The British seaside, full of shabby charm, is a place familiar to many of us and artist Leigh Mulley has managed to capture its essence in her realist paintings of various seaside memorabilia and icons. Based in Folkstone, Mulley found herself becoming entangled in the arts at an early age and feels the encouragement from her parents and excellent early schooling is what helped propel her creative side into finally forging a full-time career in painting.
Apart from visiting funfairs and amusement arcades for inspiration, I find souvenir shops just brilliant. Generally they are full of loveable junk
There’s a lovely, vintage feel to Mulley’s work as she touches upon the mundane and the loss of glamour many seaside resorts have suffered over the decades by showing us empty rides, unused dinghies and ice cream vans. There's also healthy dose of Mulley's obsession with gadgets, as seen in her water pistol series, in her work. The familiarity is what first attracts the viewer to the artists work, but it’s the excellent skill in the paintings and composition that really impresses. Here the artist talks about her love of colour and its importance to her work and why she’s been drawn to the past to inspire her.
Dazed Digital: What is it about realist painting in particular that you enjoy?
Leigh Mulley: I think precision interests me – and across so many disciplines. I’m just as likely to get excited by a Faberge egg or piece of Berlin Iron as a 70s photorealist painting. I can remember sitting glued to Givenchy’s Spring 2011 Couture collection for hours checking out the detailing – it was just exquisite. I also think I became familiar with drawing before painting, and my style was very illustrative, so it kinda spilled over into my painting perhaps. Sometimes I wonder if I just ‘draw’ but with paint?
DD: Your work has a nostalgic feel, like vintage illustrations, especially when combined with your seaside subject matter. What is it about the past that you gravitate towards painting?
Leigh Mulley: I like that observation. It’s not necessarily all intentional! Firstly, I love the seaside, the seaside resort and all its connotations – good and bad. It’s just too stimulating – swinging candyfloss bags, sickly pink peppermint rock, the smell of doughnut stalls, the cacophony of amusement arcades, and the layers and layers of flashing lights and colour. The list is endless. It’s also an illusion really. Up close the fixtures are tired, the prizes are cheap, and the paint flaked away.
Secondly, I love watching people’s reactions to something vaguely or intensely familiar. There’s a spark of warmth and comfort. I had my own gallery space for a while, and I was amazed that so many people are afraid to enter a gallery or look at artwork. Presenting the familiar definitely removes barriers.
DD: What was the inspiration for your pistol series? Why that particular toy?
Leigh Mulley: Apart from visiting funfairs and amusement arcades for inspiration, I find souvenir shops just brilliant. Generally they are full of loveable junk. As a child I can remember trawling through the dozens of souvenir shops on Margate seafront, collecting the most awful stuff – shell animals, oversized pinwheels, hats, flags, inflatables etc. Water pistols are a childhood stalwart from that mix. I bought a mixed bag of cheap pistols from Woolworths, and sketched and photographed them.
They were the classic badly made plastic kind – fantastic colours, and with the partially visible mechanism. It made perfect sense to paint them, but only on a large scale – to make people really look at them, and indulge in the detail.
DD: You’ve said that you’re driven by the power of colour in your work, what does this mean?
Leigh Mulley: Colour is so hugely important to me. It is nearly always the starting point for a piece of work. Without sounding a bit wanky – I feel controlled by it. It stops me in my tracks, holds me. This could also be why you’ve made the ‘vintage illustration’ or ‘vintage poster’ reference, as advertisers have long used colour as their most powerful tool – there’s definitely a parallel there.
Thankfully it’s not just me – we all stop at red, press green to play, rarely eat anything blue. The red and silver stripes on a Tunnocks teacake are gem-like to me. And that’s before we even hit the natural world! It’s truly colossal. It’s something to lose yourself in, you know, like a mad mathematician, or NASA scientist with his shirt buttons done up wrong. My dream for year off is to bury myself in colour theory essays and pretend I’m Albers!
DD: What are you up to at the moment?
Leigh Mulley: Right now I’m desperately keen to get on with my next few paintings. Apart from Ice Cream Vans, I have developed an obsession with 2p pusher arcade machines and claw/grab machines. It’s not just the deliciously industrial feel to the mechanical parts, but the repeated rows of toys and prizes – there’s an amazing pattern and rhythm to them. Then you’ve got colour and lights for added seduction. I’m hoping they will make for an interesting series.