Stepping inside the eight by four metre space, it’s obvious that Adolphs – despite her unassuming nature – has hit her stride. Stacked against the walls are more than 10 canvases, many of them bound for her upcoming Sydney exhibition. Her husband Simon, a musician and landscape gardener, is creating much-needed space by building a three-bedroom home nearby, including a new studio twice the size.
Adolphs sets a cracking pace in the studio every morning, building up momentum by using broad, loose strokes with a palette knife and a variety of brushes – some from local $2 shops – on her linen canvases. Her technique is to let herself make as many mistakes as she needs to, with little or no expectations of success.
“My strike rate is about one in 10,” she says. “It’s my way of not over-thinking things. I like to work quickly, using wet paint. If it works – I just get a gut feeling if it does – I keep adding to it, building up the layers of paint that add up over time.”
Her paintings are so thick they take a few days to dry. Pastel hues are favourites; Burnt Umber, Payne’s Grey, Prussian Blue and Cobalt Blue are constantly in use.
Walking back into her kitchen she explains that it was a strong dose of practicality that propelled her to where she is today.
Adolphs grew up in Normanhurst, in Sydney’s north-west, the youngest of three girls. Her father is a retired pharmacist and her mother a retired pathologist. Her two older sisters became a pharmacist and speech therapist.
At 22, after graduating from Fine Arts at Sydney College of Fine Arts, she made a pact with herself; she’d give herself ten years as an artist and if she wasn’t making a living by then she’d leave it all behind and “do something more practical”.
To give herself the best possible chance of success she and Simon moved to Stanwell Park, a small village 54 kilometres south of Sydney for four years. She worked behind a bar and took on book-keeping, buying herself creative freedom in the process.
“Moving there gave me the room and space to figure out what I wanted to do,” she says. “I’m so glad there was no social media then – it was really important for me to be able to experiment and try out different styles without anyone watching.”
“Simon and I didn’t take the usual path. We placed a priority on concentrating on what we loved doing and adjusted our lifestyle around that.”
Their leap of faith paid off. Her first breakthrough came in in 2012 when she was 26 – just four years into following her dream. At Paddington’s MiCK Gallery, she sold paintings for $1000 to $2000 each. “I couldn’t believe it, I was buzzing for days,” she says.
She was on her way to making a living as an artist. Since then she’s kept turning up at the studio every day and working like a demon. A key to her success using vintage photographs is making the figures unrecognisable.
“I deliberately leave the faces with a neutral expression. I like the fact that the figures are anonymous and that they’re disconnected from the real people. They often remind people of friends and family. I’m a sucker for nostalgia. There’s a mystery about the photos that I love working with,” she says.
“We don’t really know who they were or what they were doing – they’re sort of a mish-mash of reality and imagination. They’re more like moment in time. My main aim is to recreate the life that was recorded by the photograph. “
When she needs inspiration she’ll leaf through books of art by the likes of British artists David Hockney and Chantal Joffe as well as Scottish artist Peter Doig, absorbing their loose, contemporary style.
Two years ago she joined the many talented young Australian artists hungry to experience European culture, staying in a studio apartment in Paris after winning the Eva Breuer travelling scholarship.
Painting in the mornings and spending the afternoons exploring galleries such as the Musees Picasso, d’Orsay and de l’Orangerie was a creative shot in the arm. Forging a career as a painter in the country can be isolating and uncertain, she says, and the scholarship gave her a real boost in confidence.
This year she took a sideways swerve away from the usual neutral expression of her figures, capturing the likeness of fellow artists Rosemary Laing and Geoff Kleem in the Archibald Prize.
“I don’t normally paint portraits of real people so it was more pressure than I was used to,” she says. “I like the challenge of the Archibald paintings but I always prefer to do my own thing.”
What does she do with the countless paintings that don’t work out? “I scrape them back when they’re wet and re-use them. I burnt a painting I didn’t like once, and it felt fantastic. One day I’d like to light a big bonfire of rejected paintings, like Davida Allen does,” she says. “I think it would be very liberating.”
But she can’t talk anymore, she says. She’s needs to go back to the studio. She’s got a deadline to meet.
Clara Adolphs’ exhibition Close is at the Chalk Horse Gallery, Darlinghurst, from December 5 – 21.