Meet

Gabrielle Raaff

Where are you from and where do you reside?
Cape Town, I live near the beach in Lakeside, Cape Town, South Africa
Have you lived in Cape Town your entire life?
I was born in Johannesburg but moved to Cape Town on my first birthday.
What necessities do you require when making your art?
Sometimes music, my favorite Japanese and Chinese brushes. Good coffee.
What kind of Japanese and Chinese brushes do you use? Have you always used them?
I began using them after my trip to Japan in 2008. I bought a few brushes then, which I am still using. We can get cheaper Chinese brushes in Cape Town, which do come in handy when working on much bigger works. Then recently my studio mate and fellow painter went to Hong Kong with a small wish list from me. She brought back some rice paper and various beautiful brushes. One is made of wild pony hair, one of chicken feathers!
Where do you find your day-to-day inspiration?
I find that I make work that is a response to the environment that I personally interact with. I am always aware of the political context of the country I live in which makes me even more aware of my privilege and the areas of nature that I am able to access on a daily basis. The walks I take in the forest and greenbelt areas with my daughter Wren and my dog have been the inspiration for a few bodies of work. But also I am interested in allowing my personal, emotional world to inspire the more intuitive work I recently did for my last solo show ‘Nightwatch’.
Describe a typical day in the studio for you.
I drop my daughter at school at 8:30 am, take my dog for a walk in the park, and then get to my studio just after 9 am. I water the plants, make coffee, check my mails, and then begin working. I usually stretch watercolor paper on a few boards the day before so that they can dry thoroughly through the night. If I am working on canvas or linen then I will prepare them too. I work on many different pieces at the same time as there is a lot of drying between layers.

I work for about 2 to 3 hours at a time on several pieces and then I step back and take a break. I plunge in again for a few hours and then leave at 3pm to fetch my daughter again. Of course no two days are ever the same: sometimes there are studio visits of other painters, visiting the various Contemporary galleries in Cape Town, which are all down the road from my studio in the Woodstock and town area. Sometimes I can only squeeze in an hour but it is a daily practice.

