Once a student at Edinburgh College of Art and now based in Glasgow, Lily Macrae is a painter so in touch with the sense of past and present that has permeated throughout art history. In her work, she channels both a sense of drama and narrative inherited from Renaissance and Baroque masters and the abstraction and modern colour palette of a contemporary painter. They are large scale and transport the viewer into this whirlwind of colour and gesture – in her own way she has combined a sense of knowledge and imagination, to produce works that feel timeless, as if caught in the movement of a moment.
Did you always know that you were artistically inclined? What made you decide this was the thing that gripped your imagination above all else?
Yes, definitely. My family are all really creative in their own ways so have always encouraged me, but to be honest, I didn’t plan to become an artist, it just happened. I suppose it was when I was trying to decide on what to study, whether to go for the sensible choice or to pursue the path that was less stable and I decided that if I didn’t try then, I never would.
You studied at Edinburgh College of Art, graduating in 2016. What did that time at art school teach you about the way that you wanted to paint?
I make incredibly different work now from what I made at ECA, it wasn’t really until my degree show that I started to really understand my practice and start to realise the sort of work I wanted to make. Although that is something that is constantly evolving. It taught me about how I paint most effectively, usually at night and in these short energetic bursts, otherwise, I find I lose the spontaneity of it all. The main benefit of art school was that it introduced me to this community of creative people who are all aspiring to similar goals but in very different ways.
Growing up in Edinburgh, and doing a residence in Tokyo, two magical cities, must have had a big effect on you. Does the city you're in are affect the way you paint? For example, did you find yourself looking at things differently while you did your residence in Japan?
Despite being one of the most populated places in the world Tokyo is this strangely socially isolated city, so many people living in technology-driven solitude, which at that point was perfect for me. It was completely freeing to work in a place so wildly different to Scotland, to be supported and have the time and space to just solely focus on my practice.
I think that there are similarities in my working process wherever I paint, but it changes the way that you think about projects. Working in Tokyo gave me a fresh perspective and changed how I engaged with colour – there was just so much going on everywhere and the light always seems different when you work in a new country. A sensible person probably would’ve worked on a smaller scale but I was stubborn and carried on making these really large-scale works incorporating weird characters and elements from ukiyo-e – woodblock prints – and exploring the work of Japanese old masters, it was incredible!
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In your work you are very in touch with that sense of storytelling that we might see in a Baroque painting, a Caravaggio for example, that sense of drama and movement. What draws you to this kind of painting?
It’s the power, gesture and light, in particular, you get in Caravaggio paintings, you instantly recognise his work despite the numerous painters who were inspired by and mimicked him.
There is nothing more entrancing than a good storyteller and a story that draws you in. For me, story telling is innate in figuration, whether deliberate or not. When you see some sort of human element within a painting there is something accessible in the very nature of it. Even if you don't know the story, you can attach your own – you can still draw some sort of personal meaning from it.
I want to create a story that draws your eye across the entire surface, with subtleties which you then come back to. I like the idea that a work or title of a piece subtly alludes to the origin of the idea behind it but leaves space for the viewer to make their own interpretation.
I was thinking about the connection between the sense of movement in your work to the importance of movement in other art forms like photography, film, dance. What are your influences outside of fine art?
At the moment, I’m having a bit of an obsession with Peter Greenaway films, there are some elements in my most recent painting Rule of Six from a still from The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989). His films are so influenced by Baroque and Renaissance paintings that I’m not sure if this really counts, it’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I quite often have elements in paintings taken from films. Finding things that really influence the way that I compose an image or a colour that jumps out that I’ll remember and keep for a painting where it will fit. Another piece I’ve been working on recently is partially taken from these deleted film stills of a pie fight in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove (1964). I’ll usually just use that as a starting point compositionally and then just take it from there and see what happens.
My studio in Glasgow is inside a warehouse which is used for film production, (they filmed 1917 in there last year) and is beside the old graving docks of the Clyde which was used for shipbuilding. There is some sort of big Bollywood production happening at the moment. A couple of days ago I met a lost actor dressed in a full pilot uniform wandering the hallways, which was funny, it’s great to constantly be around different types of creatives.
There have been moments throughout art history where referencing antiquity and paying homage to the past has been paramount – and then there are other times where that desire to break from it has created new ideas and concepts. How do you think your work fits into that relationship between past and present?
I would say that my work is suspended somewhere between the two, and that new ideas are always at least partially rooted in the past whether its intentional or not. I’m really interested in this idea of the excavation of memory, how to represent something which is inevitably lost over time, and using painting as a way to reveal or uncover something that has been forgotten.
By taking historic images from art history, reworking them and deconstructing the language of the old masters I’m examining the process of painting itself as being simultaneously an act of both excavation and construction. I want the works to re-imagine universal stories and myths; to highlight their power, beauty, and often absurdity and explore how they play a role in a contemporary narrative and collective memory. Hinting to each work's ancestry, and questioning our ineluctable relationship with the past. I want to play with the traditional intentions of this imagery and what it means in the contemporary sphere.
“I want to draw the viewer into a vortex of drama filled with this human architecture and climactic force which they then have to step back from and disentangle.”
You’ve talked about the ‘fleeting nature’ of painting and the idea that the works are in this ‘state of flux’, as well as having an interest in aspects of painting that have a sense of longevity like storytelling. That’s a wonderful paradox, fleeting and enduring. Could you explain a bit more about your focus on the fleeting and the way it ties in with your sense of narrative?
