An interview with Karen Cairns: This Gleaming City

In advance of her highly anticipated solo show, 'This Gleaming City', launching on 5th September at ScotlandArt, Sam Reilly speaks to Karen Cairns about her practice, inspirations and how she reinterprets beloved cityscapes so that they are at once entirely unexpected and instantly recognisable.


To imagine one of Glasgow’s best-loved views – Buchanan Street, say, thronged with shoppers and flanked by all those spidery metal awnings, jutting from the sandstone - and then to compare it with its recreation in a painting by Karen Cairns, is to realise a remarkable process by which each – the mental image, and the artistic impression – is transformed by the other. It is almost as though the streets or the buildings are breathing with a varying intensity. Spires snake; buildings blur – and yet, no matter how much liberty the artist allows herself, each scene is always instantly recognisable. Something we have always known, just changed utterly.

For an architectural painter, Karen is unusual in that she almost invariably uses the notoriously difficult wet-on-wet technique, mixing colours on the page itself – the effect is as though she were dissolving the solid structures of buildings, in order to reconstitute them in rich colour. Until her career as an artist took off after submitting her portfolio to twelve years ago, Karen was working full-time as an architect. It is perhaps surprising at first, that a profession which seems to demand absolute precision should function as an apprenticeship for an artist who is characterised, above all, by freedom. Yet, as Karen puts it, architecture has imbued her with ‘an intrinsic understanding of how buildings stay up’; having studied at the Edinburgh School of Art, before a postgraduate in Urban Planning, Karen has an intimate knowledge of all the manifold ways in which one may visualise the city.

“Architecture is even more precise now than when I was studying – with computers, it’s become possible to plan buildings on a scale of one-to-one, down to the nearest millimetre. I suppose, in some respects, my painting is an escape from this – a means of freeing up. Of course, watercolour iswasthe architect’s original medium – we presented our projects in it. Over the years, I've become more and more experienced at working from a number of sketches, to the point where I barely draw or sketch at all now. I’ve learned to take great pleasure in the struggle for control which wet-on-wet painting demands; in allowing the colours to carve out the scene in front of me.

“What I’m aiming at is a sense of flair. When you’re looking at how city lights at night reflect on water, there’s a sense of excitement, of vibrancy, which you can only capture in watercolour with an understanding of the paint’s inherent sponteneity.”

The impression we get is that, though spontaneous – she will paint quickly, creating two or three visions of each scene which strikes her, constricted as she is by the speed at which the paint dries – there is nothing haphazard about Karen’s art. It is the accumulative product of many years’ experience working in this medium – moreover, it owes much to her continuous lived experience of the artistic qualities hidden within the surfaces of the city.

“The moment of inspiration isn’t something I tend to thing about; it will happen unconsciously. But sometimes I catch myself looking up perhaps more than usual – it’s only in looking up, rather than, say, at shop floor level, that you realise the overall power of a place.

"So most of my paintings are depicted from ground level, attempting to capture the emotional response to a scene which anyone could pass, on any given day. I think that sense of recognition is what many people experience with my paintings – they may have walked down that street countless times, but just never experienced it as a piece of art.

“I’m most excited by the evening light, and I think in part that’s related to its emotional associations – the moment just before the pubs fill up, when people are walking home from work. It’s the blending of a communal mood with the most beautiful light of the day.”

One thus gets the sense that, for Karen, art is an extension of her life in modern Glasgow. There’s a sense of intrepidity in her evening wanderings, an enthusiasm for new architectural developments grounded in the fact that ‘nobody will ever have painted them before’. When we view her paintings, we are induced to view a familiar scene with keener eyes, to read a deeper beauty into its lines and reconsider it as something entirely new; likewise, Karen will manipulate her walk to work each morning to ensure she crosses over the Clyde, simply because “every day, it shows me something different”.



Karen's solo show will be running from Saturday 5th September until Wednesday 30th September, with the exhibition launch including artist Q&A and cocktail reception taking place on Saturday 5th September from 3PM to 6:30PM.  Please email or call 0141 221 4502 to reserve your place.


Glasgow Gallery