“Those people are my friends and inspiration, and I want to capture their most accurate portrait through my paintings' colours and composition.”
Joanna Pilarczyk is a London-based Polish artist and educator. Growing up in post-Soviet Poland, she was drawn to metropolitan life from a young age. Therefore, Joanna’s artistic style is heavily influenced by popular pop cultures from the 90s.
Joanna’s recent works focus on intimacy, self-awareness and interpersonal relationships. Her figurative works are often filled with vibrant floral motifs, which she skillfully uses to encapsulate the stories behind the protagonists. These colourful compositions often stand in contrast to the stillness of the characters that Joanna wants to capture.
Q. Could you briefly describe how you started your art journey? Were you already passionate about art since childhood?
My adventure with art started very early. My parents realised that my twin sister and I were very creative, so they signed us up for after-school art classes in the local community centre. We were five years old when we started, and we continued attending art classes until we were teenagers. In primary school, it was clear to me that I would go to Art College. I took every opportunity to learn more about art techniques. Looking back now, I was lucky to have great teachers guiding me from the beginning until university.
I was so focused on art that I spent every summer taking part in Art Plein Air. It was a yearly summer trip that usually took place in Poland, Germany, and France. I spent my time painting with other artists from different countries. Throughout my formative years, I was always fascinated by people and focused my art on portraiture.
Q. You have a degree in visual arts and art education. What did you learn in these degrees and do you think they shaped your art today?
I have always loved painting and drawing, and I learned a lot about painting techniques during my first 5 years at art collage. Later I decided to study art education at the Institute of Visual Arts in Zielona Gora, which focuses on contemporary art rather than traditional.
I knew that I would be able to learn more about painting and also study printmaking, photography, sculpture, and new media such as video and animation. During these 5 years at the art university, I attended as many workshops by talented art professors as possible. I wanted to have various choices regarding my art-making but also be able to teach others. Part of my university program was an internship at schools and kindergartens where I could practice teaching, and I realised that I loved it. After achieving an MA degree with a diploma in figurative oil painting, I wanted to practice as a figurative artist.
When I moved to London over a decade ago, I was fascinated by the multicultural big city. The diversity of people in London has been my inspiration to this day. Missing interactions with other creatives, I started to run art classes specifically for adults who wish to learn about painting techniques or practice their skills. I like to work with people individually. Every person has different needs in the creative process and often has to develop their own rhythm and style. I have two adult classes, primarily women, who treat painting classes as art therapy. Some of them are beginners, but most have been attending and exploring watercolour and other techniques with me for about 5-6 years. More advanced artists like to practice and enjoy the social aspect of the classes, which is very important. During those sessions, I give them valuable tips and advice regarding painting techniques and their unique style development.
Working with others and sharing my knowledge makes me more appreciative and patient. It also encourages me to experiment and explore my own ideas while working on personal projects. Definitely, my former years at both college and university taught me to respect old masters and traditional techniques but also be more open towards modern art and find a balance between them. Teaching and interacting with other artists brings me joy and fulfillment.
Q. Your works are full of vibrant colors and floral motifs. Are there any reasons for these?
Growing up in Poland in the early 90s, a country that used to be controlled by the Soviet Union, the world seemed quite grey. I occasionally saw flashes of neon colours from American Television, which I craved to add to my paintings.
A big and vibrant city like London, where people from all over the world surround me, is exciting and inspiring. I also draw inspiration for my colour palette from street art, graffiti, animation, and video.
The need for colour in my life surprises me. I feel much happier when surrounded by vibrant, colourful patterns, and I want to transfer the positivity of this rich palette into my paintings. I often use complementary colours to animate the subject. I like using neon pink against a leaf's lime green or a turquoise splash.
Being outdoors and respecting nature was always crucial for me. My models are surrounded by beautiful plants and flowers in my paintings because they are essential to our mental and physical health.
Q. Many of your latest works are of mixed media. What do you think of the different mediums you used (oil/ acrylic/ spray paint) and their symphony on the canvas?
I used to paint only in oils on canvases but I needed more vibrancy in my colour palette. Admiring some of the artwork made by Jose Luis Cena, one of my favourite painters, I got the idea to add some flushes of neon colours to my works. Then I decided to experiment by mixing the neon acrylics with oils to achieve a more vivid palette, even for the flesh and skin tones. As a street art fan, I wanted to add something extra by using kaleidoscopic spray paints and get more even coverage of the painting surface. At some point, I got addicted to very bright, almost clashing colours. I enjoy finding a balance within colour chaos in my paintings.
Q. You mentioned that Hollywood films had a profound impact on your artistic approach, could you elaborate on this more?
As I mentioned earlier, I remember times in my childhood when the first glimpses of western culture appeared on Polish TV. As a child, I was fascinated by American movies and TV series, especially Miami Vice:) The vibrant, idyllic exotic scenery, beautiful colours in nature and neons on the streets, and fashion were exciting and seemed unreachable to me. My family couldn't afford to travel, and watching movies was the only way I could experience something so different from Poland.
As a teenager, I appreciated the aesthetics of David Lynch, Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Tim Burton and many others. The movies always transported me to places where I wanted to be, especially when everyday life was difficult. Like movies, my paintings transport the viewer to different spaces where relaxation, joy, excitement, and shared relationships with people and nature bring smiles and calmness.
