Fiona McMonagle

Fiona McMonagle plays with the potential of watercolour – pushing it past traditional styles to create her own techniques, depicting unlikely subjects and continuing the flow of watercolour with digital animation. As an artist, what remains consistent is her embrace of the challenge, and it is this that sets her up to be as tenacious and intriguing as the subjects she portrays.

What led you to be an artist?
From a young age I was obsessed with drawing. My older brother, Tim McMonagle, is an artist, and he went to art school before me and opened up that idea of, yes, that is something I can do.

Growing up as the youngest of six kids, you would have constantly been playing catch-up. What is your relationship with your brother like today?
We are quite close, we shared a studio for many years and we are still in the same building with our studios at the moment. We give each other feedback with our work and it is quite handy to have someone as close, as you can trust they are going to be quite honest.

What attracted you to watercolour?
In art school I discovered watercolour, and I found it quite a challenging medium. I think at first we had to do a project watercolour and it was really tough. I was up for the challenge and I just kept working at it. And 15 years later I’m still pushing it. There are traditional ways of working with watercolour but I don’t really use any of them. I’ve just found my own way to work with it.

You deal with unlikely watercolour subjects – from challenging, sullen youths to German Shepherds – what is it about these tough subjects that resonate with you?
I have always been drawn to imagery with a bit of an edge, or that I’m unsure about. I also like the contrast of a really soft, delicate medium mixed with a tougher subject and that ambiguity.

There is a spontaneity and immediacy in your work – do you pre-plan or is it intuitive?
I do a few sketches and smaller works to work out the palette – but only loosely. I will have a think how to approach something but while making a work the watercolour process is so immediate I have to leave myself open to whatever direction it is going to take me. Once I am in the process it can go anywhere.

How has your watercolour process evolved?
Just recently I was looking back at watercolours that I did while I was at the Victorian College of the Arts, which was a completely different approach to how I work now. I think you can see that I was a little scared of the medium then and tried to control it. It is pretty scary when you first start a painting but I learnt to throw myself in and throw a heap of water down and just hope for the best. I do recall certain stages over the last 15 years where I thought had become quite confident with the medium and I had really tightened up. Now the challenge for me is to go back the other way and keep it loose and free.

What drew you to combine watercolour with digital animation?
My first animation was for the Basil Sellers Art Prize in 2014 and I worked with my brother Declan. When you propose a work for the Sellers you think big, and I wanted to challenge myself.

There is that sense of fluidity that animation and watercolour share.
Yes, I started to think of the constant movement of watercolour, but once it dries it is still. I wanted to keep that fluidity going and I think watercolour lends itself to animation really well because of that movement in the medium. The pictures ended up bleeding into each other and I liked that.

It creates a sense of infinity when you watch the animations.
Yes exactly.

What was this process like for you?
It is a long hard process painting frame by frame, and it is really hard work. The work for the Basil Sellers was over 800 paintings and I don’t know whether I am a sucker for punishment but I sat down and did painting after painting. I’d scan each picture and send them off to Declan and he’d put them together. When I saw the first batch of frames moving that was the reward.

In the final animation there is still an awareness of the artist’s hand in the work.
Definitely, that was something I always wanted to keep, if I wanted it to be done perfectly it could have been done digitally. I wanted that imperfect handmade quality. For the UQ Art Museum National Self-Portrait Prize, in ‘One hundred days at 7pm’ I kept all the bad ones – so if you were to slow the animation down there are lots of drawings with bleeding and that was one of my rules – I had to keep them all.

What were the rules in this endurance-style self-portrait?
I painted at the same time every day, and at the time I was working on a large-scale animation for the 2016 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art. Every night I would do one self-portrait. I would set myself rules – a limited palette, I would not look at the previous painting that I had done – it was a kind of experiment, I guess.

Personal narrative is in your work. ‘The ring’ explored female boxing in a watercolour animation. How did this work come about?
I definitely need some personal connection or interest in the subject. I was already training in boxing, and I had been on and off for about 10 years before that. When I first started that project I did consider making it more about me being able to fight. The funny thing about boxing is that boxers make it look easy but it’s actually really complicated and a very skilful sport. With that process I really threw myself in, I got to know the boxers – including the world number one at the time. I tried to educate myself as much as possible, there is so much history there. I wanted to have a good understanding about it, I wanted it to be genuine.

You are in a group show of painters who print, what is your approach to printmaking?
I’m working with Adrian Kellett, a Melbourne printmaker. After having conversations with him he came up with an approach that would suit my style. All the prints are lithographs and you can approach lithography in different ways. My approach is to paint directly onto mylar.

From tackling watercolour, to animation, boxing and now printmaking – it seems that what drives you is the challenge.
I think it does – I recently looked back as far as art school and at the start of final year I decided to paint portraits of all the staff and students and that was my year – it goes way back.

EXHIBITION
A dog named Chop
29 June – 29 July, 2017
Hugo Michell Gallery, SA

Courtesy the artist and Hugo Michell Gallery, SA.

Fiona McMonagle is represented by Olsen Gallery, Sydney; Hugo Michell Gallery, Beulah Park, SA; and Heiser Gallery, Brisbane.