Interview with an artist: Elsa Santos

By Louisa Tiley

In her Inner Western Sydney studio Spanish born artist Elsa Santos creates symbolic, layered multimedia works based on elements of nature. A combination of thickly applied gesso, expressive paintwork, careful scratching and intricate drawing create a rich textural effect reflecting the complexity of the environment.

Elsa Santos, 'City Life' $350

Read on to find out more about Santos’s relationship with Australian fauna, digital artwork for Harry Potter and ongoing exploration of ubiquitous natural imagery.

The female body is a recurring symbol in your work. How do you see your art intersecting with feminism? How are your own personal experiences as a woman and mother reflected in work you produce?

I have often chosen to represent the female body at different moments, sometimes purely for practical reasons. If I need to study the body, my most immediate point of reference is my own.

Other times, like in my latest series about humans, I wanted to represent the concept of fertility and maternity - but with no specific ideology in mind, just as humans being part of nature.

I like to look at the early prehistoric fertility icons, investigating a very basic concept which is fundamental to being human. As a result, I do not see my work being political or having any specific ideology - I really try to stay away from this.

Since becoming a mother, my daughter, her world and how she is growing up has been represented quite a number of times in my work. This is unavoidable of course as she is the most beautiful thing I look at these days.

Elsa Santos - 'Grasshopper Study' $100

Many of your works explore intricate elements of nature, from the symbolic life cycle of cicadas to cultural archetypes surrounding fire. Where did this fascination with nature originate, and how do you see it informing your work?

My mother was always collecting rocks, animal bones, insects or anything interesting she could find. This probably influenced me as I always had unusual things to look at or draw at home.

I am attracted to the rich textures and patterns inherent in nature and I like to pay attention to the small details of what is around me.

When I study the veins of a leaf, the way the wing of an insect is segmented or the shape of the natural erosion in rocks and minerals, I can see a repeating pattern of things happening in nature and I try to represent this “natural order” in my work. Regardless of whether I am painting a human or the concept of fire or water, the same patterns tend to reappear in nature.

I was reading through your web bio and can’t go past the fact you’ve worked as a digital artist on films like Harry Potter, Troy, The Great Gatsby and Walking With Beasts (!!!). How did this extremely exciting, but relatively commercial, experience shape your art?

I believe that you learn from any experience in life, so even commercial work on film or TV can enrich my own personal work. For example, when I was painting the skin textures of dinosaurs I learnt a lot about skin patterns and colours and it gave me ideas that I would later apply to my own work.

The same can be said about doing more figurative illustration or concept work. Especially in terms of learning about perspective, composition and colour... so I feel very lucky to have worked on these interesting projects.

You’re very well travelled, having grown up in Spain, worked in London for 10 years, lived in Singapore and studied in Hungary and Greece - all before moving to Australia in 2008. How have your works evolved with each new culture? Has being part of the Australian art community helped you develop any aspect of your works?

I come from a family of artists in Spain. My grandfather was a sculptor “imaginero” of religious images and my father is a well known sculptor in Seville, so I have a very solid traditional background which will always be present in my work.

Then I have lived in London, Singapore, etc.; mostly for work or study, but I have no doubt that all these experiences are reflected in my personal work.

I came to live in Australia for family reasons as my husband is from Sydney. I became an Australian citizen in 2012. Fred Williams is one of my favourite Australian artists - I love the way he approached the landscape and his use of colour and composition. And of course I am a great admirer of Aboriginal art.

But the most fascinating thing for me about Australia is the landscape, its diversity, colours and textures, and I feel very fortunate to be here.

What’re you producing at the moment? Any new themes/materials/inspiration we can look out for?

I have a few things that I am working on at present. One of them is a series about Australian fauna and landscape which one day I would like to exhibit in my native country, Spain. It would be great to be able to work on bigger format paintings - although right now this is not possible given the reduced size of my studio.

At the same time I am also working on a series about humans, trying to represent the human figure and how we relate to what surrounds us. At the end of this year I have a couple of exhibitions lined up in Sydney so will definitely be quite busy over the next few months.