The second you step through the peppermint green door of Sarah Calleja’s home, you can instantly tell what she is passionate about – architecture and art. The painter lives in a house in Birkirkara with her husband and four-year-old daughter Lucy. Shutting the door to the noisy street, you enter a hall that leads to her white and bright studio-office filled with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, as well as some of Sarah’s earliest artwork. One painting instantly catches my eye. It’s a headless portrayal of a large, nude woman. The bold yellow, pink and red strokes reveal the contours of a confident full-figured muse, proud of her curves and folds. “I painted this when I was 21 while I was at university,” says Sarah.
“I went to a summer course at Parsons School of Design in New York. The model posed for us. She took a full-day to complete, but it was fun to be in the studio and just paint.” Sarah agrees that since then, her style and technique have changed a lot. Looking at her recent work, not only have the colours softened, but the style has evolved. “I started painting at a very young age – I think I was around six. I took classes in the summer and was encouraged to keep painting on my own, which I did throughout my teens. But when it came to the point when I had to pick a career, I chose architecture, as back then, there weren’t a lot of options for art courses in Malta and studying abroad was difficult prior to Malta joining the EU. While I kept painting, I had less time when I left university and started my first architecture job.” But becoming a mother four years ago changed how Sarah thought about the future, and how she wanted to spend her precious spare time.
“After my daughter was born, I decided that painting was not a passion I wanted to lose. When you have children you obviously have less time, so you must choose the parts of your life you want to keep. While I’d love to do yoga or other activities, I feel like painting is what I like the most, so I’ve tried to keep that up.”
Sarah has managed to etch out time every week when she can focus on her art. “Most Saturday mornings I leave the house while it’s still dark and meet a group of fellow artists, and we paint together on location. We go to places like Mellieha to paint by the sea, or inland to Buskett to capture the trees and woodland. We choose sunrise to avoid any crowds and capture the light. “Before I paint, I spend about half an hour walking around to decide what I want to paint, where I want to paint it and how I want it to look. Then I do a composition study, a little sketch to try out the overall composition and pick a colour scheme.
“Once I decide how I want my painting to look, it doesn’t matter if the light changes. If necessary, I’ll use a photo as a point of reference, but I often intentionally depart from the landscape and am not too bothered with making a faithful representation of it. I try and create a mood rather than a replica. I usually have a clear vision at the start of my work about where I want to be and try not to get lost along the way. If I do get lost, I just walk away and let it dry, and distract myself by looking at what the other artists are doing. Then I go back to my easel and try and pull it back together. If that doesn’t work, it’s OK, because it’s all a learning process and I’ve still enjoyed a morning being outside.”
“I find being surrounded by other artists the biggest form of inspiration for me. It’s such fun to see their different techniques and ways of looking at things, and I get exposed to methods I would never have thought of before. I might learn about how to mix a new colour, talk to artists about what kind of brushes or spray-gun they use, or even the absorption of the canvas or paper. I find that by looking at other artworks I can use them as a filter for where I want to go next with my own painting.”
This is an excerpt of the interview which featured in the June edition of the Commercial Courier.