Freya Saleh, emerging artist currently based in Barcelona, draws inspiration from a lifelong passion for art and a rich array of personal experiences. Her artistic journey, peppered with influences from childhood surroundings and exposure to prestigious exhibitions, has shaped her unique approach to painting. Delving into the unknown and exploring visual phenomena of light, shadow and depth, Saleh’s work reflects a deep exploration of literature and anthropological concepts.
In this interview, Saleh shares insights into her creative process, the significance of her chosen mediums—oil paints, cold wax, and linseed oil—and the evolving themes that drive her art. She discusses the role of experimentation in pushing the boundaries of her work and hints at upcoming projects, including her recent move to a new studio in Poblenou. As Saleh opens up about her aspirations for the future, we can anticipate intriguing projects set to unfold later in the year. Join us as we unravel the artistic world of Freya Saleh, where every stroke tells a story, and the canvas becomes a gateway to the mysteries she explores
Can you tell us about your artistic journey, from your early experiences to becoming an emerging artist in Barcelona?
For as long as I can remember, I was enthusiastic and curious about art, my mum would share her materials with me and give me a space to focus on drawing and painting. Art was always my favourite subject at school, I would spend my entire weekend doing my art homework or a personal project, it was the same routine for about 8 years. My dad regularly took me to art exhibitions in London, we would visit the National Gallery and the Tate Modern. I remember going to see Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project in 2003 and we stayed there for what seemed like hours.
When I was 16 I exhibited two paintings at the Mall Galleries in London for the annual Summer Student Exhibition, from that moment I knew that I wanted to have a career in art. Despite my efforts, I didn’t get accepted into art school. Instead, I studied English at the University of Leicester and spent 3 years filling my head with poetry and philosophy, psychology and history etc…but I kept on practicing and developing my drawing and observation skills for quite a few years.
Drawing has dominated my art practice, so I could concentrate on tonality and form. In 2019 I decided to take a short course in Italy at the Florence Academy of Art and it was there that I learned some really useful processes that started to shape my own style. After that course I just wanted to focus on art more and more, so I decided to leave my job as a studio manager to follow my art career.
I started teaching painting workshops in groups and privately to earn some money, and then I took a part-time job as an art technician in a secondary school, which was a very interesting period of personal growth and creativity. I gained a lot of confidence by working with younger students and helping them with their projects. Then the pandemic arrived and my partner and I moved to Barcelona at the end of 2020. Since then I’ve been focusing on developing an abstract visual language that still holds key elements of realism.
Your choice of medium is quite unique. Could you explain what drew you to working with oil paints, cold wax, and linseed oil?
Oil paints are wonderful to work with. The texture and vibrancy of oil paints really suits the aesthetic that I’m looking for. It wasn’t until recently that I started investigating different mediums, solvents and other liquids to change and alter the oil paint. There are so many different ways to customize the paint for different textures, strengths and surface qualities. Cold wax is really interesting because it thickens the oil paint, so that you can use less of the paint itself, and at the same time it makes the pigment slightly darker and also mattifies the paint to become less glossy, you can create impasto techniques as well. I use linseed oil to open up the colours. It unlocks the hue so you can break it down and find lighter, more vibrant shades.
Can you tell us about your creative process, and do you have any rituals or routines that help you get into the creative mindset?
My creative process has changed a lot in recent years. I used to rely heavily upon my photography back when I was doing realism, but I got tired of just copying from another resource and no longer felt creative by trying to emulate another art form. I’ve kind of liberated myself of that process and I’m more comfortable with not knowing how a painting is going to turn out.
Before I concentrate on a painting I need to clear my schedule of any tasks or errands that are looming. Then I feel like I’ve earned my studio time. I usually paint in the afternoon, that feels like a natural time of day for me to paint and I also enjoy the change in mood I feel once the evening twilight begins. I like to listen to an audiobook of one of my favourite novels, it’s like I’m bathing in language that inspires me and motivates me. Words have a very powerful effect on me, there is an aesthetic quality of language that has often inspired by paintings.
Ochre-based pigments and deep red hues seem to be a significant part of your work. What is the significance of these colors in your art?
I’m so drawn towards the ochre family. Those colours feature quite heavily in my past. My mum’s bedroom was painted a shade called Moroccan Red, and our house was full of persian rugs of deep reds and browns. I grew up surrounded by those colours. I can remember the specific day where I was just experimenting with a palette knife and a tube of burnt sienna oil paint, just breaking down the colour to see it in many different lights. I fell in love with it and I had a very strong physical response. I could feel it in my gut, this kind of intense pull and fascination with the colour, I remember it made me feel quite sick which is a little bit bizarre. There is so much symbolism from an anthropological perspective, ochre is the world’s oldest paint and has so many uses, especially for the body. It’s a magical substance that spans pigments of yellow, brown, orange, red and purple. Throughout my work deep red hues represent depth itself.
Your art delves into concepts related to the unknown, thresholds, and the relationship between image, body, and medium. Can you share more about the inspiration behind these themes?
I read a book by Hans Belting called Anthropology of Images: Picture, Medium, Body and it talks about the relationship between these concepts, for example, a picture is mental whilst the medium is physical. The body itself can also be thought of as a medium by which we communicate something from another world. Many of the concepts and ideas in this book really helped me to figure out my own personal philosophy behind art and art making.
It’s important that I base my art around something that will continuously feed my curiosity and I couldn’t think of a better area to explore than the unknown and phenomena in general. The gothic genre in literature heavily inspires my work and the themes within the gothic are typically about the mystery of mental, physical and spiritual thresholds. The things that we can’t see but we know are there… these ideas that really drive me to create art.
What is the role of experimentation and exploration in your work, and how do you keep pushing the boundaries of your art?
Experimentation is something that I introduce slowly, from time to time. Pushing boundaries by painting larger pieces, or within a specific time frame can produce interesting results. Generally, when I want to take a break from painting, I will go back to sketching new compositions or working with collage, which has a really positive outcome for my process. I love photography as well, so I’ll often explore techniques such as double exposure and solarisation to find new ways of exploring the relationship of light and shadow. Experimentation for me is about trying to see from a new perspective.
Could you share a memorable moment from one of your exhibitions that had a significant impact on you as an artist?
My recent exhibition was a group exhibition at Christie’s in London and this had a huge impact on me. I felt welcome and deserving of showing my art in such a prestigious institution. It was a huge confidence boost and it’s one of my proudest moments in my life. I sold both of the paintings that I exhibited, which blew me away.
How do you see your art evolving in the future? Are there new themes or mediums you plan to explore?
I’m comfortable not knowing what direction my art will take me. If anything, I hope that my work and I become more and more bound together, that I keep learning about myself through my paintings. It’s such a personal journey and who knows what tomorrow’s going to bring. I’m determined to play the long game and let it organically unfold.
Art can be a powerful medium for conveying emotions and messages. What do you hope viewers take away from your art?
I don’t like to place any expectation on my viewers, but if anything, I hope my art brings a moment of silence and inner reflection, they needn’t say anything. If a viewer can allow themselves the time to feel whatever sensation that comes to them, that’s a good thing, even better if a secret is realised.
Do you have any upcoming exhibitions or projects that you would like to share with your audience?
As of January I have been working in a new studio space called Montoya Studios in Poblenou. It’s a shared space with a few other artists and designers. This studio gives me the opportunity to create larger paintings and as a result many projects can come to life. I wish to exhibit these works later on in the year.
Thanks for sharing with us today!