This Artist Carves Into Paint To Make Images Of Wildlife Appear
Christchurch-based New Zealand and British artist Hannah Jensen speaks about painting in reverse, where all the layers of paint are applied first, then carved to reveal what’s in her heart.
You were born in 1984 in Bath. Tell me about where you were born and raised, your background and your upbringing.
I was born in Bath, but our family lived in a small village called Longbridge Deverill, about 30 minutes from the city. We lived in a 250-year-old farmhouse that my mom and dad had renovated. A simple life with mom who was an incredible potter and my dad a truck driver. I remember wanting to be an artist at around the age of four. I knew the word, I knew it meant I could make things – that sounded like magic to me.
When did you move from England to New Zealand, and when did you live in Africa?
I moved to New Zealand when I was 22 months old with my mom and brother, and I am so grateful I got to grow up in this wonderful country. Mom is from New Zealand so returning home was special for us all. I have never lived in South Africa but have visited about six times from the age of eight to 32 to spend time with dad. I spent two months there when I was 21 creating 17 artworks for dad’s property at the time. All my visits are cherished for the time spent in nature with the incredible wildlife over there. It also helped that the latter five trips were to dad’s own game reserve, which he bought in 2000 and in which he spent the last 16 years of his life.
How have these countries influenced you?
The greatest influence from them all is nature, time spent walking and exploring these incredible landscapes. In New Zealand, my partner and I are very fond of the great outdoors and enjoy hiking, biking and surfing. In South Africa, it was the wild animals that stole my heart. I would spend hours walking around dad’s game reserve being with the animals: warthogs, kudus, impalas, giraffes, wildebeests, baboons, hippos and more.
After carving on wood, how did the idea first come to you in 2003 (by accident) to carve into paint?
I loved the idea of white and wood, that very Scandinavian style we know today. So I started layering white paint – it was only house paint. I had a large tin and began layering. My first two works were 2,100 x 1,200 mm each. I imagined I would carve through the white paint into the wood, however, 23 layers later, when I finally ran out of paint and could no longer procrastinate, I drew these wonderful birds and started to carve. At first I was annoyed at how thick it was, but within seconds, this was the moment the light bulb went off and I knew I could carve into the paint. My first paint carvings were shallow into the white paint for highlights and deeper into the wood for shadows – they were quite amazing. One very blunt tool by the end of it, I had no idea how to sharpen it or that I could buy handles that had changeable heads, but I knew I would return the following and final year of university to experiment with this technique. And that is what I did, like a mad scientist, trying every combination of layering I could. This recipe is still very similar to what I use today.
When did you make your first carved painting, and what was the subject?
The end of 2003 for my end of second year university works. Flying gannets on one board with nesting gannets on the other.
Are you the only artist in the world using this technique?
I was, however, with the power of social media and me sharing my daily studio practice, this technique has traveled the globe and there are now wonderful humans all over the world carving into paint.
How does your formal training in printmaking from the Auckland University of Technology inform the artworks you create today?
The formal techniques from university days – intaglio, screenprinting, lithography and etching – were all stepping stones that got me into paint carving. I started to find my passion for detail. It was the way the tutors helped you push through ideas that were a big help at uni. I loved learning all the different mediums, but also knew I liked the one-off as opposed to the multiple. Research into Japanese woodblocks and their beautiful esthetics somehow drew me back to the woodblock itself.
Describe to me your artistic language and philosophy.
I adore making, using my hands to create images that come to me from a soul level; I feel them, then I see them, develop them in my mind and, using my technique, carve them to life through layers of paint. It’s like painting in reverse, all the layers are applied first, then I reveal what has been in my heart. When I have been mulling over an idea for years, it is a magical moment to finally finish that work. A good idea hangs around until it’s time to create it. I believe art is a wonderful visual language to communicate ideas and subjects that are often not talked about enough, or you see headlines all the time in the newspaper or on your phone and flick through them, as we are so overloaded with content these days. I adore being able to create a body of work for people to actually come and interact with it and be moved by the story of it. I have really only done two shows in my career that come close to this, that I am truly proud of. I endeavor to create more emotive carvings the further I get into my career. Even 19 years on from starting this technique, I feel there is so much more to push in my works. It is as if the last two decades I have been practicing so that I can make the works of my dreams. Also, I have had the honor of working with hundreds of clients creating their dreams, bringing their ideas to life. I am now at a turning point again where I am diving back into my own works.