Painting doesn’t have to be a time-consuming process, but since many people come to it as an activity enjoyable in and of itself, most painters I know spend at least some of their time on preparatory tasks that ready-made products mean we no longer have to be connected to: building stretchers, priming canvas, mulling paint, sourcing pigments, researching the chemical and historical background of the materials they are using. Often the decision to do so is linked to a desire for better quality, certain effects, or a deeper connection to the medium. These activities are often meditative, as simple repetitive actions accompanied by satisfying results. Seeing a pigment come to life in a pool of oil, or a piece of canvas tighten smoothly over stretchers as the size dries, can give a feeling of sanctuary and order when the painting itself is full of unexpected challenges and frustrations.

Some painters, however, begin the conceptual process with the very materials, and foreground the history of their use. Sigrid Holmwood is one such artist, making her paints from scratch and delving into the origins of the pigments, dyes, binders and supports that she uses - not only chemically and industrially but socially. She connects the understanding of her materials to a time shortly before the modern period when peasants, in Sweden and elsewhere, were finding ways to live lives beyond feudalism, including making and trading paintings - only to be coerced into the role of the industrial proletariat by the end of the 19th century. She reclaims these old techniques, securing their knowledge for the future, while at the same time acknowledging that there is a continuum between the present and the past, and between the peasant-painter and the educated artist. By deconstructing this binary she also questions the perceived division between rural and urban lives. She challenges the notion of the bourgeois artist observing peasant life and encourages us to revisit art history, perhaps recategorising what we might term ‘folk art’ as of equal standing with the productions of metropolitan artists validated by the institution, and indeed as a form of protest against the erosion of peasant ways of life. She asks us to consider whether we should still be looking at paintings of peasants, or seeking out peasants who paint?1

Three Women Working Wool, Sigrid Holmwood, 2013. Mushroom pigment made from blood red webcaps (cortinarius sanguineus), plant pigment made from yarrow (achillea millefolium), chalk, chrome yellow, red lead, woad, red earth and zinc white bound in egg on hand woven linen, 112.3 x 152.5 cm.

1. Sigrid Holmwood, “The Peasant Paints” in Documents of Contemporary Art: The Rural, ed. by MyVillages (Massachusetts: The MIT Press and Whitechapel Gallery, 2019) p41