Carmel Debreuil says that one of the greatest things about having been drawing and painting so long is that she doesn’t have to worry about whether the nose is straight or the eyes match. “I can spend more time thinking about the story. That’s a good feeling!”
And those stories fascinate; the clues are few and beguilingly inconclusive. We can only guess at what games of imagining those blue-skinned children are playing. They look serious, sometimes like they are downright displeased at being disturbed from what they are doing, but hints of other emotions show through – a bit of bemusement; a pinch of superiority. The characters become even more enigmatic when we discover that they are most often clad in a uniform of sorts – vintage glasses and cowboy boots, and a parade of strange headwear – viking hats, sombreros and crowns. “I see kids as these amazing creatures that are perfectly imperfect. Everyone seems to be in a rush to guide kids into adulthood and responsibility, but I’m happy if they want to hang out with a giant squirrel while wearing a Viking helmet and cowboy boots. I think childhood’s an amazing time and quite funny!”
Carmel’s cast of characters are drawn from a mix of many children that she has met, both past and present, but one she has been especially inspired by was from an old photo of her two older brothers, where one of them was dressed in similar vintage glasses and cowboy boots.
She paints directly onto plyboard, and utilises the grain and knots in the wood as part of the picture. Wood becomes patterns on dresses, animal skins, and an interesting textural element.
She is absolutely adamant about the need to have disciplined technical skills in the fundamentals of realism – drawing skills in perspective and proportion, and a solid understanding of colour theory.
“No child is just told to express themselves on the piano. They do scales. You learn the alphabet and spelling and punctuation before you write your novel.” It is an attitude that she learnt from her father, Canadian artist Marcel Debreuil, and those skills were honed when she lived in Paris, where she worked as a street artist drawing people’s portraits for a few years. “There was nothing quite like being nineteen and living in a hotel in Paris, eating out every day, living this fantastic bohemian life and paying for all of it being an artist. I not only paid for my lifestyle, but I saved heaps of money and travelled for a year afterwards. Dad was really happy that I had this skill that, no matter where I travelled and how much money I had, I could, if nothing else, barter a portrait for some food!”
Now Carmel makes her home on the NSW mid-north coast, where she lives with her husband and two small children. She paints full-time, but admits that it is a difficult juggle with family, and it’s important to stay focused on what you intend to achieve.
“I think my big advantage is that I’m ADHD and a bit OCD, so I have lots of energy but I can really focus it. It’s not unusual for me to paint for nine hours a day. Basically in the morning the kids get off to school, then I check all my emails and do some updates on social media. Next I would head to my studio and pretty much work steady til the kids get home from school. Sometimes if I’ve got a deadline, I’ll keep painting, but I generally stop so that I can make dinner. Dinner is family time and we really like to catch up and chat and connect. I do a lot of my business side of things at night in bed – I might start around nine or ten and then work til two in the morning. This means sending out query emails, updating social media, connecting with clients and that sort of thing.
“It helps to be organised so I make tons of lists. It helps to be obsessive and work til the job is done. I find the more I do, the more comfortable I am with doing a lot. I took a holiday to Bali last year and although it was great fun, I felt like it put me off my routine! I am most happy when I’m productive and the more productive I am the happier I am.”
Her father has been instrumental to her career in more ways than one. As well as learning skills from someone who worked as professional art teacher and artist in their own right, Carmel says it was really after her father passed away a few years back that things really started happening for her.
“Just after he died, he came to me in a dream. He said “You need to be an artist.” That was pretty good advice.”
“In the dream he talked to me for about an hour about what I needed to do to make it happen. I followed his advice and things have not stopped getting better. It’s pretty freaking amazing. I wish he was here to see what those words meant to me and see how my life has changed as a result. Life is good.”
At the moment her studio is “a bit all over the place” as they’re smack bang in the middle of building it. “So in the meantime stuff is piled up here and there. I have staked out a space in a downstairs area that used to be where the kids played games, and I’ve moved the tellies into their rooms and so now it’s a space full of art supplies. We also have a big deck so sometimes I work out there if the weather is good. I’ve also worked on the kitchen floor on occasion! I’m not super fussy in some ways, ‘cos the desire to work is strong. But I tell ya, I can’t wait to have my own space. It’s going to be awesome! It’s going to be great ‘cos it’s going to be mine, mine, mine and only mine! I also want to teach classes there and have it as an open studio during holidays. Plans!”
“I feel so lucky and grateful that I’m making a living doing art again and supporting my family. Everyday I wake up and can’t believe my good fortune. Still there are highlights. I was stoked to be a finalist in the Portia Geach Memorial Award – that was a huge achievement. I’m also looking forward to creating my Archibald entry this year. I have the perfect subject and although it’s a secret right now, I think it’s also going to be one of those things that makes you pinch yourself. And you know, there is this warm fuzzy feeling every time someone buys one of my paintings and brings it to a new home. It’s pretty cool when people like your stuff!”
Carmel has shown her work in over 32 shows in the last two and a half years, throughout Australia, Canada, Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan. She has also worked as a portrait artist in Paris, Amsterdam, Mexico and Byron Bay, and has had her work featured in a large range of publications, including Ink and Arrows, and Australian Art Review.
You can find more of her work on her website, www.carmeldebreuil.com, but if you’d like to see it in the flesh, you can! She’s got a new solo show opening on Thursday, 16th April, 4-6pm at M2 Gallery, Shop 4/450 Elizabeth Street, Surry Hills NSW. The opening night will also be featuring music from DJ JoeSpoon (Grinspoon) and international DJ Ewol.