The superb paintings of Judith de Leeuw could very well do without this hat, she does what she wants with the hair of her characters with manes all more sublime than each other. Capturing a bit of his soul in this interview, we realize how right Leonardo da Vinci was right when he advised in his painting treatise to take care of his soul to produce breathtaking characters.
Hello JDL can you introduce you?
Bonjour lady K! It’s lovely to have a chat with you again. My name is Judith de Leeuw aka JDL street art. I’m born and raised in Amsterdam, Netherlands and I just turned 25 years old. I currently still live there but I’m more often painting abroad. I find myself at home for approximately 3 months per year. I graduated in Art & Design in 2016 followed by a one-year bachelor of fine arts at the Willem de Kooning academy.
Yes, I’m glad me too to speak with you again, can you tell us since how many time you paint?
That’s difficult to say. As a small kid, I always loved to paint with brushes like the rest of the world. I have a memory of the first portrait I made when I was 4 years old.
I touched a spray can for the first time when I was about 15 years old, which was also the first piece that I made at night on the streets. It was on a Christmas night and the piece was looking terrible (of course). I started combining spray paint with realism in 2013 when I was around 18 or 19 years old. This was looking terrible as well. In 2014 I got my first commissions in art. My art started taking off really well around 2015, my skills improved very rapidly. This is also what turned me into an official registered and fulltime artist in 2016. It’s been tough, but amazing and beautiful years traveling the world and painting everywhere. I painted more than 35 murals over 35 different locations, continents, and countries. And, the 35 is only what I officially registered in my CV. The real number is probably even much higher.
Your characters are almost perfect, you have a good sense of compositions, proportions… How you explain that?
It really flatters me that you say they are almost perfect, but I really don’t agree. They are not even close to perfect at all. Perfect doesn’t exist at all and it’s also something that you have to accept as an artist. A good example is my recent visit to the exhibition Caravaggio, Bernini (and followers) in Rijksmuseum and I spotted so many small mistakes! It really made me realize that even them – historical legends – must have felt exactly the same as I do. That little nail that ‘just does not look right’, is really something that keeps me up at night. And I’m so sure that these painters have experienced something similar. Imperfection is just something we all have to find peace with as creators.
That changes me nothing for me, I think your characters are almost perfect and is that all of your honor to want to progress again. I think they have really good movement and it gives them life, as well as when Leonardo da Vinci writes in his treatise on the painting that giving movement is giving life to what we create. I think is something that transpires in your painting, are you consciously looking for that or does it come naturally?
It came naturally but not completely. I think the biggest power within people’s minds is to accept that they are never done learning. So one of my biggest focuses is to learn, no matter what I do. Sometimes I lock myself up for months just studying images and philosophy. At some point, I discovered that tragic, emotional images really intrigue me in a very specific way. I can recognize that on several comparisons. For instance, I have a much bigger love for war and societal street photographers then portrait commissions. Also, I prefer Caravaggio much more over Rembrandt. I prefer greek mythology over fairytales. These tragic elements in images and stories enable people to experience emotion in a very specific and deep way. There are many different techniques to create a tragic image. And one of them, yes, is movement.
That tragic things intrigue us is a very interesting topic to think about in general, it has been like that thousands of years BC. Maybe it’s because mankind wants to recognize something in creation, and it’s all constructed on how we want to see the world. Or how we see ourselves, and our role in the reality we live in. I never made a conscious choice in the evolvement of my art, I think its always just been a part of who I have been (or became). But I know it must also be how I see the world, or how I have experienced it. Having an interest in a topic gets you to read a book, reading a book gets information in your subconscious, and your subconscious is a part of you. That leads to the end result of your creation.
What you say is really very interesting and beautiful, I am not finally surprised that your figures are so sensitive. Leonardo da Vinci, still in his painting treatise, writes that to produce breathtaking paintings, you have to take care of your soul so that paint springs from this interior beauty. How do you build them?
It’s a very big and long process. That is also one of the reasons why my online media is only 10% of what I do. Firstly I do concept development. That contains a lot of different kinds of research. Reading books, study other paintings, or societal issues. If I’m choosing a societal topic the research also involves talking to the people involved in the theme. It’s a very difficult and long process because it involves a lot of information, which, you don’t always instantly understand. For example – one of my next paintings took me over 6 years to understand the real total picture of the theme. I always knew the theme, but some meanings only start to come up when you have the time to grow and reflect. When I have a clear image of the total picture and processed all of my information – I jump to photography. I start to pick up all the pieces that I have and bring them together to create an image. This image contains the basis of the painting.
It’s really very impressive to see that you reflect so much on your paintings, I think that’s what gives them this special aura. Can you tell us what is this painting that took you more than six years to understand it and why and how did you finally understand it?
