Brushing up against life

Baden French enjoys spending nights and weekends painting in his home studio. Photo: Peter McIntosh
Baden French enjoys spending nights and weekends painting in his home studio. Photo: Peter McIntosh

Baden French was a DJ and musician until discovering painting. Kim Dungey reports.

If you live in Dunedin’s Beresford St, chances are, you know Baden French’s house.It’s the one with the spare bedroom "lit up like a trotting track" every night and vinyl playing on the sound system.

The local artist paints to anything from doom metal to reggae, but draws the line at classical music.

"It has no go in it," he says. "It’s a bit flowery."

An electrical engineer and a former musician, DJ and radio presenter, French has been in his bedroom-turned studio a lot recently, preparing for his latest exhibition at Moray Gallery.

"Side by Side" is made up of figurative drawings and paintings completed over the past few years and represents a departure from his five previous solo shows.

His last exhibition consisted of landscapes painted outdoors in the Mackenzie Basin and described by the Otago Daily Times as "vibrant images deeply evocative of the southern landscape".

In ‘‘Side by Side’’, French shows his life paintings and related drawings alongside each other ‘...
In ‘‘Side by Side’’, French shows his life paintings and related drawings alongside each other ‘‘in a simple celebration of figure drawing and painting’’.

Painting "plein air" was embraced by French Impressionists who wanted to capture light and its changing qualities.

French describes sitting in "ridiculous heat" under an umbrella at Twizel and, more recently, finding what he thought was a quiet spot near Dunedin, only to be distracted by a passing train, cyclists and walkers.

He first went to life drawing sessions four years ago to speed up his drawing when working outdoors and because it was difficult to paint outside in Dunedin in winter.

Tutor Helen Badcock encouraged him to paint rather than draw the life model.

But later he painted from drawings, sometimes struggling with a lack of detail.

While drawings can be "fudged" a little, lots of information is needed to execute an even slightly anatomically-correct painting, he says.

"A knowledge of the human form only comes through a lot of life drawing ...  confirming the old adage that practice makes perfect.

"Well, better anyway.

"Figure painting is uber-hard because the human form’s so subtle ... and has got so many different curves. It’s a lot harder than landscapes."

French hopes the resulting works, which include acrylic paintings, oil paintings, oil stick on paper and conte pastel on paper, will inspire others to start drawing and painting.

In ‘‘Side by Side’’, French shows his life paintings and related drawings alongside each other ‘...
In ‘‘Side by Side’’, French shows his life paintings and related drawings alongside each other ‘‘in a simple celebration of figure drawing and painting’’.
"Just give it a go. When you get to a certain level, you need someone to mentor you or to get lessons. I’d recommend life drawing classes but if you’ve never drawn before, don’t be too hard on yourself."

Raised in Wellington, French didn’t study art at school but later became interested in graphics and filled drawing books with what he describes as "square-man, punk-style" paintings.

In 1980, he was an electrical draughtsman with the New Zealand Electricity Department and sent to Dunedin for training.

When the deregulation of the electricity market led to redundancies, he went "yahooing" around Europe, then returned to study at the Dunedin School of Art.

The 56-year-old gained a diploma in fine arts (hons) in 1991 but found it impractical to continue with sculpture, his major,  after leaving the school’s facilities. He did, however, produce a small series of bronzes, which were cast by Paul Dibble, one of very few New Zealand sculptors to cast their own works.

Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, he also DJ’ed in local clubs, presented a variety of music shows on Radio 1 and performed electronic music under the name Laughin’ Gas. Bringing in other musicians, French played dance parties and festivals, toured with Salmonella Dub and Shapeshifter and released two CDs.

The creative processes involved in music and art are similar, he says.

"I do music the same way I now paint - come home, sit down and work away ... It’s the challenge of it all [that I enjoy]."

However, he makes it a rule to complete one painting before starting another - "otherwise I’ll end up with a million started paintings and nothing finished" - and admits to "getting sick of it" some days.

"One of the tricks to keep you coming back is to leave something unfinished so you know exactly what you’re going to do the next day."

"Some paintings go really well and just flow. With others, it’s sheer hard work."

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