Vincent helps Cork artist to stay true to her oddness

Having worked tirelessly on the animated Loving Vincent movie, Sandra Hickey had to paint her way out of replicating Van Gogh’s style, she tells Ellie O’Byrne.

If you had painted 189 paintings in the style of Vincent Van Gogh, at a rate of up to four paintings per day, it would be hardly surprising if some of the Dutch artist’s distinctive style wore off on you.

So it was for Sandra Hickey, the Republic of Ireland’s only contributor to Loving Vincent, the world’s first fully painted feature-length animation. 

Artist Sandra Hickey at the opening of her exhibition at Triskel, Cork. Picture: Larry Cummins

The Cork oil painter was chosen from over 5,000 applicants to participate in the project, which saw 124 artists painstakingly replicate Van Gogh’s trademark swirling brushstrokes in a total of more than 65,000 oil paintings to tell his life story.

Hickey, who applied for the job when her brother sent her a link to the production’s viral recruitment video, says her time working on Loving Vincent was exciting and demanding. 

She lived in Gdansk in Poland for the duration of her work on the film, and forged connections with fellow oil painters of many nationalities.

“It was absolutely breathtaking to work with so many phenomenal artists from around the world,” Hickey says. 

“To be a part of that was just the luckiest thing. We’re all still in touch on social media and we all encourage each other and are supportive, so it’s a really nice community that’s come out of it.”

Animation is a painfully slow process. All in all, Hickey’s stint on the team resulted in less than a minute of footage in the vast project.

“Each person got a scene to work on, but you had to keep the consistency with the artist before you, so

you were working on individual canvasses with reference to their work,” she says. 

“You also had the key frame of the Van Gogh painting you were working towards as well.”

Returning to Cork to pick up the threads of her own work, Hickey found that Van Gogh’s distinctive style had wormed its way into her paintings.

“It was hard not to see a Van Gogh painting in every landscape,” she says, laughing. “It started to feed into my work and the only way to work through it was to paint it out.”

The 31-year-old’s current exhibition in The Triskel, then, is called Where Two Styles Meet: Loving Vincent Inspired and incorporates subject matter that is uniquely hers — Hickey produces abstract figurative paintings that distort the human female body — as well as urban street scenes and rural landscapes inspired by Van Gogh’s techniques.

Oil painting has been Hickey’s passion since she did her degree in Limerick.

“I started with acrylics, but when I started working in oils there was no going back,” she says.

There’s a beautiful quality to them; they don’t dry fast, so you can work into it after you’ve painted with it. There’s something really nice about using a lot of paint: it’s very therapeutic in its application.

For her abstract female forms, Hickey works with nude models and distorted reflective surfaces, photographing the reflections and painting them in rich ochres, blues, and pinks.

“I want to show the beauty in imperfection by exaggerating it to the point where people can view it without seeing a particular person,” Hickey says. 

“They can view it voyeuristically, without being attached to it as a person.”

The result is, at times, unsettling: body parts sag and orifices gape, but in a surreal, only semi-obvious way. 

It is in part, Hickey says, a personal attack on the body-beautiful world of social media and magazines, and the punishing beauty standards imposed on women.

“I’m not setting out to be controversial, that’s not what I think about when I go to the canvas,” Hickey says. 

“It’s how I want to see, I guess. It’s just the oddness of my brain.”

Vincent Van Gogh also held up a distorted mirror to the world; painting styles aside, did Hickey’s time working on Loving Vincent make her feel any affinity with the painter?

“We’re so used to his work now that we admire it for its beauty and its brilliance and forget it used to be controversial,” she says.

“Staying true to your oddness is what I take from it, I think. If someone doesn’t understand your work, or trends are going in a different direction, you don’t have to change yourself.”

Sandra Hickey’s Where Two Styles Meet: Loving Vincent Inspired is in the Triskel Arts Centre, Tobin Street, Cork, until March 1

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