Studio Visit with Henrietta Harris: Changing up portraiture

Henrietta Harris’ slightly surreal and wonderfully whimsical paintings and illustrations have appeared in exhibitions all over the world. In her bio she plainly states that she’s “skillfully hand-drawn hands, faces, brains, glaciers and more”. This modest-sounding claim is no small feat however, as this repertoire features most things many other artists expressly avoid drawing or painting.

Henrietta’s technical skill in draftsmanship is a pleasure to behold and acts like a hook to lure your eye in. But it’s the imaginativeness of her work that holds your attention, piques your curiosity and causes you to pause and wonder. Henrietta disrupts her life-like images with flashes of the surreal, unexpected or ethereal. Perfect portraits suddenly melt away midway; seemingly mistaken brushstrokes obliterate painstakingly rendered pictures; figures dissolve into the background or turn away from the viewer, rejecting our expectations.

Alongside her art Henrietta has built up a thriving commercial illustration practice. She’s made brilliantly lifelike drawings of some of the Auckland Zoo’s weirder residents, as well as album and poster artwork for the likes of Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Areal Pink. We were thrilled to have the opportunity to ask this New Zealand based artist a few questions about her work. Enjoy!

AMM: Hi Henrietta! Most people avoid drawing things like hands, hair, and ears, yet you seem to relish these technical challenges. Have you always drawn and painted? Please give us a little introduction to your journey as an artist. 

HH: Yes, like most children I drew from a young age, I’ve always loved it. Just the usual really, did art all through school, then went to art school and throughout taught myself how to draw and paint and here we are.

AMM: Your current work seems to engage with notions of erasure. Can you tell us more about this and other concepts you explore in your work? 

HH: I’ve just always really been into changing up portraiture, whether it be warping or erasing or leaving out the face. It’s all to do with evoking emotion in interesting ways, and mixing different styles without it becoming too much.

AMM: Most of your art features either people or landscapes. What appeals to you about these subject matter? 

HH: I’ll never get bored of painting people, but if I do I like to paint mountains. Instead of being soft and round they’re almost geometric. I like not having to pay too much attention to getting the features spot on. No one is going to notice if a mountain peak is in the wrong place.

AMM: You generally work in a subdued colour palette. How have you refined your aesthetic over the years and do you feel comfortable with where you’re currently at? 

HH: I think so, I seem to remember liking much brighter colours when I was younger. Do I feel comfortable? Yes I think so! Maybe I’ll get more and more subdued until they’re completely desaturated and I won’t even notice.

AMM: What’s your creative process? How long do you typically spend working on each piece?

HH: It all depends, but longer than I used to – I used to charge through paintings in a few days. Now I try to take my time and even leave them for a few weeks if I can, to think about everything more. Typically, I take between a week and a month to do large oil paintings (with other work in-between).

AMM: Do you see your commercial and poster/album art as separate from your fine art? How do these aspects of your career influence one another? 

HH: I do, music stuff has always informed my own practice though. I did an Ariel Pink poster which lead to the warped face paintings, for example. And musicians may see my paintings and ask for one similar for an album cover.

AMM: You regularly show work all over the world. How and when did you get your break? Do you have any advice to share with emerging artists about promoting/getting their work noticed? 

HH: I don’t know! I feel like I’m still endlessly searching for it. It might not seem like it to others I guess but it’s not easy making a living as an artist. My advice would be to practice heaps, draw every day, borrow ideas but make them your own – there’s no secret, finding out where I get my inspiration from isn’t going to inspire you!

AMM: What does a typical day in studio look like for you? 

HH: I usually answer emails etc. at home with coffee and breakfast, then I catch the bus to my studio and paint/fluff around until lunch then paint/fluff around till it’s time to go. Sometimes my studio-mate Alex and I talk nonsense for far too long and sometimes I read my murder mysteries in a cafe for longer than a normal lunch break should be but I’m usually disciplined. Regular breaks are important though, I get sore wrists/shoulders/back/neck from painting.

AMM: Where do you look for daily inspiration? 

HH: I find inspiration questions so hard to answer. I get most of my inspiration from working on things which give me more and more ideas, that seems to be it for me. Enigmatic.

AMM: What’s next for you? 

HH: I’m going on my first holiday in two and a half years!!!! Then album art for an amazing musician which I am very excited about, some animal paintings for Auckland Zoo, Art Basel Miami in December, and possibly shows in LA and Paris… it’s often hard to predict though, so watch this space.

Find out more about the artist: www.henriettaharris.com

Text and interview by Laila Leiman for ArtMaze Mag.