BA Fine Art, Slade School of Fine Art, London final-year student Lydia Makin speaks to Isaac Nugent.

“I’m trying to find something through the process of painting itself”

Moving between abstraction and figuration, Lydia Makin’s paintings brim with energy. Using a wide vocabulary of marks, she captures the fleeting moment, where nothing is solid or clearly defined.

Makin’s work towers over the viewer, bursting with drama. She opts for vibrant colours – turquoise blue, green-gold and fiery crimson – that sing against the dark backdrops she favours.

We meet in her studio at the Slade School of Fine Art, encircled by three vast canvases. Colour cascading from top to bottom, each painting is packed with vigorous gestures that Makin must use her whole body to make.

You’ve now been at the Slade School of Art for four years. Has this experience been a positive one?

I’ve loved it. I’ve absolutely loved it. I’m from Nottingham originally, and I did a foundation before I came here. I always wanted to go to the Slade. Coming to London was a change because I’m from the countryside, but I really like the fast-paced nature of life here. One minute you’re working in the studio and the next you’re going to a private view. The tutors are brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. You have individual tutorials, where tutors gauge what you’re doing and give you references – what to look at, who to connect with. I found them incredibly helpful. Sometimes you do get a harsh tutorial, from a visiting artist or someone like that. It’s hard to swallow at the time because it’s so personal, but once you’ve digested what they’re saying, it’s actually very helpful.

How has your work changed over the course of your degree?

Being here, my work has just evolved, basically. I feel like there are fundamental things that have stayed the same. I’ve always been interested in the action of making a mark and loved big painting, exploring the effects that can be generated through working on different scales. The figure has gone from my work and come back. So, I feel like I’ve gone in a circle in many respects, but my brushstroke has always been there.

What do you look for in a painting?

Well, I’m very interested in the drama of a painting, the sense of being overwhelmed, and I think that coincides with the scale that I’m interested in. The first touch of the canvas was something that really excites me – the light and how the light comes through from the first touch.

Do you have a clear idea of how a painting will look before you start?
No, not necessarily. It can be very much a surprise. When the image isn’t quite there for me, I like to challenge [my original idea], which is why the paintings sometimes take more time. I’m trying to find something through the process itself. They can start off from the drawings [that I make, but] I find that when you work on them for longer, different things can arise out of them. I don’t want to spell it out to people. If you see figures emerge or the illusion of something else within the image, that fascinates me. There’s a push/pull in my practice between what’s effortless and what’s a bit of a struggle. But the paintings that do take a bit of a struggle, there’s a part of them that I do enjoy. That can be aroused from the material and the layers and the detail.

Could you discuss the relationship between abstraction and figuration in your paintings?

It’s almost a completely different mind-set when I know there’s not going to be a figure within the work. It’s a different way of thinking where I really take on the scale, because it’s a huge white canvas. And I feel like when I’m painting these images, it’s a reaction, something very simple and core. Sometimes [the figure] adds something – another dimension. In this painting [she points towards Tied-Bound’, a large canvas depicting a faceless female statue on a plinth, surrounded by numerous brightly-coloured flowers], there’s strength in the protagonist and it’s quite empowering. But also there’s femininity and womanhood – I like to embrace that. If I just kept doing the same thing, it almost wouldn’t be enough for me. The painting reveals to me what it wants.

What role does travel play in your work?

When I travel and see things, they resonate with me. I felt that very much in Rome, where I went this summer because I was a teaching assistant for the Rome Art Program, with the Baroque . I loved the Bernini water fountains. I think I was attracted by the sensation of the water and how this might correspond to the sensation of making a stroke when painting. In the Baroque, you get these beautiful exotic swirly objects. When I drew those objects, I felt connected to them and sometimes they come through in the paintings. I went to the Prado in Madrid a few years ago and was drawn to the flow within a Rubens painting. Flow is an important part of my work. The fabric around his figures are like triggers in my head. Light’s very much part of my work too, I look at Goya a lot – ‘The Black Paintings’ are very much about light and dark. And I feel like when I’m painting, it’s a reaction to these experiences.

How will you decide what to show in your degree show?

It’s going to be very difficult. I’m excited about it because I think with the scale, you’ll get to see them for what they are. These are very big paintings and it’s a completely different thing to when you see them in photographs. I’ve been allocated Studio 2, at the very end, which I think is lovely because the light is very good there.

Lydia Makin on Instagram

Degree show: Details to be confirmed.

Interview by Isaac Nugent, one of eight a-n members on the a-n Writer Development Programme 2019-20

1. Lydia Makin, Paris Green (detail), 300x 250cm.
2. Lydia Makin, studio view at Slade School of Fine Art.
3. Lydia Makin, studio view at Slade School of Fine Art.