In the eye of the beholder

Our extended interview with May/June's cover artist Frans Cronje [pictured]

A master of Spanish dance, a theologian and an erstwhile fashion designer, cover artist Frans Cronje first picked up the paintbrush at 45-years-old. At first he explored all kinds of subjects from still lifes to comic characters. Though, “most of the subjects bored me after a while because they didn’t have two eyes talking back to me”.

What draws you to portraiture?
It allows me to develop a relationship with the person I’m painting and that somehow a part of my soul can connect to their story. During my first exhibition I also started to write out stories for all my portraits and now it’s become standard practice.

Tell us about your relationship with colour?
I always paint the background colour first and here I allow my mood of the moment to dictate the colour scheme. I seldom use only one flat colour and I play on the canvas with at least three different hues and mediums until I have created a harmonious blend that gives me some joy. I do not start out with a specific colour scheme in mind, as I try to work as experimentally as possible.

Once the background has been blocked in, I proceed with the face and the hair. When I start to create the clothing, I rely heavily on my 18 years of being fashion designer and my love for printed patterns on fabric and antique lace. Here I usually select colours that are complementary to the background, such as blue and orange, or else I stick to the same family of hues to create a soft harmony, such as dirty pinks and mauves for example. Every now and then I buy a new tube of paint that excites me and then it becomes the main dictator of the colour scheme. 

There are often surreal animals in your work.
I really enjoy placing a feathered friend on the shoulder of my muses. I am besotted with all the birds in creation. Their beautiful shapes, feathers, colouring and songs speak to me deeply of the creator’s mind-blowing attention to detail and flamboyant flair for design. I place them in my paintings to add a whimsical element of natural beauty.

How do you select your subjects?
I never paint with a live model seated in front of me, simply because of the long period of time it takes to complete a painting. I prefer to work from photographs. Some of my muses I photograph and others I find in magazines, such as models in bridal, hair or fashion shoots.

I have even used models from master paintings. All of my collaged portraits are simply born from my imagination. My general rule of thumb is this; if I use a magazine model, I alter the face in some way as to not be exact and I totally re-invent the clothing and place flowers in the hair. If I use a master portrait I always sign it as being "after master so-and-so". I usually choose portraits of people with flawless beauty and soulful eyes. I particularly enjoy painting Asian faces and creating exotic kimonos with all the layering and patterns in the fabric.

Did you always want to be an artist? What else could you have been?
Ever since my kindergarten days I have been passionately drawn to the arts. In primary school drawing in the small town Parys on the banks of the Vaal River I did: ballet, Spanish dancing, choir singing, drama, embroidery, crochet, piano. My high school years were spent in the Johannes School for Art, Ballet and Music where I focused only on dancing. By age twenty I was the youngest and the only male in South Africa to have completed my Masters Degree in Spanish Dancing. I danced professionally and taught for a few years, but unfortunately it was not lucrative enough to make a living from it. My career as a fashion designer took off and I had a small factory in Pretoria where I employed 58 people. In 1996 I closed down my workshop and started Lamb Ministries. Since then I have been a full time pastoral counsellor and I train students at various Bible colleges. I have also written and published my autobiography, Unwrapping Lazarus. Though, art is only a hobby for me I really do love having exhibitions. I also run a part-time teaching studio.

Any advice for artists starting out?
It is never too late. If you have an artistic itch in your soul, it is your duty to scratch it. Find a competent and patient teacher near your home and go to class at least once a week for three hours. Make sure you get training in both drawing and painting skills. Experiment with as many mediums as you can afford and focus on the one you connect with most. Don't listen to the critical comments of family members or friends; it takes a lot of courage and perseverance to develop your skills. Never place your focus on doing things that you think will please others. Do what you love and soon people will love your work.

Be sure to have an art journal in which you can play with ideas. Never sell your earliest works, keep them as a record of how you started out. Also, don’t ever give up on a painting when it is about 60 per cent done, that is when most art works seem to look their worst, simply persevere.

Frans Cronje’s work is currently on show and available at the Gallery at South Hill, in Elgin.