Gabrielle Penfold
For artist Gabrielle Penfold, food isn’t just sustenance, it’s ritual, connection, ancient history and an endless source of inspiration. Taking cues from the frescoes of Herculaneum and Pompeii, Gabrielle began her career by painting the meals she ate in restaurants around Sydney. Her subject matter has expanded, but Gabrielle’s fascination with the classical world remains. Her works are a celebration of life’s pleasures — a platter of oysters, a familiar beach scene, bathers dipping their toes in a pool. “The fascinating thing is, nothing much has changed,” she says, “Oysters are still luxurious.”

Gabrielle, how would you describe your style as an artist?

My work is really driven by colour and my love for colour, especially in nature. My phone is filled with pictures of colour compositions that I see on the street, like a car against a wall. Whether it’s a landscape or a still life of prawns against a beautiful tablecloth, what really drives it is my colour palette. I also love painting in a slightly abstract way. I love having little hints of figures and places that people can recognise so there’s a familiarity in my work.

You paint quintessentially Aussie scenes, often of food. Are you a big foodie and where do you find your inspiration?

Absolutely. My first exhibition was called Lunch and Dinner, that was five years ago now. A lot of my work started with the still life because I loved cooking and thought, how can I incorporate food in my work? The simply answer was the still life. At art school, I was doing more tough, painful artworks that explored difficult concepts. I moved away from that because I was more fascinated by table compositions and historic frescoes from Pompeii and Herculaneum, where food is often depicted on the walls of ancient buildings. I have a huge obsession with ancient art and history. I travelled to Europe a lot as a kid and I was exposed to ancient sites. I’m fascinated by those ancient depictions of still life.

Where did your love for art first begin?

My parents’ home is filled with the work of other artists and my childhood artworks. In my school holidays, my parents would book me into art classes and ceramic classes; I have this huge ceramic collection of animals and figures I made out of clay. So for me, I always dreamed of becoming an artist, it was my ultimate wish, but when I finished school I thought I had to do something that I could actually earn a living from. I thought art wasn’t a feasible career, so I went to COFA and thought I would go down the design path. When I finished COFA, it was around the time Instagram was being used more and I was posting still life paintings of meals I was having at different restaurants in Sydney. I thought that was a funny concept and people eventually started buying my pieces.

Gabrielle Penfold

What does your work space look like?

It’s very eclectic; the walls are lined with postcards and different pieces of paper I’ve picked up on my travels: napkins from Japan, sketches and colour palettes. There are lots and lots of books — I have a bad addiction to buying art books, so I have an extensive library of the classic artists right down to some amazing contemporary artists. I love my collection and spend a lot of time looking through them. I also have a great collection of cookbooks, especially old ‘80s cookbooks that have funny compositions, and old French cookbooks because they have fantastic seafood compositions for making a bouillabaisse etc. There’s paint all over the floor and canvases everywhere. I spend the whole day in there, often losing track of time and painting into the night.

Can you tell us about your creative practice? How do you work day-to-day?

I love to feel really free in my work, so I don’t have much of a structure. I’m quite liberal with myself in the sense that if a fun opportunity pops up to go on a road trip with pals, I’ll always take it. The best inspiration comes from that spontaneity.

All my paintings come from lived experiences. It’s not just about painting a fish — there’s always a strong concept behind it. I can look at any artwork I’ve painted and tell you where I was and what I was thinking. Every work needs inspiration, so I spend a lot of time out and about travelling and on road trips. I save my money, take my sketchbook and film camera and paints, and try to be in those spaces and sketch them out. I take a lot of notes in my journal about what I feel and see.

Once I come back into the studio, I can become a bit obsessive; I’ll bunker down for a week without seeing anyone and have about 10 artworks on the go. Some take me a year to finish, others take a couple of months. I hang my works up in the studio and they will sit there with me for a long period of time. I’ll look at them and maybe add something as simple as a tiny dot of yellow, and then it’s done! I spend a lot of time with an artwork before I even think about selling it.

You’ve done many amazing collaborations including SIR and Emma Lewisham. What would be your future dream collaboration?

I would love to work with textiles. I want to go to Italy and suss out silk!

How has a sense of ambition and drive shaped where you are today?

I’ve always been driven and ambitious, because being a female artist is hard! You’re putting yourself out there and art is so vulnerable. The thought of people judging your work is daunting, so you have to have tunnel vision and give it a good nudge. My dad used to say, “Whatever you do, just be the best at what you do” — so that’s always been at the back of my mind. And I’m very lucky to be doing exactly what I want to do every single day. That makes it easy to work hard. I am so delighted to go to work every day because it doesn’t feel like work. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

What do you wish you had more time for?

Painting! When it comes to 10pm and I’m starting to get tired, I always wish there were more hours in the day to do more work.

Gabrielle Penfold

Can you share some words to live by?

Be original. Find out exactly what you love and back your own taste.

What’s next for you?

I’m enjoying a really beautiful period of practising my craft and getting better at what I do. I’m obsessive about making every painting better than the last and I’m very focused on developing my skills. I want to be really good and that’s the beautiful thing about making art — you never stop learning and I’ve still got so much to learn. I’m spending a lot of time in my studio studying, researching and conceptualising, looking at different artists and brushstrokes and compositions.

For more, visit and @gabriellepenfold on Instagram.