Adele Renault (1988) is a painter, who does realistic portraits of overlooked subject matter, working in scale from intimate canvasses to wall-sized murals.
Renault grew up on a musical family on a farm in the Belgian Ardennes. At age 14 she traveled abroad alone; lived in Venezuela on an exchange, then two years in Brighton, England. She studied and practiced visual arts, from classical oil painting to modern-day spray can graffiti. In 2010 she graduated from the Academie Royale des Beaux Arts in Brussels with a degree in Graphic Design.
In 2009 Renault initiated her collaboration with artist Niels Shoe Meulman. They now travel the world together, creating large scale murals, where she adds a host of site-specific birds and animals to his iconic word-images. Together the duo also run Unruly Gallery in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, where they are based.
Hello Adele, lets begin right at the beginning. You come from a very musical family and travelled a lot when you were younger, how did you end up painting, rather than doing music or something else?
I tried music but I don’t have any talent for it. When your family has a lot of talent, you realize pretty quickly that you have to work very hard for very little result. With drawing that was the opposite. I have been drawing for as long as I can remember and it came quite easy to me. People would tell me what lovely drawings I made, and that’s when you know you can do something. Eventually, that’s how I ended up with painting. When I was a teenager I got really into graffiti, and spraying murals, and was still drawing quite a lot, and it wasn’t until later that I discovered oil painting. I went to school in Brighton for two years for my A levels, and I had the option to choose a lot of fun and interesting subjects, rather than the usual ones. I took really good art classes there and I could basically paint with oil three times a week.
Was that when you thought, alright, this is going to be it?
Not really, no. When I was in Brighton, I was planning to go to Central Saint Martins and become an artist. When I considered it a bit more, I imagined the struggling artist and I know what that’s like because of my parents. On top of that, living in London would’ve been incredibly expensive. So I decided that I wanted to do something creative, but also something that would allow me to work in advertising or something else that would pay, and I ended up studying graphic design in Brussels. From there I went to Amsterdam for an internship and ended up staying. Fell in love, learnt the language, and now I am never leaving.
“I can spend weeks with a portrait and it is almost like I am having a conversation with that person.”
A lot of your work comes from travelling, is it an important way for you to gain inspiration and create work?
Yes, definitely! I travel a lot anyways, and my husband, who is also an artist, also travels a lot. We always end up travelling together, and when I am somewhere I want to create some site-specific work. I either travel with the inspiration in mind, or when I am somewhere new I am triggered to create work. If I haven’t got any trips planned for my projects, then I will just go travel and I will find something. I paint realistically what I see and if I would just stay in my studio, I would run out of ideas pretty quickly. When I travel I take photographs and I sketch a bit, but my paintings are always based on a photograph. Every feather or wrinkle is real, I can’t simply come up with that and do it form my head. Well maybe some people could, but not me.
The first work of yours that I came across are your paintings of Camp the Pigeon, how was it to do such an in-depth study of a bird?
Not just a study I would say, I made 19 painting of Camp, so it was pretty crazy. Usually I take my own photographs, I meet my subject and get close, whereas with Camp I didn’t. Camp is a pigeon with his own Instagram account, which I have been following for over two years. I did actually feel like I knew him, I saw a new picture of him every day, and I skyped and e-mailed with his owners. In a way it is like people who fall in love over the internet; not that I fell in love, but kind of. Painting Camp was quite crazy, as pigeons are so small and their heads are only a couple of centimeters, whereas my paintings are much bigger than that and Camp almost became that size. I did go over and meet Camp eventually and he was so small. And I know pigeons are small, I see them on the street every day, but it is still a different kind of perception.
“Many of my subjects come from a dark place, so the light takes on a different meaning. I think it’s quite beautiful that they are light and magical rather than heavy and confronting.”
In a lot of your work, you focus on subjects that are otherwise overlooked, from pigeons to the homeless and the elderly. How did you first start noticing these subjects and eventually start painting them?