Whilst I’m painting, I create these images which collapse and are lost, they are rebuilt layer by layer, I’ll often just start with a colour in mind and work for a few hours creating these marks that I then go and rub back into in an attempt to find an image. I find those absent, reminiscent marks almost as important as the form that remains at the end.
I want to encapsulate this feeling of touch and fleeting movement, to trace and immortalise it, and speak of the physical act of applying the paint itself. There is this constant difficulty of attempting to capture an image within a spontaneous gesture without overworking it or overthinking it. A lot of the time the narrative seems to follow these fleeting images, I don't think too much about it whilst starting the painting then it all starts to piece together.
Your work flirts with abstraction – for example, sometimes the only shapes we can discern are a hand or the outline of a body, and the rest is nestled beneath these clouds of painterly gestures and colour. Do you enjoy keeping that sense of chaos in your work, while offering just a glimpse of clarity?
Completely, that’s exactly the sense I’m trying to convey, each painting always has this push and pull of figuration versus abstraction. I think within my own work abstraction alone isn’t enough. I can definitely enjoy and appreciate viewing something totally abstracted which talks just about colour or the process of painting, but personally, I get lost without some kind of recognisable element, a figurative hook that draws you in to the painting – without that hook I can never find the endpoint of a painting.
I think those glimpses of figures and drama give the viewer something to decipher and decode, it creates this certain intrigue and connection. I want to draw the viewer into a vortex of drama filled with this human architecture and climactic force which they then have to step back from and disentangle. I absolutely love the idea of excavating or revealing an image that has been hidden within the painterly gesture.
I love your use of colour, for example, the use of red in your work Supper creates this heated and dramatic effect for the scene – it builds this whole atmosphere of intensity around the canvas. Could you tell us a bit about your relationship to colour?
Colour is this sort of instinctive force, even before I’ve planned a painting, I’ve usually chosen at least the main colour, or picked say, two or three main colours and I just go on from there. I limit it to that which stops me from using every single colour I can. Normally one colour becomes the predominant one, the winner, and I find different tones within that. I feel like I pick up hints and colour ideas from all over –, to be honest, from the constant stream of images we all encounter every day, I can’t always pinpoint where they come from.
I want to find that same contrast that you get in the old master’s use of chiaroscuro techniques, but with a contemporary palette. Before starting the large pieces, I do these small abstracted colour studies on paper to resolve what works together and then just go for it, I’ll often exhibit them alongside the final works to explain the process.
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I know you post regularly on Instagram and have many of your works featured on your website, do you think social media and the internet has been an ultimately positive thing for the world of painting?
Yes, definitely. I think in other aspects of life social media in particular has definitely has a negative impact but if we are just talking about painting then I’ve benefitted from it hugely. In terms of the accessibility of the image, it is completely incredible, it means anyone can engage and interact with your work if they want to and you can reach an international audience and collectors who would never have seen it otherwise.
Personally, it lets me glimpse into the studios and working processes of other artists whose work I admire, painters who in another time I would have never understood so much about – or would just have seen images of their finished works. I get into these rabbit holes of inescapable inspiration and one thing leads to another.
It does also have so many drawbacks, and in some ways is all a big game in terms of the algorithms and images of people living the most perfected idyllic versions of their lives which I’m not hugely interested in playing, to be honest, but that in itself is quite intriguing and the benefits definitely outweigh that for me – I attempt to keep mine mostly focused on painting!
The reproduced image changed the way we see art forever, now works can be showcased online and some museums have websites that allow you to see high quality versions of famous works, the viewer can even zoom in and out of the work to find more detail. This has been revolutionary as we are able to see works that are in museums and galleries all over the world, but as an artist do you still believe in the ‘aura’ of the original work?
You’re right, it couldn’t be more useful to literally have any image you could want at your fingertips. I do however definitely believe in the ‘aura’ of the original work. I don’t think anything is quite the same as being in the presence of the work itself. To understand the scale, the surface, texture and attempt to imagine the process of how it was made or how it has aged over time. Colours always change slightly through a screen too, you can never get it just right.
Having said that, during the covid haze of 2020 we couldn’t have done without that accessibility to online shows, personally, I cannot wait to be able to go to a real show again.
This dynamic between artist and viewer has always interested me, especially when thinking about the creation process. Who defines a work of art? Some people believe the work is defined by what its audience think of it, others believe the meaning is in the eye of the artist. What do you think?
I think it is a combination of both, it’s going to mean different things to different people. I think that once a work is out there and you show it after hiding it away in the studio ultimately you lose control over it and its meaning in a way, it is owned by the viewers and they define it. You can still share your intended definition of that work but the viewer is hopefully going to make up their own mind too. I find it so interesting to hear people’s take on my work, it usually brings up new ideas I hadn’t considered and they see things which are totally new to me or unintended.
Lastly, and slightly philosophical question, what does it mean to you to be an artist in the 21st century?
I think, if anything, the last few months have proved just how important it is to keep doing whatever it is that you love and that drives you, and to try to stay true to what you want to make no matter what others are doing around you. The majority of people I know, myself included, who are pursuing their practice have a lot of other things going on simultaneously, other jobs etc. so I think you have to be good at juggling to be an artist in the 21st century.
Ultimately, to me it means freedom, and a lot of frustration too, but it’s worth it.
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