Inventing a universe through painting with Céline Achour

La danse du paon (The dance of the peacock)

There’s a charming naivety to Paris-based painter Céline Achour’s work. A relative newcomer to fine art, Céline only took up painting full-time five years ago whilst studying interior design. Inspired by the symbolic world of fairy tales and folklore, Céline’s paintings depict surreal scenes where imaginary creatures, animals and figures inhabit dream-like settings. Alongside these more narrative works Céline also paints moody portraits of her family members and pop culture icons. In both series of works color features prominently and is used imaginatively to heighten mood and a sense of fantasy. In her portraits and surreal scenes, Céline endeavours to capture some aspect of the human condition. We caught up with Céline to find out more about her work and creative process, where she draws inspiration and what her plans are for the future.

AMM: Hi Céline! You only recently took up painting full time. Can you tell us a little about your artistic journey thus far?

CA: While I dreamed of studying art, I came to Paris to study management at the university. I then made a career in the field of social welfare for seventeen years before deciding to stop everything to undertake occupational retraining in interior design. That was in 2009. I returned to school and it is on this occasion that painting and drawing returned to my life to get the upper hand finally over any other activity. Since 2012, I have dedicated most of my time to it. My days are quite varied: there are those where I paint, those that I spend behind my computer preparing my application files, those when I travel with my painting…

As I participate in numerous exhibitions and as it brings me to travel, I must be very organized to manage my movements and all the administrative parts. Otherwise I would not manage to paint any more, which is not the objective!

AMM: What appeals to you about the medium of painting?

CA: When I was an adolescent I began drawing and then moved on to collage. Painting arrived later. I believe that it is the medium which corresponds to me most, which helps me to let go. I adore creating my colors (I rarely use other colors than the primary colors and white) because that is part of the magic. Besides, the paint allows me to tell stories, as I could do on paper. I invent universes and I stage often real characters there. I have difficulty not thinking, my brain always works. The paint is the only activity which allows me to forget myself. I forget the time, I forget my concerns and even my physical pains!

AMM: Please tell us about your style of painting and the materials you use.

CA: I would say that my painting is dreamlike. Even when I paint only a portrait, I bring it into another universe. It remains realistic but maybe with a touch of surrealism. I paint on various formats (from 15×15 cm to 120×120 cm), mainly average formats (81×65 cm). I use some acrylic paint. I buy regularly beautiful colors but generally I use only three primary colors and white. I rarely use black, I prefer to mix the colors with my primary pigments. I paint with brushes. And I have a fantastic tool: a water atomizer! I also use some absorbing paper or aluminium to create effects in the background.

AMM: Where do you look for daily artistic inspiration?

CA: I draw my inspiration from everywhere, in museums, in fashion magazines, in the street, in gardens, in the sky (especially for the color). I take many photos to remember everything that pleases me. As regards my imagination, I am very influenced by fairy tales. I read them avidly when I was a child and a teenager. They are full of symbols and messages. I believe that I paint these stories.

AMM: Are you influenced by your surroundings? What does your studio look and feel like?

CA: I live in Paris and artist studios are rare. So I paint at my home in my kitchen. It is spacious and well lit… and covered with spots of paint! My materials occupy several cupboards and I tidy up every evening to prepare dinner. It is sometimes frustrating but it is an organization which avoids me getting invaded by mess. I intend to look for a studio to be able to paint large formats free from the space at the house, but I like to paint in my kitchen.

AMM: What is your creative process?

CA: I begin generally by making backgrounds of color by having in mind the composition of my painting. In this stage it looks like abstract art. Then I make sketches with charcoal and I begin to paint decorations and characters. I paint with acrylic paint and I use a lot of water because I like the unpredictable effects which it produces. On a portrait, I sometimes destroy it completely before beginning again and keeping only certain parts of my previous work.

AMM: Who are the people that feature in your work? What appeals to you about painting the human face?

CA: I often paint my children, my daughter in particular, at various ages. I also sometimes paint my family or my friends. I made many portraits inspired by public characters such as Marilyn Monroe, Robert Smith, Morrissey… Necessarily I paint people who I love or from photos which inspire me. When I began to paint, it was obvious for me that it would not be landscapes or houses. I have training in interior design so I like making perspectives. But for me they serve only as decorations for my characters. I love people, I believe that that’s why I paint them. The environment permits me to tell their story or the one that I invent for them. When we paint a face, we also paint a personality and feelings. I don’t know why, but my portraits are often melancholic.

AMM: In addition to your portraits you paint narrative scenes. Can you tell us more about these imaginative compositions?  

CA: My narrative scenes are more than a story, they convey feelings or emotions. What I express is very personal but I believe that it is also universal. I raise subjects such as the passage of time, solitude, loss of loved ones, unhappy love affairs, the difficulty of human relations, the shames… It can seem rather sad but in fact it is also a way to speak about life which is also full of hope and enjoyment.

AMM: As a relative newcomer to the art world, how have you gone about promoting your work and growing a collector base?

CA: I held my first exhibition exactly three years ago. I knew nothing about the art market and when I painted it was not with the idea to exhibit. It was my circle of friends who pushed me there initially. I researched on the Internet to know how and where to exhibit and I sent numerous requests to participate in artistic shows hoping that one of them would be interested in my work. I was lucky enough to receive numerous positive answers and I was able to exhibit in the Grand Palais in the Show of the French Artists and in the Autumn Show on the Champs-Elysées, which are both historic painting shows in France.

I participate in about 15/20 exhibitions a year by trying to diversify places. I intend to slow down the exhibitions to be able to dedicate more time to my painting. I think that there is no unique recipe to promoting one’s work. It depends on the type of work. I believe for example that my work is not suited to the big art fairs. I believe that it’s necessary to meet the person who is going to buy it. It is always a surprise. One of my last sales was made because I had invited members of my sports club to come to my exhibition. We did not know each other very well and I especially wanted to share my passion with them. I did not think of selling art, just sharing it. Participate in competitions, and respond to calls for art.

AMM: Have you ever received any advice that greatly impacted on your approach to making art?

CA: I was lucky at first to have two friends who simultaneously urged me to exhibit and who believed in me. I already had the support of my family but I thought that they were not objective and that they were being kind. Even if I had always drawn and practised the plastic arts I took my first courses in painting and drawing very late, and it was in a professional context of interior design. I then said to the professor that I wasn’t confident to exhibit and that it would reveal my lack of talent! That made my professor roar. She told me it is only a question of work and still more work, everything has to be learned. These art lessons made me become aware; at the same time they allowed me to improve very quickly and appreciate that I should work a lot to reach there. I have never stopped taking lessons, I always work a lot.

AMM: What’s next for you? 

CA: I am working on a series of paintings in which scenes and portraits join. Until now there were portraits on one side and narrative scenes on the other, and I had never envisaged them as a whole. I have several exhibitions coming up: an exhibition for six months in the offices of a training institution, a Street Art festival in which I participate every year and which aims to raise money for an association of medical research, an exhibition in a church… I shall also like finding an art gallery to represent my work, but until now I have not made any moves in this direction as I found my work was not accomplished enough. And then there are all the opportunities which I have not imagined yet!

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Text and interview by Layla Leiman for ArtMaze Mag.

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