Mastering the style of the masters

Heath Rosselli
Heath Rosselli
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There was a portrait of a girl in Heath Rosselli’s home that looked oddly familiar though I had never seen it before.

Heath explained the familiarity comes from it being an experiment to bring the feel of Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl Earring to a portrait of a mentor’s daughter.

Heath Rossell with Evelyn

Heath Rossell with Evelyn

“It’s a whole technique,” she explained. “It’s the Renaissance Technique — you add lots of layers and glazes and you build it up.

“It’s not taught in art schools anymore but as far as I’m concerned it’s the only way to paint.”

The technique means photographs cannot do justice to her paintings. I had seen a full length painting of her neighbour in a blue evening dress on Heath’s website, but when you see it hanging in her Worlington home, the skin glows and the dress shimmers like a kingfisher.

Yet Heath is refreshingly down to earth about her art, which perhaps comes from having done other things before taking up brushes professionally.

Heath, 53, works under her maiden name, though she became Mrs Campbell three months ago. The cottage she now lives in was owned by her grandparents who moved to Worlington in 1947 and her father was a Fen farmer so her early life was spent on a remote farm near Waterbeach.

Surprisingly, art never went academically beyond a B at A-level and from school she took a secretarial course in Cambridge before becoming the fellows’ secretary at Christ’s College.

She then moved to London as the secretary to the chairman of Fisons before her first marriage at 20. Her first husband worked for her uncle’s shipping company, so they moved to Mexico.

They returned to Worlington after her first daughter, Henrietta, was born but the marriage broke up after eight years, leaving her with two children aged six and three.

“I wasn’t going to pay somebody else to look after my children, so whatever I was going to do, I had to do from home,” she recalled.

She did a one-night-a-week course on portraiture at West Suffolk College and asked her tutor, Hengrave artist David Derby, if he thought she could sell her work. He laughed and said she needed to learn a lot more.

“He let me go to his studio and learn like an apprentice, the way Michaelangelo and all the other old masters learned,” Heath said.

He taught her the Renaissance Technique and she then met London artist and exponent of the technique Rosa Branson, who further encouraged her.

“She taught me to paint big, like the picture of the woman in the blue dress,” she said. “Rosa thinks it’s terrible the technique isn’t taught so we founded the Worlington Movement.

“There’s a whole group she’s been teaching and I’ve been teaching and it’s really taken off.”

Her group has painted a cricket match for a series of panels for the village hall. The giant pig picture Heath was working on when we visited is also going there.

As well as portraits, she paints animals, homes, gardens, landscapes and works that are combinations of those, like the huge ‘portrait’ of Worlington life in the village’s Walnut tree pub.

How does she choose subjects when not working to commission?

“Portraiture is my passion but people don’t buy portraits of people they’ve not met,” she said. “For exhibitions I’ll stick to landscapes or still life and borrow back portraits.

“That’s the only way for you to bring in more work — advertising doesn’t work, it’s usually because they’ve seen another portrait that they come to you.”

A good example of that is her best known work, the nude portrait of Evelyn, which was shown at the National Portrait Gallery and then as part of an exhibition for breast cancer awareness at Paris’ Louvre in 2010. Evelyn is a striking picture of a woman who has had a mastectomy, yet that is the last thing you notice.

Evelyn, who now lives in Bury St Edmunds, rented a cottage from Heath and over a few glasses of wine one night, the two decided the painting had to be done.

It lived in the waiting room of pioneering breast cancer consultant Prof Michael Baun, until he retired recently.

“He’s said the most striking thing about it is that he didn’t notice she’d had a mastectomy when he first saw it because of her serenity,” Heath said. “It’s made a lot of people realise it’s not as bad as they thought. Evelyn’s had letters and so have I thanking us for doing it.”

“It was a catalyst for me painting a whole series of ‘healing paintings’. Because I feel it’s important to have a purpose to my work, other than the portraits, they’re the paintings I don’t get paid for.”

The series includes a woman who lost an eye, one who has had breast reconstruction and one who self harmed and says the picture saved her life.

She says commissions are often gifts. One she is working on at the moment was a birthday present to the sitter from her husband, who made her a gift voucher for it.

Heath says sitters do not realise what a portrait involves. “They think I just sit down and blob away,” she said. “The quickest I can do a portrait is three months.

“I never start painting on the first sitting because I need to get to know them. We carry on chatting while I’m painting because I can get their character out — I’m learning how they tick.

“I have to be a bit of a mind reader because I have to know how they think they want it to look.”

She can work from photos and has manikins to save subjects having to sit while their clothes are painted.

She says some painters will not let subjects see the work until it is finished, but she prefers to get their views as it progresses.

“If they participate, they feel they’ve contributed to the picture,” Heath argues.

To see some of Heath’s work, visit www.heathrosselli.co.uk but remember the real thing adds another dimension.