Artist profile - Soraya French

Dancing poppies by Soraya French

Dancing poppies by Soraya French - Credit: Archant

How Andover-based and Iranian-born painter Soraya French was inspired by a teenage trip to Europe

Artist Soraya French

Artist Soraya French - Credit: Archant

“Sketches have certain life and spontaneity but when I try to turn them into paintings I’m disappointed because they lack the energy of a sketch. Instead, my process is organic. If you have a good photographic memory you become a computer yourself so I paint from memory. I’m known as someone who does sketches for the sake of sketching.”

The initial capturing of a scene on paper is often the springboard artists need to transform a subject onto canvas. However for Soraya French the Iranian-born president of the Society of Women Artists there’s also a distinct difference in the link between that first stage and a finished piece.

Quick-thinking, articulate and with a glass half-full mentality, Soraya’s pragmatic approach ensures every aspect of her work has value. “It’s important to be honest with yourself,” she says. “Amateur painters want every piece of work to be something they can hang in a local exhibition. But you have to learn from your mistakes. Don’t cry when you fail; just get up and do another one.”

Although painting was a regular pastime while growing up Soraya regarded art as no more than a hobby at home, which was quite westernised, Tehran being: “A cosmopolitan city, despite what you see on the news.”

Distant poppy fields by Soraya French

Distant poppy fields by Soraya French - Credit: Archant

During her teenage years travelling to Europe unleashed exposure to artistic styles which had a lasting effect. “I’d always loved the Impressionists. But when I first came to England at the age of 18 I spent much of my allowance on Athena posters! Here I was overawed with Impressionism; it stirred something in me.”

Focusing on business studies did not deter Soraya from continuing to paint. With the encouragement of her family, she enrolled on an art course which turned out to be for semi-professionals. She still regards it as a turning point. “I was out of my depth yet it was an eye-opener, a light bulb moment, as if I’d been asleep and the course woke me up.”

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Following this “lucky period” came numerous exhibitions – she peaked at 24 one year – some of which she organised. Teaching assignments also beckoned and at the same time art companies approached her with sponsorship deals. It was at this point Soraya finally realised that art was now her career.

As a mixed media specialist, this Andover artist worked with pencils and gouache before becoming a watercolourist. Then she discovered pastels and acrylics. Having got to know each medium “intimately” she intuitively knows which subject lends itself to which medium. If you’re now hoping for more of a formulaic explanation, there isn’t one available. “I can’t put this in a bottle and sell it to you,” she says. “I just instinctively know whether a subject lends itself to watercolour or pastel, or which will be nice with a heavy textured background and finished with a dry media.” And identifying the point to walk away, is that also intuitive? “Whether you’re a professional or beginner, you know in your heart of hearts when you’ve finished.

Yellow lilies on orange cloth by Soraya French

Yellow lilies on orange cloth by Soraya French - Credit: Archant

“Style is not really important to me but I’m known for being an Impressionist, and quite contemporary. You are who you are. You can only be good if you’re authentic.”

She is just as adamant about the reasons for painting. “I paint absolutely for me. This is the best advice I give to my students. When my children were young I was well known for beach scenes. I always sold every painting, this was a fantastic bread-and-butter earner. But you can’t go back to manufacture that feeling. If you do, you fail.”

Based for the past decade at nearby Project Workshops, and looking forward to taking part in their Open Studios event from 2 to 3 May, Soraya has just had a home studio built giving her the flexibility to work late at night.

Her commitments also include president of Andover Art Society, a role that is testament to a loyalty to the adopted home where she’s lived since 1982, and she’s currently working on a book, Contemporary Flowers in Mixed Media.

It’s easy to appreciate the vibrancy and energy within Soraya’s paintings given that their originator effuses the same qualities. This is why I appreciate her work, and why our interview has been so inspiring. Which leaves one last question. What next? “To carry on doing what I’m doing. I haven’t painted my best painting yet; I probably won’t until the day I die.”