“I’m a people watcher”: Nettle Grellier

Languid, intertwined figures are a feature of UK based artist, Nettle Grellier’s paintings. In these scenes of repose and leisure, intimacy and awkwardness interplay, shifting the dynamics between the figures and leaving the viewer guessing. Her recent body of work Poisson chez moi includes sensual and gestural studies of friends and lovers relaxing in what looks to be a southern European landscape. Working in a radiant colour palette of earthen tones, Nettle captures the tenderness and intimacy of banal moments in a long hot summer spent in close company. In contrast to these daytime scenes is a series of dreamlike compositions of figures closely intertwined in what could be an embrace or a struggle. Unlike the daytime scenes, these paintings are characterised by a sense of melancholy and aloneness. A further strand in the body of work introduces a bee searching for pollen. These seemingly disparate threads link together into a recognisable and contemporary narrative – a response to the climate crisis, experiences of alienation and loneliness and a yearning for an idyllic and communal “simple life.” While some of her work has a dark or brooding undercurrent, Nettle’s paintings are about the tenderness of bodies in close proximity and the sharing of intimacy, whether awkward or comfortable. Nettle lives and works in Cornwall. We spoke with the artist about living in a van, British displays of affection and extreme weather.

AMM: Hi Nettle! Have you always painted or is this a medium you found your way to via other forms of expression? What keeps you painting?

NG: I’ve always loved oil paint, my mum used to pick us up from school wearing her painting clothes and the smell of oil and turps on jeans is still so comforting to me.

My godmother gave me a set of oil paints for my birthday when I was still quite young, and I remember she laughed at me because I was so precious with them, now I make a right old mess slopping paint all over the place! Painting is what I have known since a very young age, I’m not sure what else I would do.

AMM: How has your work changed since graduating from university in 2015? What have been some of your key learnings outside of art school?

NG: I wasn’t extremely confident in myself at the time I left art school, I always loved painting people but I got scared and stuck to painting vegetables for a couple of years. I was living in Spain in a truck and I knew I could sell enough still lifes to people back in the UK to keep me going, so I didn’t challenge myself enough. I set up a residency with my boyfriend George Lloyd-Jones, it was in a finca in Spain near Granada and we had loads of artists come and stay for 1 or 2 months at a time and make work. It was such a loving and supportive community, I learnt a lot about what I need as an artist from that time. Making art can be so solitary, I need people around me and I need to paint people! I have also learnt that I need a lot of structure. I’m most productive in the morning so I get up very early and walk with my dog to the studio, it is so peaceful at that time of day.

AMM: Have you always worked figuratively? Who are the people in your work?

NG: It’s always been with me, I’m a people watcher. The people in my work are friends, family and people I remember seeing, I paint a lot from memory.

I quickly will become (poisson chez moi), oil on canvas, 107 x 153 cm

AMM: The figures in your paintings seem to share that wonderful closeness that makes lazy moments where nothing much is happening special and a bit magical. What is the relationship between the figures in your paintings?

NG: I aim for tenderness that could tip over into awkwardness, some of the limbs being wound in ways that wouldn’t actually feel comfortable. I like robust and curvy shapes, and I like the interactions between the people to dictate the visual rhythm of the painting. I started thinking about friendship and physical closeness when I was running the residency, because it was then that I started to feel such a need for it, having been travelling from place to place for so long. On the other hand I love to observe people who are stereotypically British when it comes to affection, people can be so stiff and rigid when they come into contact with others.

AMM: Your body of work Poisson chez moi from 2019 has really rich auburn colours and undertones that gives the paintings a radiance – like late summer. Please tell us how you use colour in your work?

NG: I really wanted to get to know colour better when I started painting people again, so I used a book of colour combinations and would limit my palette to two or three colours, and I found this made me really concentrate on form and composition. Now I’m really into the colours of the old TFL (Transport for London) textiles and I get a lot of inspiration from them. I have lived in Spain and Cornwall over the last few years, both of which are places of mind-blowing sunsets, and I think a lot about extreme weather at the moment so colour is an important tool.

AMM: What comes first for you, the painting or the title?

NG: The title comes during the painting.

AMM: What is your process of painting?

NG: A good ground, like a fluorescent orangey red or a grey purple, then I’ll draw onto it with a nice thin stiff brush, usually working from several drawings on paper, I’ll put the figures in one by one, fitting them together. When I’m happy with it I do the messy painting, lots of putting paint on and rubbing it off, I love seeing one colour fizz through from beneath another. Then when I’ve done enough of that I’ll reign it in with the textiles and portraits.

Me and my bee, ​oil on canvas, 14.5×20.5cm

AMM: Is drawing something separate or connected to your painting? Please tell us more about this.

NG: It’s one and the same, I love to see drawing in a painting. When I can’t paint, I can always draw, I love it. I went to the Royal drawing school exhibition recently and it was so exciting to see so much brilliant drawing in one room.

AMM: What are some of the main themes in your work?

NG: Friendship, tenderness vs. awkwardness, intimacy, people in landscapes, the climate crisis.

The Environmentalists, oil on canvas, 81.5 x 81.5 cm

AMM: Are you exploring any new ideas at the moment?

Yes. I am doing the correspondence course at Turps Banana and I have just received my first feedback from my mentor, which has challenged me in just the way I need. One of the things I want to learn is how to consolidate all the things I want to paint about and be more articulate about them. As I said before, I’m trying to paint more extreme weather at the moment. I see the people in my paintings as so in tune with one another and quite ignorant of the bleak landscapes behind them, so far the landscapes have been very hot and dry, and then I did a really hazy one recently and a really windy one.

AMM: What piece are you working on right now? How is it progressing?

NG: I’ve just finished a painting that was a struggler, but I’m happy with it now. Next I will stretch and prime a load of new canvasses and get going again!

AMM: What keeps you awake at night?

NG: My dog, Frida, wanting to go out for a wee at 3am, and politics.

AMM: Do you have any projects, residencies or exhibitions coming up? What’s next for you?

NG: I have two exhibitions in Spring next year in London, so I will be working towards them for now.

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

Interview by Layla Leiman for ArtMaze Magazine.

Spend some time, oil on canvas, 166 x 120 cm