Q. As a figurative artist, what exactly are you trying to convey with your choices of couple/solo persons?
In the recent series My Paradise, I explore leisure, self-awareness, ease, and relationship between two people representing diverse backgrounds and cultures. Often they are couples like those captured in 'In Red' and 'Under the Blue Sky' painting, a young Greek woman and her boyfriend, an English black man, who sometimes are challenged as a mixed-race couple. They share a moment of intimacy, new love, and excitement in my paintings. She's a very confident, outgoing person who studies criminology and wants to work for the police. Her partner is quiet, sensitive and composed. They are so different, but yet they make a wonderful couple.
In the painting 'Together', I capture my neighbour and student, a Polish woman and her English -Jamaican husband, who shared their stories about raising their two boys and adapting to different cultures.
Painting 'Serene' portrays a gay couple - a Brazilian young creative man and his British partner. They are both very artistic, open and friendly people who found love and trust after some bad relationships and experiences. They are lucky to be accepted by their families and society.
Those people are my friends and inspiration, and I want to capture their most accurate portrait through my paintings' colours and composition.
I convey a stillness in solo portraits like 'Portrait of Jarek' or 'Woman with Flowers. A moment where the subjects are simply being and free of responsibility. However, this sits in contrast to the bright, energetic palette. I want the viewer to be drawn in by the often dynamic compositions, the lure of the colours, and then notice the stillness set within that. People in my paintings enjoy the simple pleasures of the quiet moment, meditation, the warmth of the sunlight, and the vibrancy and beauty of the flowers around them.
Q. Could you share with us your process of creating each artwork?
Before I start working on a painting, I arrange a photo shoot with my models - friends in various places, such as parks or their immediate environment. I usually wait for the right light, which is very important in my paintings. I set up some space for photo shoots with various exciting fabrics and patterns I can find in my flat. My studio flat is full of plants and flowers, and I like to capture them in my paintings too.
Then, I take many photos of them at different times during the day to catch extra light and shades of green. Recently, while working on the paintings 'Under the Blue Sky' or 'In red', I arranged a suitable space for my friends in the park on a sunny day. Or, while preparing to work on the 'Serene' double portrait, I took photos of my models in their flat. Based on the reference photos, I worked on the digital sketch for the elemental composition, which may change later during the painting process. When the project is ready, I start with a pencil sketch on the canvas before I start to paint.
I like to work with a bold and clean colour palette. I mainly use oils with the addition of fluorescent acrylics and spray paint. They add this unique summer vibe to my paintings. I don't paint in a very realistic way; instead, I prefer to simplify every object and work with a block of colours. I start with light shades and then add contrast to find the right balance of light and shadow in the composition. The final paintings usually differ from the reference photos as the colours change entirely.
All in all, the painting process from start to finish takes around 2 - 3 weeks.
Q. How do you think each piece of your artwork differs from one another?
Each painting captures a different person or couple in a specific moment. My task is to bring the viewers this unique atmosphere and feelings related to the scene and create visually exciting paintings through a vibrant palette of colours, unique backgrounds, or textures and show an authentic portrait of the person I decided to paint. Since I can remember, people, their diversity, life stories, happy moments and struggles have always been fascinating subjects for my work. I present the portraits of those who are close to me as well as of others who I meet daily. I catch these extraordinary moments and characters in my mind and capture their unique, individual expressions. My work attempts to introduce a variety of unique personalities in their natural environments and convey the emotions these people share with me.
Q. Are you inspired by any other form of artistic or creative discipline/s?
Yes, definitely. I find inspiration in street art, huge, impressive murals created by artists like Conor Harrington, Zabou, Lakwena, Dale Grimshaw. I admire artists who convey old techniques with new ones. An example is terrific digital media artist Matthew Stone who creates virtual 3D figurative paintings. The other fantastic artist is Alberto Mielgo, who works in traditional painting techniques but is also an accomplished concept artist and motion graphics and video creator. His short animation “The Windshield Wiper” was shortlisted to Oscar.
I find inspiration in printmaking, sculpture and photography too, though my primary source of inspiration is painting in all forms. I like working in watercolours and inks sometimes, as they are different from oils. The fluidity of ink can't be controlled; I love the unpredictable happy accidents that make this technique so attractive.
My works on paper are a combination of neon acrylics, watercolours and inks with a touch of a gold leaf. In these works, I like to bring some elements and details from my larger oil paintings, like the plants or my cats.
Q. Do you have a proudest piece of artwork to share?
My proudest piece is my painting 'Family' - a portrait of me, my husband and our two cats, Sumo and Mia. This painting was created during the pandemic and is one of the artworks from the 'Intimate Time' series.
At that challenging time when I couldn't paint other people, I focused my work on my relationship and self-portrait. Despite the anxiety and insecurity about the future, I was happy to be with my husband and appreciated every moment of our everyday life. While working on the 'Intimate times' series, I wanted people to remember that there are many simple reasons to be happy. Ordinary daily life situations can bring joy and gratitude.
Like many people, I also struggle with anxiety. But I tried to focus on simple and beautiful things that brought so many smiles into me. The acceptance of our bodies, sensuality and trust in the relationship with another person is also essential for us to feel blessed. I hope that the viewers of my work feel relaxed, easy and optimistic about their experiences.
I was delighted when this painting found a new owner - an older woman who had just lost her husband and wanted to have a reminder of their shared love and beautiful relationship at her home.
Q. Could you describe your work in 3 words?
Contemporary, sensual, vibrant.