Self-taught portrait artist Rochelle Ayele's love for art has been fostered since childhood. "When I was in school, you know when they bring tasks and they ask you to design ‘bla bla bla’, I always used to get excited when I heard that first word-design. Also, because I had an interest in it I used to copy book covers and illustrations You know, Jacqueline Wilson books and things like that. I used to copy the bubble writing", she told us. Since then, Rochelle has progressed to creating oil-paint portraits, and has recently made the transition to being a full-time artist.
We sat down to discuss her journey, and to find out more about what makes her tick.
Earlier this year, you decided to make the move to operate as an artist full-time. What made you decide to take this direction in your career?
For a while now, especially after I graduated, my friends and my family were encouraging me to take my career into my own hands. I feel like I needed the freedom to put all of my skills into one thing because I’m quite eclectic, I like to do a lot of different things. If I were to work for someone else I feel like I wouldn't be able to utilise all of my skills, and I’m quite a creative person, so I can be in my own world sometimes. I just needed space to put my own ideas together.
What would you say are your biggest motivators?
To be honest, the fact that I know I wouldn’t want to do anything else.
Your work celebrates people of colour and human interaction. What are the relevant themes and concerns that you address in your paintings, and how do you decide what to paint?
I like to create moments that remind people of their own interactions and relationships because everything around us is so fast-paced, so we tend to overlook the importance of the little things at times. I like to look at the everyday lives of people of colour as well, and when someone looks at my work I want them to say, “what’s his or her story?” For example, with my ‘Women’s Hair’ series it seems to be a running theme, but with the feedback I got from people they noticed that I focus on hair a lot. People resonate with them, people resonate with the series because they will say to me, “oh, I had that hair style when I was a kid.”
As well as that, I like to emphasise black joy because there’s a lot of trauma around black people and our history and experiences, which can be very heavy. So, I wanted to draw attention very subtly to the wealth of culture that we have to offer. It’s not in your face, but it’s there. When I see something that reminds me of why I’m proud to be black, that’s when I paint it
With having people resonate with your paintings where hair is a central element, has anyone every had a memorable reaction to your work before?
One that springs to mind is that I did a painting of my brother and his daughter where he’s doing his daughter’s hair. The reaction that I got to it online, I think a few of which were actually from America, one lady in particular was saying that it reminded her of her prom night when her dad tied her bow on the back of her dress.
This one breaks my heart, but another lady said that she feels like that’s what her dad would have been like if he’d decided to stick around- that was emotional. Things like that, you want to draw a certain emotion from someone, it’s always nice to hear that your work has had an impact.
In your view, what role does your art play in the wider society?
I want it to stand with other artists who want to push the narrative of positivity in the black community. With that particular painting of my brother and my niece, I also want to push the narrative of black men being a good influence and having certain characteristics that aren’t necessarily portrayed in wider society.
With the people around me, it’s not really connected to the art, but I want to show how you can be brave and invest your time and effort into something that you’re really passionate about.
What environment do you feel most comfortable creating new artwork in?
With me it’s mostly on my floor, sometimes my living room floor, there’s something about the floor. Usually, I’ll be playing my 70’s soul music or Motown music in the background.
To create your paintings you use oil paints, although you do work with other materials. What made you decide to choose this particular medium and how do you find it working with oil paint compared to other art mediums?
With oil it’s got the type of texture that you can blend very easily, and I think that’s what I love about it. One of the things that I find interesting about painting portraits is light. With oil paints because they blend so well, I can easily blend reflections and highlights into the skin. Acrylics dry really fast and so do watercolours, but they do lend themselves to certain paintings. Oil allows you to render the painting and create different layers on top. I can pencil sketch, but I love colour.
Four Lions, Rochelle Ayele
Is there a piece that you have painted that you are most proud of?
I think the most recent one ‘Four Lions’, the one I did of the footballers because I spent a lot of time on it, and because it showed me that I’ve improved mixing my colour palettes for skin tones. In there, I have somebody from one end of the colour spectrum to the other.
The other would be the ‘Chale Wote’ painting because it looks very unique. It looks different because of the colour palette and the composition as well. The main thing for me is because I do portraiture and I wasn’t trained to do it, I want to develop mixing my colour palette for skin tones.
Chale Wote, Rochelle Ayele
As someone who’s self-taught, what advice would you give to someone looking to start painting portraits themselves?
This may sound strange, but don’t look at it as if you’re painting a person or as if you’re painting a skin colour. If you’re painting from a reference, look at what the colour actually is, pay attention because there’s little highlights and undertones of perhaps red or blue. When you’re painting a face, one trick that people use is that they turn the canvas upside down, so it’s no longer a face it’s just a shape. You’re now focusing more on a shape rather than what it looks like as a face. With me I just paint colours and shapes. Look at negative spaces as well. Pay attention to colours.
What is the end goal for you as a creative?
I want to tap into every creative part of myself. I want to create as much art as I can in whatever form. What I’m most interested is portraiture because it’s got a skill to it. I’m a people person, so I want to paint people because it allows people to see themselves in my work. I want to explore different skin tones as well, I just want to develop my skills as a portrait artist.