Caitlin Hackett 'Heartache'

Caitlin Hackett’s contemporary mythology

Dipping into the carnal, elegant and ritualistic paintings of Oakland native Caitlin Hackett.

Published: July 3, 2017Words: J.Scott Stratton

The one thing that you will recognise in Caitlin Hackett’s highly detailed paintings and illustration is a juxtaposition of the morbid and the beautiful–a thematic style that is quite often found in the stories and history of cultural folklore.

A beautiful maiden cursed to wed a demon, a horrific beast that only longs for love, these stories which have been passed down throughout cultures–often as children’s tales–are often quite gruesome when you look to the source material.

While this type of thematic is common across both folk and religious lore, there is a definite lean towards the pagan within Hackett’s work–albeit not indicative of one particular culture or history. Her mythologies are one of her own making, which almost begs there to be a specific narrative or story around each piece.

The second thing that struck me about her work, after digging a little deeper into her oeuvre, was the scale in which she works. My natural assumption when I first encountered her work, was that it most illustration work of around standard poster size, yet after she shared an image of herself working in the shadow of a painting easily two meters high, I realised I was sorely wrong.

Boasting a rather generous Instagram feed of over 200,000 followers, it was obvious to me that visualisation of modern mythology–or contemporary mythology as she likes to define her work–has definitely struck a bell with a large number of art enthusiasts around the globe. Following my curiosity to learn more about Hackett’s and her dark, yet fantastical visual allegories, I spoke with her about her process, her style, and just where these mythological characters come from.

You call your work “contemporary mythology”—which is quite explicit in the style—can you tell me how you began to develop this?

My interest in Fairy Tales and Mythology started when I was a child, I loved the fantastic creatures, the beautiful landscapes, and the dark undertones, and the often grim moral lessons these tales were meant to teach. The juxtaposition of the beauty and the horror captured my interest as much as the magical creatures, and I learned much of my artistic style from studying and copying those illustrations.

My concept for Contemporary Mythology was born out of the marriage of those interests, Mythology and Biology, and my overwhelming sorrow and sense of helplessness when bearing witness to the wreckage of our planet and it’s species. I find that mythological tropes such as multi headed deities, human to animal transformations, fiery destruction, death and rebirth, are mirrored again and again in our world. For example, I create paintings of animals with multiple heads, harkening back to creatures of legend, but also reflecting the very real effects of pollution that we see in amphibians, causing toxic mutations.

I wanted to create new visual allegories utilising the visual language of mythology and fairy tales in combination with contemporary environmental issues. I pour my sorrow and my hope and my fear into my artwork, trying to tell stories that remind the viewer of our connection to the natural world, and how close we are to losing it all. That is my moral tale, the grim lesson embedded the folklore of my work, a reminder that we are all connected, that we are animals too, and we are at risk.

I’ve seen the time-lapse showing how you begin a piece, is all of your work spontaneous like that or do you also work from preconceived concepts?

Often when started a piece, I will collect a series of different references images from books and photos, however I don’t tend to draw specifically from one image or even one initial sketch–most of my work is relatively spontaneous.

I am always inspired by current environmental issues, endangered species, deforestation, poaching, cosmetic and medical laboratory testing, etc. so once an image comes to mind I will usually just start sketching the final piece directly. However for my large scale work I will often do a few rough initial sketches in order to get the composition down since it can be difficult to balance the imagery in the large paintings.

Most of the time an image will appear in my mind, inspired by something I’ve seen or heard in the world, and I do my best to capture that image on paper before it fades, it can sometimes feel like a race against time, as I have a tendency to come up with more concepts for pieces than I have time to make them all. It makes me understand why it used to be believed that Muses would visit artists and writers, it’s often as if an idea is dropped whole and complete in my mind, and it’s my job to try and create it before it drifts away.

I was quite shocked to see the size of some of your pieces, as you style is more associated with smaller pieces. Tell me about your process when you work large?

I love working large scale, if I could have my way all of my pieces would be life sized creatures or larger. Back when I was in school at Pratt most of the paintings I did were very large scale, I tried to capture the creatures in my work as closed to life as I could, at one point I was painting on rolls of photo backdrop paper! These days I mostly work on commission pieces, illustration work, or paintings for group shows where the work needs to be smaller, so I don’t often get a chance to work on truly large scale projects. However I do still have a few pieces I’ve been working on in the background that are over 4ft by 6ft! My process for large pieces like that is a little different than the free form style I take with my small work. I almost always start with a series of concept sketches in order to build up the composition before I start work. I also often use more graphite and colored pencil in the piece rather than just ballpoint pen or micron, due to the flexibility of those mediums. Large pieces are always long term projects for me now, so I work on them in between my commission and show work, but they are my passion. They tend to take a few months to complete, and I will move between mounting them on the wall to sketch in graphite and then ink, and finish by putting them on the floor (since my work table is not large enough) in order to watercolor them. I have lists of ideas for large scale works not yet begun, I hope that someday I’ll have more time to devote to creating truly giant paintings.

Beyond the initial sketch phase, tell me about how you finish a piece?

Once I have the initial graphite sketch completed, I use ballpoint pen and micron pen to ink over the lines, then after I have the basic outlines in ink, I erase the original graphite sketch from beneath it. After the graphite has been erased, I start watercolor sketches, building up layers of color in thin washes, starting light and building up the richer tones and the darks. Once I have most of the watercolor layers on, I go back in with pen and ink to add in more details and shadows, followed by more layers of watercolor to even out the tones, and colored pencil for more intense areas of saturated color. For my pieces with deep black backgrounds I use a black acrylic to get that opaque layer in, usually as one of the last steps in the progress.

Where do you see the evolution of your work heading? Is there any research or are their any inspirations that are steering your work currently?

I have so many ideas for what I’d like to do with my work next, it’s difficult to pick a direction! I’d love to return to doing larger scale pieces, and maybe take a break from shows and commission work for a little while in order to focus on putting out more of my passion projects. I am considering exploring some new mediums, working with softer lines and more graphite, and potentially picking up oil paints again to play around with what I could do in a more painterly style.

I love doing the illustrative work that I’ve been creating, and I don’t know that I would stray too far from that, but exploring some new textures and softer more abstracted tones is something I’ve been thinking about for a few months now. It’s been tough with all of the projects I already have to work on, but I think it’s incredibly important to take the time to play as an artist. I am also thinking of putting out an Art Book, and hopefully start work on a children’s book of my own that I’ve had in mind for a few years, but just haven’t had the time or the funds to create! We will see where the new year takes me.