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Interview: Maria Harding | Stencil Portraits

'Chasing Rainbows' by Maria Harding

‘Chasing Rainbows’ by Maria Harding

We all know social media can be a powerful thing and a fantastic way to discover new things. As can, in a different way, roadside ‘shopping’. For if artist Maria Harding hadn’t spotted some woodblocks left on the side of the road she may never have begun stenciling on wood. And if I hadn’t spotted Maria’s latest exhibition on a Reverse Garbage’s Facebook post I may not have discovered her work and this interview may well have never happened.

But enough on fate and the beauty of browsing both online and offline. Come and meet Maria and her wonderfully colourful, life-like stencil art …

Maria Harding in her studio

Maria Harding in her studio with one of her stencils in her current Bird Life exhibition.

Please introduce yourself and tell us how have you ended up where you are today?

My name’s Maria Harding and I am a graphic designer and visual artist living in Sydney. I grew up in Oxford, UK and studied Fine Art at Liverpool University. After graduating, I had dreams of being a children’s book illustrator, but the reality was not quite the dream job I thought it would be. I spent most of my time drawing at home on my own, not knowing how to market myself nor earn money from it.

After three months, I was well and truly over the idea, so I moved to London with a friend and found work as a graphic designer. I did well in this industry but after 10 years or so I craved getting back into doing some ‘real art’ again. First, I got the children’s book out of my system, illustrating and writing an ‘Animal ABC’ book. Then I began experimenting with stencils.

I came to Sydney in 2000 as I was feeling the need for a change, adventure and excitement. I’d always had a dream to go diving in the Great Barrier Reef and Australia seemed so exotic and vibrant. I got my year visa, booked my flight and went! 14 years later I’m still here and now a citizen with a gorgeous husband and son. I still absolutely love Sydney and feel grateful every day that I am living here.  I now have a studio and spend my days creating portraits of kids and working on my own personal artworks. It’s wonderful.

'Dandelions' by Maria Harding

‘Dandelions’ by Maria Harding

Stencil portraiture is a very specific form of art. When and why did you begin exploring with stencil portraits and using reclaimed wood?

It was quite by accident actually. In 2011 I was trying to come up with an awesome birthday present for my sister’s 30th, I knew it had to be something to do with rabbits  as she adores her pet rabbit. After playing around with various filters in Photoshop, I wondered how it would look as a stencil painting, so I went out and bought some fluorescent pink spray paint and gave it a go. I really enjoyed the process, particularly cutting the stencil, and immediately went on to do one of my 18-month-old son. Friends saw the portrait and wanted some of their children, and so ‘Stencil Portraits’ was born. After doing the portraits for a while, I started experimenting with more intricate stencil designs of my own and continue to do so in my practice.

Artist Maria Harding cutting a stencil in her studio

Maria Harding cutting a stencil in her studio

The wood was, again, a bit of an unexpected turn. The thought of using wood had never really crossed my mind before, but one day I was walking down the street and found some small woodblocks dumped on the roadside. I thought it was such a shame they were thrown away and how they would make lovely little ‘canvases’. I took them home and painted on them and it turned out really well.

After that, there was no stopping me. I was constantly on the look-out for interesting weathered wood on the streets. You’d be surprised at how much you can find. I now much prefer to paint on wood. I love the texture, the organic look and feel, and how each piece is unique. It seems I’m not the only one who feels this way as ninety per cent of my custom portraits are now on the reclaimed wood.

Stencil portrait in the making by Maria Harding

Stencil portrait in the making

Can you share a bit about the creative process?

My portraits start with my customers sending me a photo. I use Photoshop to mock things up (a combination of filters and drawing by hand on my Wacom tablet), and I then print it out and redraw everything by hand before cutting the stencils. As I’m cutting the stencil I’ll kind of draw with the knife, fine tuning the lines even further. Once the stencil’s ready, which could take anything from half an hour to six or seven hours to cut depending on complexity, I’ll spray-glue it onto the wood and apply the paint using a dry brush. I usually incorporate free-hand painting into the design too. I really like the contrast between the organic nature of the hand-painted areas next to the perfect lines of the stencil.

'Boy and Bunny' by Maria Harding

‘Boy and Bunny’ by Maria Harding

Where do you source the wood from?

The majority of the wood comes from the streets of the Inner West, particularly when people have pulled their old fences down. I’ve also bought pieces from Reverse Garbage.

You also work as a graphic designer. Tell us about this work – what you specialise in and how you find this differs as a process from the stencil art?

I specialise in graphic design for print – mainly brochures, flyers, business cards etc. I also work for a teachers’ resource company doing illustrations and design for their classroom resources.  This side of my business is very much ‘for the money’ these days, as my real heart and soul is in the portraits and my own art.

Who or what are some of your influences? What other artists, designers, peers and creatives do you admire?

There are so many amazing artists out there. Here are a few that come to mind:

I couldn’t really start with anyone else but Banksy, who has been so influential to so many stencil artists. I like his clever ideas and use of public space. He is forever pushing the boundaries and is a brilliant artist.

C215 (Christian Guémy) – a French street artist. His work is amazing. He does a lot of portraits and cats using stencils. I like his style which is quite different from other stencil artists. It’s quite illustrative and the way he does the cats’ fur is so detailed and beautiful.

Adnate – a Melbourne street artist. He doesn’t use stencils, but he paints beautiful large- scale portraits on walls. There’s one on Church Street, I think, of a black and white Aboriginal boy. He seems to mostly paint Aboriginal children. The detail, especially in their eyes, is captivating.

Miranda Skoczek – a Melbourne-based artist. I love her colour palette and semi-abstract paintings of animals.

Yoshinori Kobayashi – Japanese manga artist. I love his beautiful portraits, both the line drawings and the paintings.

Stencil portrait by Maria Harding

What do you like to do in your spare time?

I like hanging out with my husband and four-year-old boy.

My guilty pleasure is …


Have you ever had a ‘who’d have thought’ moment?

You know, I had one of those recently when I moved into my studio. Up until then I was sharing a studio with another artist which was great but had limited space and natural light, and before that, I was working from home. So to get my own big space really felt like I’m officially an artist now.

Alfie and Ernie on wood by Maria Harding

Alfie and Ernie on wood by Maria Harding

Father and son on the beach stencil portrait by Maria Harding

Father and son on the beach stencil portrait by Maria Harding

Tell us about your current ‘Bird Life’ exhibition

Calling all bird lovers! I have a new exhibition coming up. This time it’s celebrating birds in all their glory. I think birds are just amazing; there are so many different types in all sorts of beautiful colours and their patterns make for really interesting stencils. In this latest body of work I’ve had fun exploring a new technique with watercolours, stencils and acrylics on reclaimed wood.

The exhibition will be at the fabulous Petty Cash Cafe in Sydney.  All paintings will be for sale along with some limited edition archival prints. If you’re in Sydney, come along – I’d love to see you there.

Exhibition: May 29 – June 19 2014

Address: Petty Cash Cafe, 68 Victoria Road, Marrickville, Sydney.

Thanks Maria and best of luck for the exhibition! You can find out more about Maria’s work here.

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