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Craig Cameron-Mackintosh returned to painting in 2015 having not picked up a brush since graduating from high school a decade earlier. In 2019 his oil, Lesela in Silhouette, won the esteemed Sanlam Portrait Award. His first solo exhibition opened in Cape Town in December 2020. He spoke to me about his artistic process, his career, and his new exhibition titled Nowhere Better To Be, at EBONY/CURATED in Cape Town.

Born and raised in the balmy subtropics of South Africa’s Mpumalanga Province, his gift was evident to his teachers from his earliest school days. He grew up in a comfortable, arty milieu in a small town. Painter Keith Alexander whose huge canvases depict landscapes with photographic clarity and Daliesque twists was a family friend. As a youngster, Cameron-Mackintosh spent many hours gleaning knowledge and technique by watching Alexander at work in his studio overlooking the Makhonjwa mountains.

It seemed his path towards a fine art degree lay broad and shining before him. He matriculated with art as a subject and took off on a gap year before varsity. That summer he landed a job crewing on yachts in the Med. Upon taking the required physical, he discovered for the first time that he was colour-blind. 

Profoundly discouraged by what seemed a disability for a career in art, he enrolled for a BA in Motion Picture Medium. It wasn’t until 2015 that his innate love for art reasserted itself. He returned to painting wholeheartedly.

1.'Nowhere Better to Be' – Oil on Italian Cotton (100 x 80 cm)
2.'Phosphorescence' – Oil on Italian Cotton (100 x 80 cm)
3.'Helianthus' – Oil on Italian Cotton (100 x 80 cm)

Becoming a full-time artist

In 2015 he set aside a successful work life to commit himself fully to art. "Things don't happen overnight but it's very encouraging to see that being an artist can be a viable way of life, whatever the discipline. Ilike coming to my studio; I enjoy the process of painting. I'm lucky and privileged to be able to do what I do. My apartment block was built in the Sixties - it has good proportions with lovely gardens and an annex of rooms which some residents including me have converted into studios and workspaces."

EBONY/CURATED gallery co-founder Marc Stanes has been a sounding board for his work since the start. "He has always given me good advice. I paid attention to all of it, and we’ve become friends over the years. Among it was never to follow a trend for the sake of it. This was at a time when the fashion was for big canvases with swooping brush strokes dripping with paint. They were appealing and it would have been really fun to paint like that, but he encouraged me to stick to my own style and reassured me that it would develop over time." 

The accidental portrait

"The first backlit piece I painted was something of an accident. I was going through photos I’d taken for reference material and came across one I shot off for a light test. Normally I’d have deleted it as a dud, but something about it struck me and I dashed off a painting. The piece lay around in my studio for a few years until Marc spotted it on one visit to my studio. He told me if I repainted it he’d include it in a group show. Everything started from that."

Lesela in silhouette

His first paintings were shown in a group exhibition at EBONY/CURATED in 2018 when his silhouette motif was being developed. The following year he submitted the award-winning Lesela portrait. It is painstakingly rendered and lit, and points to the influence of his years behind the lens. 

He has a cameraman’s eye for lighting. His work currently draws on his cinematography training. It continues the exploration of light refraction, and of the silhouette as a subject. In silhouettes, the big stakes identifiers such as age, gender, colouring, clothing, and expression are hidden.

"A silhouette is not a true image. It’s real but it creates a veil that’s not immediately understandable."
Lesela in Silhouette

Going solo

At the time of writing, he was preparing for his first solo exhibition, based on a series of six large, detailed silhouettes paraphrased by six smaller canvases made with a looser hand. These smaller works back away from hyperrealism, yet still employ photographic effects like blurriness, overexposure, and lens flare halos of pale yellow and blue. "I’m not sure my work fits fully into the realism genre, but it’s definitely conscious of the cinematographic use of film, composition and lighting. Some of it does lean towards realism in that those pieces are life-sized, highly rendered in sharp focus, yet at the same time they push the boundaries of photorealism through the deception inherent in the silhouette form."

Ways of seeing

"The canvases for this exhibition are more about ways of seeing, of using the medium of paint to do the work of a camera as it captures a fleeting moment and makes it permanent. I hope to catch and hold that instant of time in paint."

"Continuing with my interest in the cinematic effects of light and shade on figures, my latest body of work pushes the two extremes that trick the eye, or camera lens, and creates different ways of seeing the same things.  In a reversal of the typical order of painting where a quick ‘study’ prepares for the more intricate painting, my large, highly-rendered silhouette paintings inform the work I do on the smaller, looser ones. The slivers of light hitting parts of the body, contrasted with shadow, give new meaning to these otherwise overlooked nuances and inform me of the sitters’ anatomy. Colour, light and shade are pushed to the extreme. The camera often adds halos of pale blues and yellows as its processor struggles to translate in the backlit setting." 

Working with light

"What light reveals on the one plane, it equally masks and changes on the opposite. When the subject is backlit, the effect is almost like a photo negative. Details are removed, rendering some aspects of the sitter ambiguous. With a quick setting adjustment, the subject is overexposed and blown out with soft focus. I enjoy this duality of the same scene."

Restless figures

"These near life-size figures stare out into an unknown landscape, with the graduated blue canvases as their windows. “Nowhere better to be” is a fragment of a sentence from a book I was reading. It struck a chord with me during hard lockdown. I enjoyed the ambiguity of the phrase. It was intended to describe the lives of Bret Easton Ellis’s bored and restless characters in Less than Zero."

"My studio was my space to complete this series of paintings during lockdown. It kept me from my own ennui and monotony. Nowhere better to be! Taken out of context, the words could convey different meanings; no place in the world you would rather be, or simply no better options? Perhaps currently, nowhere else you’re permitted to be."

Here lies the magic. Caught against the light, the works possess the moment leaving the viewer strung on a breath, alert for a word or a sign. But these figures do not declare or insist. Each observer must do their own work to construe identity, message, and meaning if meaning is required.  

Artist Bio

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