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Bianca Roco
How did you first get into painting?

I actually got into painting in between my 3rd and 4th year at Sheridan. I was studying illustration originally, and we had to do a co-op/internship, and I asked my advisors if I could do a mentorship with a painter instead, because I was interested in painting even though that wasn’t the focus of the program. So, I did an internship with Peter Chan (@peterchanart) for a summer, and he pretty much taught me oil painting. After that summer, I was like “okay, well I’m going to be a painter”. I’ve always been interested in it, but I had just thought that illustration would be an easier route or would have worked better for me.

What were you thinking of doing with illustration?

I thought I would go into editorial illustration, like what you’d see in magazines or newspapers. But yeah, it didn’t end up that way. I didn’t end up enjoying the process of the business side of it, or like the idea of being given a task to complete according to someone else’s writing.

How was the internship with Peter Chan?

He was amazing, he was a great teacher, and he took a similar route to me. He had studied illustration, and then became a fine artist. Yeah, it was just a really great experience. I would go to his studio a couple times a week and he was super helpful. He was also teaching other people, and I was sitting in on classes, and helping him set up and stuff like that. I feel like everything I learned about the fine art world really started with him. Definitely not an experience I would have found anywhere else.

Can you tell me a bit about how you got into illustration in the first place? Were you always artistic?

When I was still in the Philippines, graduating high school, I was deciding between moving here, or staying in the Philippines. I was hesitant about moving so I did a year of what I guess would be the illustration equivalent at the University of the Philippines. I’d been drawing secretly for most of my life, so honestly when I told my parents that I wanted to go into the fine arts program they were like, “Excuse me?” they didn’t even know that I drew. They we surprised but they were encouraging. Doing that one year of school kind of solidified that for me, and then after that year, I wasn’t really getting what I wanted from that program, so I decided to move here and go to Sheridan for illustration.

How are you finding the art world in Toronto?

It’s good – I actually work for another artist, who I wouldn’t have gotten to work for anywhere else. It’s a great experience.

How do you balance that?

Well, I work 9-5 and then I work at my own studio in the evenings and on weekends. It’s tough, and it’s harder now for sure, with Covid and everything.

How has Covid impacted your practice?

Over the last year, I’ve definitely received more interest in my work, but for me, when I start a work, I get models, which wasn’t something I could easily do during Covid, and is still not something I feel comfortable doing yet. So that’s kind of stalled my process. So, I’ve kind of been trying to work in other directions. But also just like the feeling of it, especially with what’s going on back home, like I don’t feel comfortable sort of just being back to “normal”. I feel really lucky that I can work from home and stuff, but just mentally, I feel like it’s a hurdle. I feel like it almost feels selfish to be acting as if everything is back to normal.

So before Covid you mostly worked with models? Can you tell me more about that process?

Yeah. I work from photos. I find strangers online, mostly women, to model for me. They come to the studio and I photograph them.

Do you use Instagram to find your models?

I use dating apps.

Wow really?

Yeah, it’s a purely business Tinder. I think it’s probably the most stressful part of starting a painting, because I don’t generally like to paint people I know. So that’s why I specifically go out to find strangers. And I don’t normally repeat models either. I like it when I don’t know who I’m painting. Painting the face of someone who I’m very familiar with kind of makes me uncomfortable. It just feels really intimate. For example, one of the people who I met early on, she eventually became my roommate, and I had this painting of her that I was working on, and I couldn’t paint it. I was like, “I know this person now and I live with her,” and it would just be so weird to be spending hours painting her face. It gets like almost too intimate or something. That’s why when like my parents ask me to paint them, I’m like “nope, can’t do it, I’m sorry”. It would be a lot easier if I were more comfortable painting people I know. Maybe eventually I’ll get more comfortable with it. But I don’t like making figures up from scratch. I like knowing that the figures in my paintings are actually real people – to still have that realism attached to my work.

