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Sarah Kelk, the Melbourne Painter to Know Right Now

An unplanned break from painting in the early 2000s saw Melbourne, Australia–based artist Sarah Kelk living in Scotland, running an art gallery, and focusing on the practice of other artists. It wasn’t until she returned to Melbourne in 2011 that she once again found the energy she needed to approach her practice with a fresh perspective. A request from her sister to “make something big for her wall” and two canvases found on the side of the road were all she needed to get herself back into what she loved, creating colorful, abstract, intuitive works. Since starting painting again, Kelk has found it hard to stop. “I get really focused and obsessed on the texture and color and balance and that takes over from a visual perspective.” We recently spoke to Kelk about how she has let her work guide her along the way — never quite knowing how a painting will end once she’s started.

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Describe your most recent project and how it was made.

Most of my projects at the moment involve painting. It’s my favorite medium, and one I feel really comfortable and natural using. I’m awful at drawing and have loved painting since I was really young. My most recent project was a series of large-scale commissioned paintings for a private collection. Working on larger scale pieces has meant more concentrated time in the studio, which is always a good thing. I usually come out of a day in the studio with more ideas then I started with, which is a sign that I’m on the right track.

I never know how a piece is going to end up and that’s what I love the most about creating it. When I start, there’s lots of energy and it’s really exciting, but the difference between that and when it’s finished is worlds apart. My paintings almost feel like completely different pieces from start to finish…the whole process is fascinating to me, and something I never tire of.

Most of my work is pretty intuitive. I have a rough plan — mostly by picking colors — but start with a really rough few expressive under coats. I do these really quickly, which gives me a feel about which direction the rest of the painting will head in. I then add color blocks on top and simply build on it from there, leaving bits I like and working over others. I sometimes use a picture as a starting point of inspiration, which might be a landscape with great colors, or a random picture of a garage door I have snapped on my phone.

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Describe your next project and how you’re currently making it.

I’m currently finishing off work to be showcased in a slightly different format than I’m used to. A series of four paintings are going to form the basis for a new wine range with a local Mornington Peninsula boutique vineyard. This collaboration is the first time I’ll see my work used in any product relating to food or wine, and after seeing the final artwork for the labels, I’m really excited about how this will translate.

I’ve been doing site visits to the winery, and each separate piece relates to a different varietal: a red blend, a rosé, a pinot gris and a moscato. I had separate ideas for each piece and they have turned out really different, but funnily enough when you put them together they work really well together.

This is something I love about painting; I never really know how it is going to turn out. I always think I should have really firm ideas and it would be great to say I’ve gone to the vineyard and sampled these great colors, but it doesn’t always translate until the very end. In a way, each piece takes its own form, it’s kind of the piece working itself out, and some pieces take hardly any time where others take so long.

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Tell us one thing that’s been inspiring you lately and why?

I recently went to the David Hockney exhibition at the NGV (National Gallery of Victoria) here in Melbourne. I didn’t think I was going to love it as much as I did. For me I think, everybody is really familiar with his work and I came away from it feeling fresh. This is hard and challenging to do as an artist. For his work to still feel fresh is really interesting and to inspire a whole younger generation of artists is amazing. I didn’t expect to take that away from it.

I left with a whole load of color combinations, textures and composition inspirations jotted down in my notebook. I always have a sketchbook in my bag with me and am always collecting paper, receipts tickets and boxes of that stuff. I’ve always just done it and there could be something tiny in the corner of something that I just like.

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Show us your studio and tell us what you like about it.

I’m really lucky to have my studio in a loft above our garage, which is across the yard from our house. I love working in an upstairs space, as it has loads of natural light and plants and even though it’s so close to our house, the space feels completely separate. I have boxes and boxes of postcards, books, papers, photographs, that I’ve collected since I was young. If I’m ever short of some inspiration, I’ll make a cup of tea and trawl through it all to generate some new ideas.

I’ll usually get in the mood for a painting session by making a big plunger of coffee, which I’ll drink throughout the day as it goes cold. I’ll either pop on the radio or a podcast so that I have some background noise, but nothing that completely distracts me. I try really hard to give myself an Internet ban when I’m painting, but sometimes the power of Instagram is just too much, and I’ll take a quick inspiration break. I love when I get in a long stretch of painting, but the reality of living with young kids and running another business means lots of multi tasking! When I do get time to be in the zone, hours can literally fly by and then it’s suddenly time for school pick up.

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