What is the most difficult part of the artistic process for you?
Staying focused during the times when you don’t like what you are making or you are doubting yourself. Also knowing when to stop is always an interesting challenge. I often leave works unfinished for quite some time until I realize that in fact they are finished and should be left alone. I dislike it when I am working for a show and the question of “will this sell” enters my head. That can ruin everything!
Are there any aspects of your process that are left to chance?
Chance is quite a big part of my process as I work in ink and quite diluted forms of water-based paint, like watercolor and water-based oils. In the figurative works, however, there is still an attempt to capture the real body and so I am aware all the time of form and anatomy.
Slant
I often leave works unfinished for quite some time until I realize that in fact they are finished and should be left alone. — Gabrielle Raaff
Do you ever work with models, or do you find your figures from other sources?
I used to work with models while studying but now I am interested in the figure captured in the everyday, urban environment. For this and other paintings I like to use my own photography or sometimes found imagery, like people’s discarded family pictures and slides. These in particular help to kick start some of my more abstract figurative works.
How important is spontaneity in your art?
It is very important. However, I realize that I work in quite a clean and considered way and therefore there is always something of a game or balance between letting go of the outcome, of being spontaneous, and knowing when to stop or how to direct something.
Calling spontaneity a game or a balancing act makes a lot of sense - what guards against completely letting go of the outcome do you use?
Aah, well that is called experience! After 20 years of painting you just know, or you get better at trusting the strong feeling to hold back, calm down, ease off, or when to push the painting further. With the monochromatic, figurative works I am very aware of still wanting to capture the essence of the character. I sometimes think of these works as haikus in paint; they have both harmonious and discordant aspects. I am also trying to capture the figure in as few strokes as possible, with as little information as possible, yet still to seduce the viewer.
How do you choose your materials?
I think they choose me! I avoid working with fume-based paints for health reasons but more than that I love the speed with which water based materials dry. I also love layering and allowing the light of the page to play a significant role in creation and form. I always worked in oils and had a long period of only working in very soft watercolors and inks. Then one day my body demanded that I plunge back into the impasto, emotionally charged, visceral world of oil. The invention of water-based oils has suited my process really well.
Slant
I sometimes think of these works as haikus in paint; they have both harmonious and discordant aspects. — Gabrielle Raaff
Why do you choose to work with watercolor?
I like the contradiction of using a typically romantic medium, one associated with conservative landscape painting, in a contemporary and unexpected way. I like to use watercolor on unexpected substrates like canvas, wood, and linen.
How has your work developed in the past few years, and how do you see it evolving in the future?
Wow, it has developed tremendously. I now make work that is far more a personal response to my life and the more spontaneous use of the material allows me to play, have different kinds of control and letting go. Although the simple figurative ink paintings I make are quite different to my current body of work, I still am drawn to the simplicity and rigor of draftsmanship that I have always loved. I make these paintings as my “drawing” practice and also they act as a kind of meditation.
Did you go to art school?
Yes, I studied Fine Art at Stellenbosch University. I had several wonderful mentors. One of them is Paul Emsley, who won the BP Portrait Award a few years ago. We were given a lot of freedom to do as we pleased and that fostered a great environment of experimentation and fun.
Slant
Although the simple figurative ink paintings I make are quite different to my current body of work, I still am drawn to the simplicity and rigor of draftsmanship that I have always loved. — Gabrielle Raaff
Have you ever collaborated, or would you?
I have collaborated with my friend and colleague Lisa Firer who is a ceramicist. We made some beautiful vessels together a few years ago. I tend to work alone but in the company of six other artists at my studio. This always presents a collaborative process in itself as we give feedback on one another’s work all the time.
When did you begin your current practice?
My current practice flows from the first time I made a ‘proper’ painting of fruit in acrylics (a gift from my parents) on canvas at the age of 14. I made a lot of art at school before that point, but that simple painting of fruit switched on my painting brain and I have never stopped since.
Do you remember the first work of art that captured your attention?
The first work of art that really stopped me in my tracks was that of Francis Bacon. None in particular, just the power of his work made me jealous and made me want to paint.
Jealousy is a good motivation, especially in painters. Who else makes you jealous?
R.B Kitaj, Joseph Beuys, Marlene Dumas, Lisa Brice, Kate Gottgens, Dee Ferris, Peter Doig, Gerhard Richter, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Robert Hodgins, Howard Hodgkin…and the list goes on!
What themes or motifs are you consistently drawn to?
At the moment Nature! The ephemeral, beautiful, violent, contradictory aspects of the natural world. Where reality and the dream world merge also seems to be a common theme and starting point. The figure within these worlds has always been a recurring interest.
What tangible objects or intangible moments are you most interested in representing through your works?
The tangibility of the representational object or person that appears in my work is often unsettled by the process of painting. I like to draw the viewer in with some aspect of the representational world and then abandon them by allowing more abstract elements to emerge.
Slant
I like to draw the viewer in with some aspect of the representational world and then abandon them by allowing more abstract elements to emerge. — Gabrielle Raaff
What’s one of your favorite objects you own? What’s the story?
My real Japanese brush and the last little piece of Japanese ink stick that I was given by a master calligrapher in Japan in 2008. He taught me some simple Japanese lettering and techniques and then served us teas in his home. I will never forget Japan and the people I met there.
Where in Japan was this?
Yamaguchi, Tokyo, and of course Kyoto.
Is there any artwork on display in your home? Whose is it?
Yes, I have many artworks in my home that either I bought (the small ones), were given as gifts, or I acquired in a trade exchange with other artist friends - some very well known South African artists, like Conrad Botes, John Murray, Peet Pienaar, Barabara Widenboer, and Hanien Conradie. And of course the work of my daughter, whose direct and free mark-making I find very inspiring.
Are you influenced by any artist that does something completely different than you?
I am very inspired by the writings and interviews of the French sculptor, painter Louise Bourgeois. Christo’s wrapped buildings and the playful but cerebral work of our local artist Paul Edmunds are also an influence.
Is there something people would be surprised to learn about you?
I love surfing and singing, sometimes at the same time.
What would you be if you were not a painter?
Definitely a singer!

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