|The dramatic detailed portraits painted by Southland artist Deidre Copeland, are turning heads in Central Otago. Amid the region's distinct and vast mountainous landscapes of harsh climatic extremes, she captures her characters on a grand scale.
“That's the thing about Central Otago I can see reflections of the landscape in their faces,” says the bubbly 33 year old.
Deidre's canvases can measure up to 1 metre x 1.4 metres. She likes the large format for sheer impact. “A lot of these characters are larger than life,” she says of her subjects. ‘Their faces describe the lives they’ve lived. And I try to incorporate hands because they’re an expression of character as well.'
Born and raised in rural Southland, where her family farmed sheep, Deidre showed an early interest in art. She went on to study fine arts, majoring in printmaking and photography, and then training as a teacher. After three years of teaching art she went overseas where she spent seven years working as a freelance illustrator, painter, photographer and teacher in England and Japan.
Since arriving in Central Otago just over three years ago she has had two sell-out exhibitions, won six major art awards, and gained the esteem of well known local landscape artist Grahame Sydney. “He told me to be strong and stay on my own path,” she says. The pair have struck up a friendship and sometimes work side by side. 'He really opened my artistic eyes,' says Deidre.
Currently, 50 percent of Deidre's work is commissioned and portraits are selling for between $10,000 - $15,000. Having a ready market means Deidre can afford to pursue her passion for painting local characters. “I really love older people; they’re precious people: They have so many hidden stories in their faces. They’ve been and done so much, and they have such a lot to give the world.”
It is a love that sees her hunting out interesting looking people, and frequenting bowling alleys and local pubs. “I ask around for a great subject, someone notorious, or with character,” she says.
Few women feature in her big portrait paintings. “I'm looking for women, but they often don't want every wrinkle blown up huge; they're just not keen,” she says. 'I've also found that women don't age the same as men. Their faces often don't have that lovely landscape quality of the hills and the valleys; it's the landscape of the face.”
It takes at least a month to paint a portrait and in preparation Deidre takes photos of her subjects and asks them to sit for her, “I like to get to know them too,' she says. From this combination she creates a detailed, finished sketch. 'It's like the research for the big finale,” she says.
“I don't always paint what's in front of me. I rearrange what is real and build my own interpretation.” Referring to a portrait entitled Judge she says: “I made him up to suit the composition and the lighting. I exaggerated his eyes.”
Deidre, her partner Jase and their six-month-old son live in an early 1900s wooden villa in Cromwell. The walls are adorned with her sketches and paintings. A portrait of herself by artist Grahame Sydney hangs in the entry.
Outside there is a new deck around a big walnut tree and there are plans to rebuild the dilapidated 130 year old Cobb and Co. stables in the back yard, into a working studio. Currently, Deidre works from her kitchen.
Dedrie loves her home. She says the locals are welcoming and the environment is perfect for her work.
“There's something special about the Central Otago light, it's startling and crystal clear and it heightens the landscape. It turns its characters into similar landscapes,” she says.