Food Galore with Joel Penkman

© Joël Penkman

ABOUT Joël Penkman

I love food, and I love to paint, so combining the two seemed like a good idea.

My compositions are simple still-life studies with clean backgrounds to make easier for individuals to make a connection. Food triggers memories and emotion, I like that people can bring something of themselves to the artworks. My favourite medium is egg tempera. It is very time consuming as I make the gesso to prepare my boards and grind my own paint to mix, but the results are worth it.

I was born in 1979 in New Zealand were I grew up. After finishing my degree in Graphic Design at Canterbury University’s School of Fine Art, I moved to the UK where I have worked as a graphic designer and most recently a freelance designer and artist.


Hi Joël, the focus of your work is foods – a lot of sweet and staple foods – what originally drew you to these objects?

I enjoy food, and it’s very accessible. It’s easy to find a cooperative subject and I like the familiarity of the subject, it is something everyone can relate to. It can hold memories, tell stories, explore national and local identity, and make us hungry. It is a fun, playful subject that makes people smile.

Are you drawn to the visuals of different foods, or more their status in popular culture?

Both, the best subjects certainly have a high level of attractiveness and status. 

Subjects with a story behind them are always more interesting but if I can’t make it look half way good it’s not worth painting. When I choose a subject I’m looking for interesting colours, shapes, textures and perceived associations. Often it will be something sweet as these foods are made to look appealing, filled with artificial colours and pressed into interesting shapes.

Your still-life studies isolate the individual objects from any context, bringing every little detail of these everyday items to the forefront, what initially inspired this style?

Initially I think I didn’t know what else to do with the background. I like that it doesn’t detract from the subject and the focus is where I want it to be. By removing the context and presenting the subjects objectively, the interpretation of a painting remains open to subjective readings.

“Subjects with a story behind them are always more interesting but if I can’t make it look half way good it’s not worth painting.”

Joël Penkman at work

Horoscopes © Joël Penkman

Some of your series are defined by countries – have you noticed that attitudes and relations to food differ in different countries?

Yes, I’ve lived in a few countries and it is the differences, particularly in cuisine, that I enjoy most.  I love that food can define a population and contribute so much to national and local identity. 

You mainly paint in Egg Tempera, which is a very manual, time consuming technique – how did you first come across it and why did you decide to use it?

It is a medium I had been curious about for a long time since seeing paintings by American, Andrew Wyeth and New Zealander, Grahame Sydney. I particularly loved ‘Christina’s World’ when I was at high school then later while I was studying graphic design I became aware of the medium again in Grahame Sydney’s iconic New Zealand landscapes. Later when I was in my mid twenties I had some spare time and decided to teach myself this unusual medium, I didn’t realise then what an important part of my future  it would become.

Seeing your work for the first time really made me smile – what do you hope people take away from your work?

That is the response I’d like people to have. If I can lighten their day, maybe recall a happy memory, or put a smile on a face then that’s great.

“I love that food can define a population and contribute so much to national and local identity.”


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