Art Pharmacy caught up with the lovely Danica Firulovic in a Newtown café recently, who told us all about her practice, how we can participate in her streetscapes, what inspires her, and how she continues to evolve as an artist. Firulovic creates urban streetscapes of Sydney’s inner west as well as minimal abstract works in a range of whites, inspired by early modern abstractionists such as Malevich.
Let’s start with a short introduction, how would you like to introduce yourself?
I’m an artist painting in two different styles at the moment. I’m working on street scenes and at the same time white minimal abstracts. Not many people know that, because my streetscapes tend to get more attention! I had a solo exhibition in July at Factory 49 for the abstract paintings, which was very exciting. And on the side I am a full-time English teacher, teaching years 7-12. People often think I teach art, but art is my passion that I like to keep to myself!
Do you feel like you’ve found a good balance between art and your other responsibilities? Would you like to be able to spend more time painting?
I’d love to paint more and I look forward to the school holidays when I can paint every day. During the term, I paint on weekends and maybe one or two afternoons a week. Painting has always been a creative outlet. In my school years I’d find myself in the art rooms during lunchtime breaks and between classes. Although I had a passion for English and History, I still had a strong desire to study art. So I did a double degree of Fine Arts and Arts. That enabled me to encompass everything that I was passionate about.
Where do you paint? Can you describe your studio?
I’m at Square One Studios, in Erskineville. It’s a creative hub I share with many other artists and inspiration is in the air. I’ve got my own little space there, and I like to keep it neat. I have three easels up, because I’m usually working on a few paintings at a time.
Of course, because you mainly work in oil paint…
Yes, I only work with oils. I love oils! They do usually takes a couple of days to dry, depending on the weather. It gives me time to think about things, and I find them warm and welcoming! I don’t tend to use thinning mediums. I like using pure oil paints straight out of the tube.
How good are you at knowing when a work is finished?
I don’t leave my works in an unfinished state for long. Often if I go back and look at an old painting, I might notice something that needs to be fixed, but I really don’t like reworking previous works, I try to finish them properly the first time around! And it can also be a bit disappointing to have to go back on old paintings, and realising they are not finished. It doesn’t happen often, I must say, maybe one out of four paintings might need minor adjustments.
What about your creative process? Do you use preparatory sketches; do you go out and draw in the street?
Yes I go out into the street. Actually this building here (Corelli’s on King St) is in one of my recent paintings, in a view taken from across the road! I walk around these suburbs (Newtown, Redfern, Erskineville) and I take photographs. Often on the screen of a digital camera I think that a shot will work as a painting, but then that changes once the photo is printed. Out of twenty-odd photographs, I might use about five of them for paintings. Some of them are great photographs, but I can’t see them as paintings. When I take the photos, I wait for the cars to drive past. I check the weather, too. I don’t like clear blue skies in all my paintings; I sometimes prefer it to be overcast! Also, I pay attention to the time of day, to create the best shadows.
Your streetscapes are usually devoid of people. I’m assuming this is a conscious decision, what motivated it?
Humans are present in the scenes. There are obviously people driving the cars that appear in the paintings. I am painting a man-made, urban environment after all! I don’t see it necessary for me to include figures, I see it more as a familiar setting in which people can picture themselves.
So it is a decision concerning audience participation?
Yes, you could put it that way. It is a familiar setting, people can remember walking in these or similar streets and can identify easily with the scene. I don’t see the need for people to be painted into them. It is my way of eliminating the hustle and bustle of urban life. When I am painting, I do sometimes feel like I am the only person around and it is nice to have that stillness. It is part of my paintings.
What about these abstract works? Can you tell us more about them?
I’ve done quite a bit of travelling, and I am a fan of the American Abstract Expressionists, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Robert Ryman. I also love Kazimir Malevich, who basically explored minimal planes before anyone else. His Black Square is inspiring. I saw works from these artists in my travels. I’ve always loved abstraction, and it just came to me: pure colour (white) and pure forms (squares, rectangles and circles). I’ve created a hybrid of those two ideas in my abstract paintings by painting minimal forms and building up layers of white paint on linen. The first layer of white straight on the linen turns out as a grey colour and then you can build it up from there, and incorporate the forms on top of those layers. Ryman focused a lot on the edge of the canvas, and I’m very conscious of doing that as well. In many of my abstract paintings I have exposed the linen on the edges. I don’t use any masking it is all done freehand. You can see some of the pencil in most of the paintings, and that is fine because it is all part of the process!
