Paula Rivas Rodriguez is a Mexican artist based in the UK whose work combines creative explorations of her native Mexico with social practice. She studied molecular biology at Exeter University, later training as an artist at the University of the Arts London where she completed an MA in Illustration.
Rodriguez’s work features in several books, including La Vaquera, published by the Universidad de Colima (2018). Recently, she was awarded the Cluster Illustration Award 2021, supported by Winsor & Newton; she spent 5 weeks working from a live/work studio in Bow, London refining her practice and working extensively with our gouache paint.
Can you tell us a bit about your background, where you are from, and where you live now?
I’m from Mexico but I came to study in England 12 years ago and here I am still, I now live in Birmingham.
Did you always know that you wanted to be an artist? How did you start out?
I’ve been drawing since I was little, it has always seemed like a very safe and natural thing to do. I don’t think I knew I wanted to be an artist, I thought art wasn’t a career I could have, so I did other things but kept coming back to art, so I guess art sort of chose me in a way.
Do you remember the first art material you were given or bought for yourself? What was it and do you still use it today?
I used to go to my mom’s office after school and they had this room full of stationary. I remember thinking it was the best place in the whole world. I used to get so excited when a new box of stuff came in. My first proper art materials were some markers my dad bought me at the market, it was a pack of about 100 colours.
What do you find exciting about painting as a medium?
I find it very mindful but also, I find it a good form of release. From mixing the colours together, to putting them on the paper to doing the final details and holding my breath to get straight lines the whole process feels almost like a form of meditation. Having a finished image, whether I like it or not, is very satisfying.
Do you have a preferred material and what do you like about it?
About a year ago I started using gouache more and I’m now in love with it. I love how it allows you to achieve very saturated matt textures, and I also like how practical it is. You only need water and a brush to use it.
How has your work evolved in recent years?
I think my work has grown with me, as I’ve become older and calmer my work has also become more minimalist. I used to feel more overwhelmed by the world and my work used to be busier and more detailed. As I’ve tried to find stillness in myself my work has also become more about the forms and the colours and having that sense of solitude.
Your paintings are clearly telling stories, can you share the narrative behind your work?
I’m fascinated with human behaviour and how interactions and experiences can affect how we act. I’m also interested in the intersections between memory and place as sites of personal and collective belonging, so the work is an exploration of that combined with my cultural background and the magical realism of Latin America!
The work seeks to portray elements of the nature of communities and of places. I’m fascinated by the way in which places and spaces acquire an identity of their own… through historical significance, changing with the passage of time, from the meanings given to them by people, their power to exist in people’s minds as memories and finally by way of the communities and individuals that inhabit such spaces.
I hope to transport people to imaginary places inspired by my own recollections and to evoke a pleasant feeling of loneliness.
Can you tell us a bit about the publications that feature your work, how did those projects come about?
They are both related to Mexico and the town where I grew up. One is a children’s book about a little boy who wants to know more about the street where he lives. It’s named after a Mexican educator called Gregorio Torres Quintero who did a lot for education in Mexico and developed a method to teach children to read and write. The book talks a bit about him and Colima the place where he grew up.
The second one is also related to Gregorio Torres Quintero, he was also a writer and wrote a few short stories and I had the opportunity to illustrate one of them.
Do you enjoy working collaboratively with authors on a publication? Does working to a brief inspire your own work?
I like when my work becomes part of something else and when it gives someone else’s work another layer. I think you always end up learning something when you work collaboratively with other people.
I especially enjoy working with musicians. I’ve done a few album covers, I really like that response to music and trying to translate the emotion of a melody into an image.
I guess people that like my work are the people that want it to be part of their projects so in that way it does feed into my work because it ends up feeling to me like the rest of my paintings, as a search to tell a certain story with an image.
Do you have any go-to tools in your studio that you could not make work without? How do you use them and why?
My pencil and my little sketchbook. I feel these two are almost like an extension of my mind and whenever I have an idea, they help me trap and develop it.
My brushes are also an extension of my fingers when I’m painting. I normally have two favourite ones, one small one big that I use for most paintings.
Do you have any ‘studio hacks’ that you’d like to share?
I mix all my paint in beer bottle caps, which I collect from places I go, people store them for me and every now and then I get a container full of them from someone. I find they are the perfect size to easily transport just the colours I need. I have a collection of hundreds of colours now. They are also very useful colour libraries.
Do you have a favourite colour or palette? If so, what does your palette include and why are these colours important?
I try to experiment with colour as much as I can, but colours that are earthly are always present in my paintings, such as terracottas and ochres. And blue, there is almost always some blue present. I like colours that have a strong connection with nature, I find combinations of soft blues or yellows and bold oranges and browns give it a sense of light and dark which to me give the image a serene quality.
How have you found the residency at Cluster London; what was the best part of the experience?
It has been an incredible experience; I’ve never been given the time and space to just create entirely and to be on my own and not have to worry about anyone else and just paint and enjoy my own company.
I think the people I’ve met have been the best part of the experience, I feel like I got adopted into a lovely family of creatives that all want me to do well. Everyone has been really nurturing and each person has made an impact and put a little pebble on my path. Feeling part of a community and having that sense of connection is important so I’m grateful to everyone for welcoming me in.
Did you use any Winsor & Newton materials you had not tried before? How did you find them?
Yes, the coloured pencils are lovely, the range of colours is great but also the texture is very soft on the paper and almost feel like they melt when you draw. I’ve been incorporating them into elements of the paintings and using them to shade on top of the gouache. I find they work well with gouache, so I’m excited to keep incorporating them in my work.
What did you like best of all the materials you selected, and why?
The range of colours. I normally use the gouache with 12 colours and mix the colours myself if I want more tones but now, I have this amazing range of colours. I especially like the pastel ones and the blues, so many shades of blue is wonderful.
Did the residency open any new doors for you? Do you feel it advanced your professional development as an illustrator and artist?
Absolutely, I think it showed me the possibilities and now I am eager to pursue them. Sometimes all you need is a push and people believing in you so you can believe in yourself. I feel confident and hopeful for my career. Is the first time in my life that I allowed myself to think I can be a full-time artist and just knowing that has really moved me.
What was the best piece of career advice you were ever given?
Someone once told me that to master something you must do it repeatedly. It is so simple but so true. If you want to learn how to draw a hand, draw a hand every day. Also, I find that once you master something you can start changing, reshaping it and coming up with interesting ways of looking at something familiar and turning it into something different.
Do you have one piece of advice for artists just starting out?
I have found very useful to always have a small sketchbook nearby because ideas can be fleeting, so you need to trap them. And I guess, work hard, be confident in who you are and keep trying your best. Make art that has significance to you, that is personal, create discourse and make with purpose. And finally, be kind to yourself and have empathy for you and for your work.
Are there any current or upcoming projects that you’re happy to share with us?
I’m currently working on a project with communities of artists in Mexico. We have such a long tradition of makers and there are some really skilled people working in textiles, ceramics and wood They pass their skills from generation to generation, and largely support themselves from selling their crafts. I’m interested in exploring how they see themselves and focusing on their own approaches to mental health in relation to their identities as artists, individuals and communities.
I’m really interested in exploring mental health in relationship with the act of making. In my own life creativity has been a very important vehicle for exploring and dealing with my own mental health so I’m interested in asking others how they feel about it and how their art helps. I’m interested in their perspective on mental health and how that impacts their work and vice versa.
I would like to create, together with the artist, spaces where these communities can make connections to each other, to other artists around the world, to the public and collectors, as well as places where they have the agency to choose how they are being viewed by others.