It concerns one of my latest designs related to Greek mythology called ‘Icarus’. Unfortunately, I can’t show it yet but I’m hoping to be painting it soon. My family had a print of the work ‘Icarus’ from Hendrick Goltzius on the wall when I was a kid. I always loved it – but didn’t understand why. 6 years ago (i was 19), I heard about the myth for the first time. I understood it in a very simple way and it became more and more complex over the years as I grew.
It was the story of a father and son stuck in a labyrinth. The father created wings for him and his son in order to escape. The father (Daedalus) told his son (Icarus): ‘Don’t fly too high, because then your wings will melt. Don’t fly too low, because the waves will catch you. Icarus flew off and couldn’t take his eyes off the sun. He flew higher, higher, and higher thinking that he could do it all. So happy to be free, and so intrigued to see something so magical. Icarus came too close to the sun, his wings melted, and he died in front of the eyes of Daedalus.
I heard about the story again, again, and again, over the years and every time a little piece of knowledge was added on the theme. I studied all different sorts of philosophy over the years and it really made me see things from a much broader perspective. There is a lot to say and to think about. Not only in the arts – but also on a societal level.
Some philosophers opinionated this story forms the basis of the society as we live in today. (We live in blockhouses, walk in between the lines, etc.) There are so many different perspectives to reflect on the world with this story in mind. Anyhow, I can keep going forever about Icarus… The conclusion is that I came to a realization and I made a piece about it. I’m really excited to create it!
What are you looking for when you paint?
That’s a good question. What am I looking for? What is a musician looking for when he/she is writing a piece of music? I’m just inspired, and I want to express myself and share my vision of the world with other people. I just can’t help myself. Even when I tell myself to stop, I keep doing it. But I’m not only doing it for myself. For instance, street musicians always made me feel so incredibly fulfilled. In between all of those grey skies, grey office buildings, and businessmen – there’s a small reminder of art and music. It’s a reminder that we all still feel something together, that we are all still free inside, all some sort of playful child, and that’s what I want to give back to the world too.
A bit like when Kandinsky talks about inner necessity, it’s yours. Can you tell us what you work with on the wall only with aerosols or also brushes?
In the past 4 years, I mostly worked with spray cans as I have been less experienced with brushes. However- I do use them now as details from 1mm are much easier to create with a small brush. Try to paint newspapers (including letters separately) with spray, it’s not easy! Now I’m creating one of my first all-acrylic works on canvas, as they are too small for aerosols. It’s a much more fit medium for smaller surfaces and I’m not planning to limit myself to aerosols.
You also talk about your paintings, I have seen less on the web, while they are as breathtaking as your walls, why this part of your activity is less highlighted?
That’s because I find my biggest inspiration in large scale murals in public space. The work that I upload on my (social) media is just 10% of what is happening behind the scenes. But I’m very conscious about the fact that how you present your art to the world will be a very big influence on your life. For instance, I’ve even curated some projects, and I never really told anyone. That’s because I don’t want to be distracted too much from my goal – so I don’t want other people to get distracted either. I have a goal, I have something that I love, and something that I want to reach. I want to create a very specific thing that I want to give my contribution to society and people. That is my goal for now, so that is what I am highlighting.
Do you have some projects currently?
Most of my projects are canceled or frozen as I can’t travel or ship during the COVID-19. I also can’t count on the galleries anymore. But for sure. I never stop working. The « Icarus » project is a « love » project all made from scratch. It was a lot of work as we had to arrange everything ourselves in a very difficult city and an important location but we are almost there now. We (me and my project manager) set up a 50 pages plan and had dozens of calls and meetings to do. It took us over a month but the plan is done now. We’re sending it over to institutes and are awaiting approval. It’s going to be a wonderful mural at a top location.
Next to that, I’m doing a commercial project at a really big congress center in the Netherlands. It’s quite a lot of work but I feel blessed to still be able to paint and do my job as it’s not easy now for anybody. I’m shooting one of the designs this Friday and we (me and my assistant) will start painting soon. There is some potential on this congress center so hopefully, I’ll get something very interesting out of it. They also own outdoor walls – so who knows where we will end up. Next to that, there are some other things pending for the future mainly focused on the Netherlands. I hope to be traveling soon again to take things « back to normal ».
Thank you for this conversation, I’m waiting to see you again, do you have some words for the end?
Stay strong in this crisis – always keep fighting as we are survivors. I’ve been down for quite some time thinking this crisis will kill the cultural scene. But we -as creators- can make something unique and strong out of this tragedy. It’s our obligation to do so towards the world. It’s why we are in this world, so don’t just sit and cry. Use this time to reflect on the world, on yourself and your art, and turn it into something more powerful than ever. My piece on the crisis is coming soon.
Crédit photographies © JDL
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