So you like to leave the viewer some indication of your artistic process, is this also relevant to your streetscapes?
In the street scenes I take a photo, and have a good look at it once the photograph is printed. I usually have to crop it a bit. And then I do a quick sketch on paper, because I have to work out the perspective. It is very important for me to create linear perspective, to get it right. Once that is done, I’ll sketch it out again on canvas, and then I go from there! In terms of seeing the process, it is not like the whites, you won’t see pencil in my street paintings. I love painting buildings and I love exploring perspective. And I actually like painting cars! There is no philosophical meaning behind my street scenes they are purely representational. I am also conscious that I am documenting a period in time. Maybe in ten years time, the cars in my paintings will seem really outdated. We are living in an urban landscape that is constantly evolving.
Do you usually paint the streets that feature in your daily routine, or do you venture out into other suburbs in search of picturesque neighbourhoods?
I live in the Eastern Suburbs, but I don’t usually paint any settings around there. I paint the Inner West because it is where my studio is and where I spend a lot of time. I think that there is a certain feel to this area of Sydney, and the architecture is great! These suburbs feel like a village, and it is an area where people are free to express themselves, which is wonderful. I have a lot of nice memories from this area. My paintings are about experiences, which started when I was painting in Young (a town in rural NSW, where Danica taught for six months in 2013). I had lots of time to paint, and I thought that I would spend it exploring collage, a medium that I was working with at the time. I also thought that I would be painting rural landscapes, because that is what you see in Young. But I ended up going into town and started painting buildings. That is how I started; I actually love painting the urbanscape!
Your love of linear perspective and urban scenes reminds me a little of the genre of an ideal city scape in Renaissance painting, is this an inspiration for you?
Yes. Of course, during the Renaissance the discovery of linear perspective was hugely important. I think it was Cézanne who first tried to break it down, and there has been a subsequent refusal of linear perspective in Modern and contemporary art, and that’s fine. But for me, having a focal point and being able to explore depth is central to my work. It is challenging, and you have to be careful not to exaggerate the perspective either! I use a ruler and a T ruler as well to get my verticals right as well… As soon as the verticals are slightly out, the rest of the painting becomes skewed! Therefore, it is important for me to get that first sketch right. You can always go back and correct things, but that can be very time consuming, it is better to get it right straight away. Sometimes I even have to go back over with the primer and start again from scratch! It is important, though.
How has your practice evolved?
I have also gone through a few stages and mediums throughout my time so far as an artist. First I explored abstract night street scenes. Then I did monochromatic cityscapes. Then it was collage. After that I started my representational street scenes. I then went back to collage! (laughs) And now back to the street scenes and my abstract monochrome paintings. I guess when you study art at a tertiary level, it is easy to go through a few phases of experimentation. I am very comfortable with what I am painting at the moment… I do my street scenes because I really enjoy it. I stick to what I love!
What artists inspire you? Are there any particular artists that you like to reference or refer to?
I love Art History! I get a lot of inspiration from looking at great art. I was quite ignorant in my early twenties… I thought that I could just look at all of this art and not take anything from it. That is of course impossible to do. And I shouldn’t be ignorant; I should embrace other people’s work. I appreciated it before, but I just wanted to do something original, I wanted to find my own style. That comes in its own time, you can’t really force it. To answer your question: Edward Hopper definitely for my street scenes, and Jeffery Smart as well. Smart’s work is very sharp my paintings have a looser approach. They have a Hopper-esque softness. I also really like Richard Diebenkorn, especially his palette. I don’t think that I take a lot from him though… maybe unconsciously!
What challenges have you faced as an artist?
Perspective was a challenge, although I’ve always liked geometry. I really had to train my eye to just see shapes, lines and angles. I feel like I am at a point where I have figured it out. It takes me less time now, the more I paint, to do that first sketch. I love mixing paint, making my own colours and that is a continuous challenge, and an enjoyable one! I like to keep my palette limited because I want to see what I can do with only five base colours!
What is next on the horizon for you?
I have two shows this year: one with my minimal paintings at Factory 49 and another with my street scenes in September at Scratch Art Space. So at the moment I’m working towards those, and building up my series. In the near future I don’t see myself changing direction. I’m quite happy with where I am at the moment! I do have a few ideas about the next series of street scenes.
You can buy more of Danica's work here.
Words by Lucie Reeves-Smith