an essay by visual artist May Hands



We live in one giant configuration of natural and man-made forms. Our environment is an ever-changing multiple of arrangements, made up of simple ingredients: colour, shape, form and material. Obviously there are other elements to consider, that of air, temperature, weather, time, emotion etc. But I want to discuss the simple visual elements that inspire artists and designers, as they experience their environment in urban settings.

On the premise that the visual and material environment which surrounds the artist affects the work that they produce, I respond to a contemporary and commercially constructed environment.
For example, in every kind of marketplace (from the street to the department store) there are stacked shelves of food and other items, packaged carefully and presented uniformly, dominating the characteristics of these spaces.

Having selected and purchased these goods, plastic or paper bags that every shop gives to the customer, further embellish these items. This state of consumption presents a composition of colours, surface qualities and carefully selected materials, some fixed, and others for just a moment. Every item we purchase uses packaging to protect, sell and advertise. This enhances an illusion of wealth and may also be ecologically disastrous – but it literally consumes us all in a positively seductive kind of way.

My practice as a painter explores contemporary image/object making by employing both accepted and unconventional ‘art’ materials. I also explore the relationship between sculptural characteristics, including presentation and 3-D form, to emphasise the ‘objectness’ of painting. Although there is a developing conceptual background to my practice, I use a deliberate process-lead investigation of materials and images to make paintings.

It might sound ‘unconceptual’, but this allows for intuitive decision-making and acknowledging a sense of the ‘aesthetic’ in making and, therefore, designing. My works are somewhat giant collages and assemblages but portrayed through a painting language. Artists who have inspired me to work in this way include Picasso, Schwitters, Braque and Rauschenberg. Their practices explore the everyday, using found papers and objects from their environment and routine. Their eye for composition and the other elements discussed is exceptional, showing the viewer how with the right eye anything can be used to create something effective.


Light, and therefore colour, always affects the composition within which we live our lives. Light- natural and man-made (like a material)- is constantly changing, thus affecting the surfaces, forms and colours that we see. Currently, I use a specific colour palette of pastels and the occasional fluorescents, through both selection and chance or accident.
The colours I use are ready-made colours (the colour of the object I have chosen) and selected. If though choosing and applying the colour myself, by dying or staining lengths of fabric, I often reference the colours from glossy magazines and what I recall seeing in my environment: colours that have saturated my visual memory.

Carefully selected colours, materials and shapes make up the compositions of my work, including bringing together materials that shouldn’t, or wouldn’t, usually go together. This celebrates the awkward, raw and un-aesthetic by literally positioning objects within a physical and visual composition. For example, plastic is typically used for packaging and cellophane or polythene filters serve a practical function, so the work presents and literally holds the composition and objects I am assembling.

Plastics and netting fascinate me as they act as filters, to set colours back, blur textures, to add reflective surfaces or to tone colours down. What inspires me to use these filters is the constant use of them in society. We see this in many instances, including fashion photography, on Instagram, by wearing sunglasses and in packaging. A lot of what we perceive is altered with a filter or a layer that deceives or glosses over, both literally with materials and digital technologies, but also psychologically, as we are seduced by our desires to enjoy the treasures of wealth and material wellbeing.


Text should be mentioned, as it is a major part of our environment. Communicating and giving information, yet also creating patterns and images. Shop fronts, advertising billboards, newspaper stands and packaging, even the screens of every technical and digital device in use, present signs, symbols and text. Whether or not we understand the text (it might be a foreign language), or we don’t even notice it, these are essentially graphical shapes that add to the composition and scenery around us.

Signs and symbols are pervasive, such as a logo that we now instinctively recognize and immediately understand sub-consciously and have knowledge of what it represents, it creates a value system. We just have to glance at a logo such as Chanel’s and we know it’s a high value fashion brand; it is the style of font, the order of the letters and the black on white arrangement – deceptively simple, but classic and powerful.


Effectively, we live in one massive collage or assemblage. Appearances look still, as in a snapshot, but are really kinetic, as certain arrangements only last for a split second. For example, writing this article I am looking out of a large window and this aperture acts as a frame that has held countless compositions for the time I have sat here.

Many vehicles and people have passed by, rhythms and movements fluctuated and the natural light has subtly changed. Within this frame I have been obliged to focus on a small section of the environment from my specific viewpoint. This is like a cinematic experience. Certain films have inspired me to look at my environment this way, Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera (1929) and Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi (1983), are two examples. Within each frame they ‘capture’ and construct a composition, but the film medium constructs a sense of time and re-creates movement, flux and change.

However, as a painter and not a filmmaker, my artworks are more akin to a ‘still’ that condenses and documents the time they were made. In the future our environment will be very different, thus the colours, composition and materials in the work will change too. These visual elements will continue to always exist and inspire artists and designers as long as the world is here.

About May Hands

May was born in Brighton and studied BA Painting at Camberwell College of Art, UAL.
She is currently exhibiting work in the group show Heathers at Rowing
and she will also be exhibiting at this years Frieze, so definitely check those out if you are in London. You can also keep up to date with May’s practice on tumblr and instagram. Enjoy!