struggled to maintain a regular studio practice and my working life took over for a number of years. Even though I wasn’t making much art, I continued processing and gathering information. When my son started school, I took the opportunity to return to the studio. This time, I taught myself painting through trial and error and instructional videos. The only similarity between my sculpture and painting is that they all tend to be small scale.

TNG: In the past, did you make preparatory sketches for your sculptures and is that something you also do for your paintings?

AB: Yes, drawing has always been part of my practice, especially with regards to sculpture, as a great deal of problem solving is carried out at that stage. I prefer to draw before I paint, often marking tonal shifts or areas of light and shadow so that I have a guide.

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‘Dunk’ by Angela Bell.

TNG: I’m interested in your use of mark making on the surface of your paintings. When did you first start to explore those types of techniques and what do you find appealing about the act of distortion or elimination? Is there also a sense that through engaging with your paintings in this way you draw attention to their physicality and three dimensional nature, and does that perhaps have any connection to your previous focus on sculpture?

AB: I think I still have quite a sculptural approach to my work, even though I’m now working on a 2D surface. For example, with Dunk, I worked on a series of layers using text and transferring drawings by my kids onto the surface. The mark making, which is carried out using different tools such as rulers and knives, disturbs the flat painted surface as well as the visual surface which forces the eye to reassess what it is reading. I also drag and manipulate the paint in an effort to alter the static state of the image. I have applied this technique in various ways over a number of years, which initially came about through scraping down an unsuccessful piece. Through trial, error and refinement this technique often finds its way into my work.

TNG: Your work sometimes makes use of vibrant, warm colours, but other pieces take a much cooler or monotone approach. Is that something you tend to decide before you start to work on a particular painting?

AB: I really enjoy working with a monochrome palette as it allows me to focus purely on detail. Also, many of the images I use as starting points were black and white photos and I recognized their charm and timeless quality, which is something I wanted to explore. Over the past few years, I have challenged myself to develop my colour palette work and explore the subtleties and complexities with aspects of a limited palette, for example. My source images vary greatly and one of the joys of working from such a varied collection is the different colours, lighting and tones available to explore.

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‘Bound’ by Angela Bell.

TNG: As you say, you often make use of found photographs and then spend what I imagine is quite long period of time depicting the people captured in them. Do you feel like you get inside the heads of your subjects – or that they get inside yours – as you’re working: so that that you build up a strong personal connection with the subjects, even if you might never have met them?

AB: As my work focuses on the themes of origins and belonging, the subjects of my paintings are very important to me. On occasion, I may select an image purely based on a sense of familiarity, a faint sense of recognition. Often, I choose my subjects as they offer something that I wish to explore, whether that is facial characteristics, expression, a narrative or a moment that has been captured on film many years before that invites exploration. I usually appreciate being able to offer my own interpretation and develop my own views on the subject, as that is also the position of the viewer. However, there is one couple that I have managed to collect a number of photographs of over the years and I would dearly love to know about them.

TNG: What role does nostalgia play in your paintings – or in the reason certain found photographs appeal to you – and do you have a sense of why origins and belonging are a focus for you?

AB: Nostalgia is certainly a prominent element in my work, however, image selection may be influenced by a certain character, or the way an image is cropped, the lighting, colour palette or a particular ‘flaw’ within the photographic process that I find of interest and wish to explore within my technical practice. Origins and belongings as themes are inherent to all of us and while our origins are fixed and may form aspects of our personalities or circumstances, they do not define us. Belonging on the other hand is fluid and can focus on a variety of aspects of our identity. Belonging is also a desire that most of us have and seek out, to one degree or another.

TNG: Given that you moved into painting relatively late, and taught yourself, how beneficial is it to be able to engage with other portrait artists through the CBPP?

AB: Seeing the work of other artists and being able to quiz them on materials etc. is really useful. Instagram is really useful in that respect as there is a wealth of talent out there who are usually pretty helpful. An artist such as Ian Goldsmith, the CBPP founder, is very scientific in his approach and is technically excellent!

Image
‘Tom in the hood’ by Angela Bell – Bell’s portrait of Tom Croft, included in the 2020 exhibition
‘Perceptions’ at The Space at Cass Art.

Interview by Richard Unwin

Angela Bell’s profile page on The Net Gallery is available to view, here.

You can learn more about Angela via her website, here.

The ‘Portraits for NHS Heroes’ virtual exhibition is available to view, here.

The virtual walkthrough of  ‘Perceptions’ at The Space at Cass Art can be viewed here.

All images courtesy of the artist, Angela Bell.

The artwork shown at the top of the page is ‘The Bar Flies’ by Angela Bell.

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