Ambera Wellmann wants her paintings to have 'a subconscious of their own' (and one just won $25K)

The Nova Scotia-born, Berlin-based artist is the winner of this year's RBC Painting Prize — and her layered work takes an enormous amount of patience.

The Nova Scotia-born, Berlin-based artist is the winner of this year's RBC Painting Prize

Ambera Wellmann's Temper Ripened, which won the RBC Painting Prize (2017, Oil on linen, 38 inches by 35 inches). (Ambera Wellmann)

Entering Canadian painter Ambera Wellmann's sunny Berlin studio, the first thing one notices is the tidiness. Tools are clean, paints tubes are capped, and the floors are spotless. Given that Wellmann's paintings are ethereal concoctions made up of alternating layers of gooey and shiny surfaces, one would expect the occasional bit of hurled pigment.

But Wellmann does not match the stereotype of the sloppy, madcap "emotive" painter. She is a careful and attentive artist who knows that in order to create works that depict the stuff of dreams, one needs to be wide awake — and know where the brushes are.

Her methods are working. Last night, Wellmann won the prestigious RBC Painting Prize, receiving $25,000 for her work entitled "Temper Ripened."

Ambera Wellmann in her studio in Berlin. (RM Vaughan)

However, the generous nod from bankers aside, Wellmann's paintings are not tied to art world fashions. Her work is spectral and ruminative, and ought to come with an advisory: if you think you see other paintings lurking like ghosts underneath the highly finished surfaces, it's because you do.

"There are always under-paintings bleeding through — images that have caught me and been the starting point," she explains. "I have an unconscious desire to poke through, visually, see what is underneath an image, and I want the finished paintings to have a strange history — a subconscious — of their own. I'm interested in the material legacy of an image. I love how things can have an apparent, immediate reality and then a more camouflaged, veiled history."

I hope people look at my paintings in a fragmented way, as things having their own timeline.- Ambera Wellmann, artist

Wellmann's process is complicated, and takes an enormous amount of patience.

"Sometimes I will leave a painting alone for a long time before adding more to it, but generally my process is to start with direct observation, to look at an actual thing I have in my life, like a porcelain figure" — Wellmann's latest works depict fragments of porcelain objects. "And then I do a quick under-painting of something completely different, usually in acrylic, just to introduce an uncontrollable element, some chance. The bottom image can come through, but my job after I create the first image is to move the paint around and around as I layer it over the top of the first image, sometimes 10 or 20 layers, and always in oils. I keep the oils sticky and wet, and I make them malleable with a poppy oil medium. I have to be able to move the paint. It's not like the paint goes down and then stays there. And it's not an additive process — the paint has to be mobile."

Paintings in Ambera Wellmann's studio. (RM Vaughan)

"The paint stays wet for weeks, or months, but if it does become more solid I kind of like that too — having to break into the paint, pop it open and move it around some more. I also really love it when the paint becomes a kind of portal, allowing you to see all the way down to the beginning layer."

And yet, Wellmann's paintings appear very "finished," show recognizable images, and do not reveal their geology readily. How can she have it both ways?

"I like it when people get close to paintings, really close, and you have to with mine to see the layers. But online they look really flat and polished, very planned, which frustrates me. I want people to see my decisions and mistakes. The immediate surface visual, the depiction, is less important to me. I hope people look at my paintings in a fragmented way, as things having their own timeline."

Ambera Wellmann's Ravenous Night Dour Sins (90cm x 80cm, Oil on Linen, 2017). (Ambera Wellmann)

How, then, does Wellmann know when a work is completed?

"The top layers are applied just before the rest of the painting is dry. That is the best part, and also the most nervewracking: this moment when a fusion takes place between top layers and ground, image and the build up to that image, when they settle into each other. That's when a painting really stops for me.. But I can work on creating those last moments, which can look very casual and playful, look like just mark-making, for ages, sometimes over a year."

That sounds terrifying! All that work could be wrecked in one brushstroke?

"It's awful! And when it doesn't work, it is one hot mess."

RBC Canadian Painting Competition Exhibit. Until October 22. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. www,


RM Vaughan is a Canadian writer and video artist. Vaughan is the author of many books and contributes articles on culture to a wide variety of publications.


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