Sarah Capes visits pencil artist Minty Sainsbury in her London studio
I recently met with architectural artist Minty Sainsbury, at her studio in Notting Hill. I’ve always been drawn to architectural drawings, especially church ‘portraits’, which are one of Minty’s main subjects. The precision with which her drawings are executed is exquisite. The shading is so convincing that her works could easily be mistaken for black and white photographs. When studying her work, I was reminded of the 18th century Venetian capricci compositions of Canaletto and his nephew, Bernardo Belotto. Both artists would depict certain buildings from the city of Venice removed from their true location and inserted into an imagined composition, to create an idyllic and harmonious scene. This offered a new vision and appreciation of a particular building to the viewer by placing it into a different context. Minty’s drawings invite the viewer to consider and appreciate the architecture around them in a new way, not by creating amalgamative architectural scenes, but by isolating a specific building completely.
This compositional device that Minty often uses involves whiting out the architecture surrounding a specific building, offering just a detailed glimpse of that one building. She has done this with several studies of St Paul’s Cathedral – one of her favourites. Minty explained to me her love of the neat, clean lines of St Paul’s, built during the golden age of British architecture. The cathedral was painstakingly designed and involved a great deal of town planning to provide a variety of routes leading up to it. Minty has explored and depicted each of these routes, blocking out everything else to reveal St Paul’s peaking out at the end of a pathway. Each route offers a different angle of the cathedral, allowing the viewer to experience every possible element of the building.
As well as monumental, large-scale structures like St Paul’s, Minty also enjoys drawing lesser-known buildings in London. She told me how pleasing it was to hear visitors at her exhibitions suddenly realise that the building they are looking at in one of her drawings is in fact one that they have passed countless times, but never truly ‘seen’. The absence of colour combined with the isolation of the buildings encourages the viewer to focus on the details that they perhaps normally would not notice. The extraordinarily skilful execution of those details on paper allows the eye to intimately explore elements of a façade that are not always necessarily immediately apparent.
Minty began to develop her signature approach to architectural drawing while studying at Cambridge University. As an architecture student, she was often constructing models from white card, leaving the surrounding context a blank outline, with the building she had designed executed in great detail. In her work as an artist now, Minty transfers this 3-D method onto paper, creating works that are part abstract, part hyperrealist. While her years as an architecture student certainly inform her style, Minty realised after graduating that the office of an architectural practice was not the right place for her, and so she moved back to her family home in Comrie in Scotland to build up a portfolio of artworks. After six months, she booked an exhibition space in London for her first show, which ran for three days in Battersea and proved hugely successful.
Minty continues to exhibit around four or five times a year, and last month participated in a show at Ligne et Couleur in Paris. She travels whenever and wherever possible, particularly to Italy, where she recently visited Venice and is working on a series of drawings from her trip for an upcoming exhibition. The Venice series represents a new direction in Minty’s work, where the water of the canals mirrors the surrounding architecture, rather than focussing on one specific structure. For example, San Barnaba, where everything above water is abstractedly blanked out, yet the reflections in the water represent reality. Similarly, Arsenale shows only an outline of the famous rampart that surrounds the shipyard; while it’s true form can be observed in the water.
Minty grew up in an artistic household, her father being a wildlife painter and her mother a philosophy major. Although she drew animals like her father when she was younger, her architectural studies have been pivotal in the definition of her oeuvre. Minty is not an artist in the typical twentieth century idea of what that often means, rather, her perfectionism and mathematical approach to her drawings is reminiscent of the Renaissance artist’s pursuit of harmony and order. Furthermore, for Minty, a drawing in itself is not a complete work of art. She allocates the same consideration to mounts and frames as she does to the drawings themselves, contributing to a larger aesthetic that makes each element become one finalised object. She referred to herself as a draughtsman first and foremost and indeed, her love of clean lines extends beyond her drawings and into her surroundings – Minty’s must be the most tidy and orderly studio I’ve ever seen.
I was intrigued to ask Minty how she goes about beginning one of her drawings. Looking at monumental works such as Milan Cathedral and Exeter Cathedral in particular, I just couldn’t imagine where to start. When visiting a building, Minty makes sketches and takes photographs, returning to the studio to plan out the composition. She always begins drawing from the top, working her way down to avoid smudging. Minty admitted to occasionally becoming frustrated when working, but the beauty of her medium is the ability to erase and start again. She typically works on only one drawing at a time, focusing all of her energy on that one work, usually taking up to three weeks to complete.
Minty’s Instagram account is well worth following; she regularly posts pictures of her drawings as she is working on them, showing the extraordinary process that goes into creating each of these remarkably skilful works of art.