Vintage inspiration: the neon tutu collection

My ballerinas in neon tutus are now live on my website. Here I share the inspiration and intention behind this series.

Collage of details from 3 ballerina paint sketches: stylised figures in neon and black

Like most of my dance creations, these ballerina paint sketches are primarily motivated by my passion for colour and mark-making. But they also subconsciously tap into some very particular sources of ‘vintage’ inspiration embedded in my creative memory.

Retro tin with vintage paper dolls in it

The first is the gorgeous vintage paper dolls that my sister and I inherited from our mother. The Merrill 1954 “Dancing dolls with famous costumes” were much loved. They were also useful stencils for my childhood attempts to draw dancers on which I would create my own costume designs. Thus, some of the paper doll poses are deeply ingrained in my drawing imagination and pop up in my work, sometimes as conscious tributes to happy memories  – there’s at least one tribute pose in this collection, can you spot it? – and sometimes inadvertently.

Jeanne-Louise holding book open at Campari poster that has a reclining woman in black ink depicted on it

The second is the iconic inky figures Franz Marangolo created for Campari advertising in the 1960s. I visited “The Art of Campari” exhibition at the Estorick Collection in London in 2018. The exhibition was inspiring on many levels. As an artist, the boldness and simplicity of the work on display resonated with my art goal to develop a strong, gestural style. As a design geek, the range of media and print-making approaches included was fascinating. Plus, there were some lovely Ugo Mochi silhouette cut-outs that captured my imagination and reminded me of other childhood memorabilia.

Black is not a colour I use often. Most of my paintings don’t have any black in them. But the Marangolo artwork certainly has inspired me to experiment with black across a range of dancing paint sketches (including ballerinas and cabaret artists).

For this ballerina series, I wanted to juxtapose black and neon hues. I like the bold contrast and the playfulness of this combination. In the past, I had used a limited palette for my dancing paint sketches but tended to select colours that corresponded with the costumes I wished to imagine. In this series, I was interested in the colour for its own sake. I’m quite partial to pink and orange together (the influence of the boss lady when I worked in a design studio in Cape Town who loved bright colours together). So this series is really just me indulging in some colour play.

In terms of mark-making, my dance creations are an on-going quest to find the balance between looseness and detail. I like sculpting the figures and designing the costumes in my paintings. But building up these details can be at odds with capturing the movement and atmosphere of dance, particularly when I’m working in oil. Keeping it loose requires confidence in mark-making. My acrylic paint sketches and pen drawings give me opportunities to explore gestural mark-making.

For this series, I sat on the floor and worked rapidly and to music. The poses emerged spontaneously. Most of them intuitively explore the brushwork and colour without reference to any particular ballet. I wanted to investigate the possibilities of stylisation. However, as I worked, I observed that some of my marks would lend themselves well to fiery plumage, so there’s certainly a nod to The Firebird in the series.

Paint sketch of ballerina poised in arabesque with feathery headpiece

I’ll be adding more stylised creations on paper to my collections soon. These small works are affordable to frame so ideal for gifts. Plus, photographing and adding the neon ballerinas to the website reminded me how much I like neon colours. So I’ve been busy this month creating some new ballerina greetings cards. Keep an eye on the card collection.

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