Pauline Roche honors the creative process
By Bonnie Gangelhoff
This story was featured in the February 2014 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art February 2014 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story!
A young couple stands before John Singer Sargent’s famous and controversial masterpiece MADAME X, which hangs in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The two observers lean toward each other in what appears to be a thoughtful conversation about the portrait. If you ask Pauline Roche about the portrayal of the couple in her painting, entitled TOGETHER NEAR THE MASTERPIECE, the California-based artist might confess that she has a hard time deciding which she prefers: visiting museums and appreciating the great works, or capturing on canvas others doing the same. “TOGETHER NEAR THE MASTERPIECE gives me an opportunity to express my immense joy of spending a leisurely day in a museum, as well as conveying the connection art viewers have with the paintings,” Roche says. “I enjoyed trying to capture their gesture and, I hope, indicate the couple’s rapt attention and the sense of wonder they must have had at that moment—a feeling I have myself when I am near this painting of Sargent’s.”
Roche (pronounced Rōsh) is fast becoming known for works depicting people involved in artistic pursuits—a seamstress fitting a singer’s costume, young girls performing a dance on stage, art lovers viewing great masterpieces in museums. Such works offer Roche the chance to capture people enthralled and in the moment, she says. In fact, as a painter, she knows this moment well: the time when she is “in the zone,” lost in the creative process, when hours pass unnoticed.
Museum interiors like the Met or the Louvre also offer Roche the chance to depict a few of her favorite things—grand interiors, gilded frames, and the play of light across these rich surfaces. “Whether depicting a dimly lit interior, a beautifully costumed model, or an elderly man at a street café, the main subject is still the interplay of light and shadow,” Roche says.
Although Roche paints some still lifes and landscapes, today she is largely known for her figurative works, which have been juried into a number of prestigious shows and garnered awards in the past few years. In 2013 alone, the artist’s works were juried into 11 group shows, including the Oil Painters of America National Juried Exhibition held at InSight Gallery in Fredericksburg, TX, last May. This month her work is on view in the American Miniatures show at Settlers West Galleries in Tucson, AZ. Last year she also received top awards in the Portrait Society of America’s annual members’ competition and OPA’s spring online showcase.
For Roche, painting from life is essential, whether she is working in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, close to home on a Southern California beach, or far away in an Egyptian fish market. She always creates sketches on location, often with specific notes about the effects of light on the scene. This practice is a logical extension of her art classes in traditional oil painting studios and ateliers in Melbourne, Australia, where she grew up.
Roche’s instructors were strong believers in the artistic styles and techniques of the great masters such as Sargent. Early in her career she received extensive training in the sight-size method of oil painting from life, initially working only in monochrome in order to gain knowledge of value relationships. This classical method harks back to medieval times. The process involves an artist picking a vantage point and then depicting subjects with the same dimensions on the canvas as they appear to have when the artist is looking at them. The method may employ plumb lines, sticks, and even mirrors as guides and tools.
Roche continued her classical training in Boston in 1995, when she and her husband relocated to the city for his job. She quickly enrolled in classes in portraiture and traditional oil painting at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. “It was an exciting time then—a new country, the wonderful city of Boston, the inspiration from the MFA, and the chance to do some study at its school,” Roche says. “I had a great time just being part of the environment and looking to see what new things I could learn. Parking and walking to classes in the snow with my canvas under my arm was all part of the thrill. I wasn’t 19 years old like many of the students there, but I felt like I was.”
The MFA in Boston also inspired some of Roche’s first paintings depicting museum interiors as subject matter. Sometimes with her infant daughter, Natalie, in tow, she began to study the museum’s paintings and sketch visitors as they viewed the various artistic treasures that graced the walls. The sessions became an important time to experiment with composition.
Several years after moving to Boston, she stopped into Newbury Fine Arts; it turned out to be a pivotal career event. Gallery director Elizabeth Alch Novick recalls seeing the artist’s works for the first time and immediately recognizing her talent. A visit to Roche’s studio led to gallery representation for the artist and a 17-year professional partnership that continues today. Novick praises Roche’s lush, painterly technique and the nuances of her arrangements of color, form, and line. “The geometrically correlated configurations are what make the work aesthetically exciting,” Novick says. She adds that Roche’s museum scenes could be considered “art historical pieces” because they chronicle institutional art collections that may be altered over time.
While Roche often captures contemporary times in museums today, occasionally she imagines the artistic lives and practices of painters from another era. In the award-winning painting THE STUDENT, for example, Roche envisions an art student of bygone days. The young woman seems fully “in the zone” working before a large easel. The model for the painting was her daughter, Natalie—now grown up.
Roche began this painting as she does all of her works, by squinting at the subject—a practice that helps her simplify the subject matter to darks and lights, gradually working toward a rendering that features a combination of areas of emphasis in sharp focus and other areas left softer. “In choosing the composition, I liked the silhouette and the solidity of the figure, and the profile of the easel,” Roche says. “I wanted to convey a sense of peaceful practice—a moment in an art student’s life when she is careful, gentle, and deliberate. I often wonder what it might have been like to be an art student in the times of the grand, traditional art academies.”
As this story was going to press, Roche was hard at work in her studio, preparing about 25 new paintings for her solo show opening in May at Newbury Fine Arts. While the subject matter for the show is figurative work, the paintings range from intimate portraits to busy, crowded settings—all drawn from her experiences “far and wide.” Roche refers to the paintings as part of her ongoing journey translating moments of life into a visual language. Subjects include ballerinas, costume fitters, museum visitors and interiors, and pieces inspired by her travels to Italy, Egypt, and England. “I hope that the viewers will enjoy sharing in the things that I have chosen to record on the canvas, things that have moved me and touched my heart,” she says. “I hope the viewer can see that I have some connection with my subject, and better still, find a connection of their own.”
The day after the opening she plans a lengthy foray to the Museum of Fine Art—a chance to visit old friends once again.
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