"At first, I wanted to represent a certain identity, but then I realized it was limiting to only focus on that. So then began to let myself also focus on other themes in my life, and just sort of use that as an anchor. That’s what also makes it hard sometimes because I have to explain to my models that it’s not a painting of them, specifically but that they’re representing something bigger."
Do you look for anything specific in the models you choose?

It’s normally women of colour and it’s normally queer women, like me. That’s always been what I look for. I’ve thought about not doing that, in order to make the process of finding models easier. Because other people ask me if I would want to paint them, people that don’t fit the criteria of what my work generally leans toward, but then I think also that separation makes it possible for me to be more free with what I’m painting. Originally what my work was about was specifically to paint queer women of colour. But it’s moved away from that to be less strictly about that and more toward other personal things. It was nice for the model to be similar to me in a way, but it was never really about making a portrait that expressed who they were. So that’s why I was considering finding models outside of my original criteria. But meeting people who identify that way, making a painting of them, and then them getting to see it, is also a really nice feeling, it’s really rewarding.

At first, I wanted to represent a certain identity, but then I realized it was limiting to only focus on that. So then began to let myself also focus on other themes in my life, and just sort of use that as an anchor. That’s what also makes it hard sometimes, because I have to explain to my models that it’s not a painting of them, specifically but that they’re representing something bigger.

A lot of your paintings have multiple people in them, are they usually couples?

No actually, none of them so far have been real couples. It was something that I asked the models beforehand, like if they would be comfortable modelling with another person.

Oh so they didn’t even know each other?

They didn’t know each other, no. All the paintings with two people in them – none of them are actually couples.

So, did you coach them on how to pose together?

Yeah, I pose them together. Some of them have been more comfortable with each other, and others have been less comfortable. Which I think is something you can see in the photos I take of them, and in the paintings that I make. I like exploring the idea of discomfort or tension between two people, but in an intimate setting and with them in an intimate pose together. One of these days I might get an actual couple, but I think it might be a little weird to immortalize a couple like that, like who knows where they’ll end up…

So in terms of your process, what happens after you’ve posed and photographed your models?

I then take images of backgrounds and props and stuff, and either put them all together with the figures in photoshop – so like, make a really terrible composite image in photoshop, and either go to projection from there, or make a drawing and then work from that – I work both ways, either from drawings or straight through projecting images.

So the backgrounds and props you use typically aren’t actually there when you’re staging the models?

Some of them are, like if they’re holding flowers or something, but the rest generally not.

Where do you draw your inspiration?

A lot of the themes that I work with now have to do with surrealism and horror stories and stuff. I read a lot of those things and that’s where a lot of my inspiration comes from. Right now, I’m reading Shirley Jackson horror stories. I love her work. Anne Carson also. And I recently read Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer, which was also amazing – technically a sci-fi novel. I’m very influenced by the way people describe things and write things, so like prose and poetry… I’ll latch onto certain phrases and sentences that I read and then I try to visualize it in my work. That’s what I’m trying to do more now. Especially because I don’t feel comfortable doing the whole model setup thing right now, so I’m trying to do more landscape works and still life works that push those themes. I just realized now how I haven’t painted a face in a very long time…

Are you represented by a gallery?

Not exactly. It’s really only in the last year that I’ve had more professional interest in my work. I had a solo show last year in November, during Covid, and that was the first time I had seen so much of my work up in one place, which was a very weird feeling.

Have you also shown your work in group shows?

After graduation I was part of a couple group shows at the Gladstone Hotel, through an open call, and then I did The Artist Project – which is an art convention at the ex – I was part of the Untapped section, which is the emerging artist section.

Do you have any goals you’d like to make happen in the next few years?

I really just want to be able to make work. I guess my goal would be eventually to not have to work a day job. Most of what stops me from being able to fully commit to my work is the time and energy I put into that. I would like to apply for grants and I would like to do a residency in the next year or so if the pandemic allows it. I feel like that’s what every artist really needs, is just the time to make work. I’d also really like to go back and live in the Philippines at least part time. I definitely would like to show my work in the Philippines and be able to spend enough time there to create work about the place that I’m in – to get models there, etc. That’s definitely a goal of mine.

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