Henrietta Harris loved drawing as a kid, and went on to make a career as a painter. Now her delicate portraits sell in New Zealand and the United States, and are blown up big on Britomart’s Te Ara Tahuhu in an exhibition entitled ‘By Its Own Light’. Here, she talks to Jeremy Hansen about the intimacy of portraiture, her recent battle with nerve damage, and how she fights her own perfectionism.

Jeremy Hansen: Hi Henrietta. I wanted to start this interview by going back to the beginning. Were you always drawing as a kid?

Henrietta Harris: Yeah, my mum was a primary school teacher, so she encouraged it a lot. 

Did she also draw?

Yeah, not in a fine art way but she’s pretty good. And my brother is a really good drawer as well, of airplanes and cars and really cute animals.

What sort of feeling did drawing give you, if you can recall that?

I think the same as it does now, just escapism really. And you go into the zone, into that creative headspace where, if someone asks me a question, I can't answer because I can't concentrate on anything else. I even find if I meet people for lunch while I've been at the studio, I can't really remember how to socialise properly.

How did you develop your childhood interest into something that you wanted to pursue as an adult?

I had a really good painting teacher [at high school], Alistair Nisbet-Smith. Then I got into AUT and did an art degree and just never really had any other backup plans. So it was lucky it worked out.

Have you always focused on portraits?

Yes, and I don't know why. I just never really bothered with anything else. I think my work hasn’t really changed that much. I've just got better. 

How did drawing turn into painting as your primary medium?

I don't think I was very good at it until after art school. I sort of felt like I flailed about for three years and then got part-time jobs and would just draw all night, every night and on my days off. And then I taught myself oil painting technique just from YouTube. I think only watched one or two videos. I still just use this very limited palette.

Were you selling work at this point?

I had sold a few things. I think my first solo show was probably a year or two after art school, and I was selling work here and there. I also did lots of gig posters for bands around that time, for the Mint Chicks and all those affiliated bands. 

By this time were you getting an inkling that art was something you could do fulltime?

No, not at all. But then a friend went freelance and he was really poor and really disorganised but he just seemed really happy, so I thought it was probably worth trying. So I quit my part-time jobs and went fulltime and I haven't had another job since.

Were you an artist or an illustrator then, and what’s the difference between the two?

At that time it was an illustrator. I think illustration is usually to accompany something else, whereas I feel like my paintings are their own thing. And I realised I wanted to get more into fine arts.

How do you choose the people in your works?

I get asked that a lot, but I don't really know how to answer. I mean, one girl I have painted quite a lot recently has hundreds of freckles on her face and I love how she looks. And then some people just might be their hair or how they dress, or just maybe kind of an innocent look to people I like.

When you see those people, how do they then become subjects of yours?

I ask them. Usually it’s someone I’ve gotten to know. I've never walked up to a stranger and done it, because I'm too shy to do that. But I might slide into someone’s DMs if it seems appropriate. 

How would you describe your approach and the flavour that your works have when they're complete?

Well, I always want to get a bit looser and then I realise that I'm not. Photorealism isn’t what interests me. I think that's maybe why I sometimes do the pink smoosh on a face or what I call the distressed portraits. I think it’s my way of trying to be looser and freer with my work, but I can't seem to get away from doing everything precisely and properly. I think it’s quite funny – I like to think everything I do has a bit of humour. And it really annoys great-aunts. That’s also why I do it. 

The works in Britomart span the last few years of your practice. You recently took a break from painting. Why was that?

Well, I got nerve damage last year from painting, and I couldn't even hold a paintbrush. I was told it would be a four to 12-week recovery, and then it just didn't recover for months and months and months. I finally managed to do a little bit of painting, and I found doing landscapes was easier because they're so loose. It’s taken me a long time to be able to do the detail of a portrait again.

Has the nerve damage receded now? Or do you have to manage your workload carefully?

I have to manage it. I can work about a third as much as I used to. 

And you used to work a lot, right?

Yeah. That's why it happened. It's been hell, to be honest. I'm trying to think of something positive that came out of it. I don't know. My mental health was terrible as well because work was so central to my life, so I think that I've learned a lot of skills from getting help for that, which was probably good. I've got some good coping techniques and realised that work isn't actually all that you need to do in life. Now, instead of working on seven paintings at once, I’m doing maybe three at a time and just slowing it all down. I don't think it's really changed the actual look of the paintings at all, just the amount that I'm going to be doing.

How do you know when a work is complete? 

I usually know. I paint in layers, and I can just tell when it's done. 

Are your subjects in the studio with you?

I work from photos, not from life. It means I can take my time with work instead of having to work around the light or sittings, stuff like that.

And those photographs are taken by you?

I either take them myself or I ask permission to paint people's photos. For my last show, I got James Lowe to help me take photos. I'm friends with him and he's an incredible photographer and I thought, why don't I use that, so I can do the best paintings I can instead of trying to awkwardly take photos myself. Because he's a professional, he knows how to get the best out of people as well. And the file sizes of his photos were so huge that I could zoom right in and see every pore of the person's skin. So that was quite handy from my point of view because the better the photo, I think the better I can paint. 

Where does the value then lie, and I don’t mean this in a monetary sense, in taking a beautiful photograph and making it a painting? What changes in that process?

It's always going to look different from what I think it will. And it's always going to look different from the photo. And I could also paint from the same photo three times and it would be different. I think that it amplifies certain things you haven't noticed in a photo, and amplifying certain things is probably my goal. I like to think people feel things when they look at my work. Just maybe stir up some kind of emotion. I don't really mind what it is. I think that's all I want to achieve. 

There's a suggested intimacy about a portrait, and I wonder if that partly comes from the presumption that a person has sat for the painter for a really long period of time – but you're subverting that process.

I think that's probably what it originally came from, and we've still got that feeling about it. But  my paintings take a long time to do. I'm staring at a photo of someone for hours and hours and hours, and I’m thinking about them a lot because you can't help it when you're looking at someone. So the feeling of intimacy is still there.

Henrietta Harris’s work is on display in Britomart until late November. Her paintings are available for sale through Melanie Roger Gallery.