These are the kind of people that are very much forgotten. With elderly people, they are still living but nobody comes to visit them and they aren’t really appreciated any longer. I actually feel that people who have lived, have such beautiful faces. I have always painted portraits, but the smooth, beautiful 20-year-old blonde girls became boring, there isn’t much to it. Then eventually you end up with the elderly and the homeless, people that live on the edge of society. I enjoy giving them the honour of painting them. Everyone has been photographed before, but to have actually been painted, with oil on canvas, not everyone can say that. That is something that will last forever. A painting, if it doesn’t burn or break, has an endurance, whilst the photographs we make, they exist somewhere but also nowhere. In 10 years I will have no idea how to find the photographs I make now. I have photographs that are stored on CDs, but I don’t own a CD-drive anymore; we have these photographs but we don’t at the same time.
Do most of your subjects see the paintings that you have created of them?
Not always the real painting, but definitely a reproduction of some sort. All the homeless that I painted in San Francisco received a photograph of their painting. I went back a year later, and I found seven out of eight of them, more or less on the corners I had originally found them. With the elderly in Amsterdam I did actually bring the paintings into the old peoples home for them to see. I am currently working on another series of elderly people, but from Burkina Faso, where I went earlier this year. I am planning to return next year and give them a photograph of the paintings, or at least their families. I think that is incredibly important actually.
You have referenced Jack Kerouac’s Les Clochards Celestes in relation to your work, with connotations to the heavenly and the sky. Your style is very closed in on your subjects, with quite stark white light, and for me that really evokes the heavenly.
I always found quite harsh, contrasting light very interesting, where one side is light and the other dark. Its something that you see a lot in classical painting, but usually the background is dark and the dark side fades into the background. Take Rembrandt for example. I have always found the really harsh, bright sunlight very beautiful, so I started using it for painting. I was already using this technique a bit when I was in Brighton, and eventually it just clicked as my style. It is good to have something recognizable, especially if you paint photorealism; otherwise it is just a photograph or a reproduction of one.
I enjoy that people read into my work and get those references to the heavenly, but I don’t want to push it. Heaven doesn’t really mean anything to me, it is more like something magical. Many of my subjects come from a dark place, so the light takes on a different meaning. I think it’s quite beautiful that they are light and magical rather than heavy and confronting.
You play a lot with scale in your work and many of your paintings are larger than life, how does scale influence your work and your subjects?
Particularly with my pigeon paintings scale makes quite an impact; when something that is usually two centimeters becomes two meters and it creates the effect of a microscope. We all see pigeons, but they move so quickly and you never get to look closely, and so people don’t see the beautiful side of pigeons. Even the dirty ones you see on the streets are actually very beautiful. When people see my paintings they often comment that they didn’t realize pigeons are so beautiful. Also my background is in graffiti, so I am used to painting large-scale murals, although the essence is much more raw. I am not scared to go big and I feel that it has more impact. I have translated this into the studio, but I still want to make paintings that people can hang in their homes and that fit in a car. When you start working on these epic scales on canvas, it becomes quite complicated. And with my level of detail it would end up taking months to complete a painting, so although I go big, it’s still manageable.
Do you still do a lot of graffiti and street art, or is your practice more studio based?
Studio, studio, studio! I still know a lot of people who are involved with street art and that is especially noticeable in the gallery scene. Art Basel was on recently, and I did not go, but I have been in previous years, and I always got placed with the street artists, as those are the people I know, even though my work has nothing to do with street art anymore. Having said that, I do love doing murals. If someone asks me to do their wall, I will jump at the opportunity, but the whole spraying at night on the streets, no thank you. There is such a big difference between studio and street art. Outside is much more spontaneous, like a burst, whilst here in the studio it is a slow process. I can spend weeks with a portrait and it is almost like I am having a conversation with that person.
You mentioned earlier that your husband, Niels Shoe Meulman, is also an artist, and occasionally you work together. How is it collaborating with someone versus working on your own work?
Very often we are working at the same time and then we are working on our own work. Sometimes we have an idea and it really fits together and then it seems right to do it and we won’t really have to explain it to each other. But most of the time we are doing our own things. At the moment I am working in series and his work wouldn’t fit in there, so we won’t do it. Quite some time ago I started a painting of a pigeon and I left it for a year, hidden away in a closet so I nearly forgot about it. Then he picked it up and finished it, which was really nice. His way of painting has a lot of splatter and is very fast; he can create something incredible very fast, but also ruin something very fast. My work is much slower, so he is always worried to go over something when I have worked on something for weeks or months. Having said that, if he wants to do something, I trust him to do so. It just comes together organically some times, but we wont do it if it doesn’t mean anything.