London based Artist and illustrator Aimee Willsher, answers our questions about her creative life. Aimee has been chosen to be part of the Society of Women Artists Summer Exhibition which opens with a private view tonight, 26th July 2016 to 7th August, at the Mall Galleries, London.
What are you doing today?
I woke up bright and early and continued working on a commission I received a few days ago. it’s a gouache painting of a house, not my typical subject matter! I normally draw animals and people, but I am really enjoying creating a landscape for a change. I then had to take a break from the creative and, I hasten to add, enjoyable part of my work, to focus on the business side of being an artist. I have just set up a solo exhibition at a local pub near my house in Pimlico, I had an enquiry about one of the paintings. Since people are very rarely prepared to pay original asking prices, I spent some time negotiating a sale. Thankfully we managed to settle on a figure and I dropped by the pub and stuck a sold sign next to the painting in question. So all in all not a bad day! Now I’m back to my house painting!
Tell us about your creative process
A large proportion of my time is spent on working to commission. I paint a lot of pet portraits. People love immortalising their well loved pooches with a painting and luckily animals are one of my favourite subjects. When I receive a commission I ask the client to send over several photos of their pet and I use these images to create a very detailed painting or drawing. I fit my own private work in around my commissions and I have been fixated for the past year on the birds, the patterns of their feathers and the geometrical symmetry that can be extracted from these natural patterns. I’ve been working on a series of paintings which become gradually more abstract, so that the final two paintings aren’t really recognisable as birds at all, but just focus on colour and pattern.
Describe where you do most of your creative work
I have had studios in the past but the expense is very often too much, so most of my work is done from home. Last summer I spent every day outside in our little yard, every morning I brought easel, paints and canvas outside and sat painting in the dappled sunlight. Luckily it was a good summer!
What’s the most exciting project you’ve worked on
To talk about the most exciting project I’ve ever worked on I think I must first talk about the WORST project I’ve ever worked on, because this negative experience allowed me a glimpse of the kind of artist I never want to be. I used to work as spot painter in Damien Hirst’s studio in south east London and the drudgery of going in to this sterile, uncreative environment everyday, painting spots with high-gloss paint on white canvases primed with household white emulsion undercoat was tedium personified. Knowing that people were spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on these excuses for ‘art’ was almost enough to put me off wanting to be a part of the art world myself. I quit my job when I realised that this feeling could destroy my passion for art – which was very risky because every artist knows that a monthly pay check is something that is never guaranteed. However after a lot of penny pinching and even more hard work I managed to create a body of my own work and finally began a series of paintings which focused on my favourite subject – birds! I spent weeks on a huge painting of a brightly coloured cockerel, painting every feather in its minutest detail, the time and love that went into that painting made it a pleasure to behold – for me at least – and it was the first painting which was accepted for show by a major gallery. The feeling of achievement when I went to the Mall Gallery where it was on show and then the extra gratification when it was actually sold was indescribable! I always think that I have Damien Hirst’s god awful spots to thank for shocking me into action and showing me how NOT to be an artist!
What made you decide to become an artist
I am not one of those people who can say ‘I always knew I wanted to be an artist’. I could always draw and people said to me, ‘You should be an artist’. Being the stubborn and contrary kind of person I am, I almost reacted against this and went in the opposite direction. I studied History of Art at Pembroke College, Cambridge and although I enjoyed my time there, it almost put me off wanted to pursue a career in art. It was a very sterile academic environment which, at least for me, felt very uninspiring and uncreative. I left Cambridge and applied to Medical School, a bizarre twist! I moved to London and worked at St Thomas’ Hospital for a year to fill in time before starting my medical degree. During this year I spent more time drawing in my spare time than I ever had before and I finally gave into the reality that this was where my true passion lay. I think I needed that year, where I wasn’t working towards becoming an artist, to give me the space to realise that in actual fact art was the thing that I was meant to do.
What are you currently working on
I have just finished writing and illustrating a drawing instruction book: How to Draw Cats, which will be published by Arcturus in the next couple of months. I have written and illustrated four books and although this is great work, and paid work, which is even better, it is very stressful. I usually have two months to complete text and drawings for a 128 page book. Which is harder than it sounds! The pressure of coming up with something beautiful, creative and most importantly, inspiring, is very difficult when you can only concentrate on each drawing for a very limited amount of time. So now that this project is finished I am taking my own sweet time over my private work. i have a few pet commissions which I am working on at the same time but I am making sure I carve out some time for my beloved birds – I am working on a series of brightly coloured gouache paintings and I am really enjoying making these images independently and allowing my creative process to be free and unrestricted by a client!
What are the key themes in your work
I love painting anything with eyes. I don’t know if this counts as a theme! I think that’s why I love painting animals so much. I love capturing the character and personality of a living creature and I think the essence of any being is really projected through the eyes or windows to the soul. I love painting the eye, spending hours building up translucent layers of paint to evoke the depth and meaning which is conveyed by a look and then adding that final, all important bright highlight, to really bring the look to life. The other factor which goes hand in hand with my love of eyes, is colour. I am at my happiest when I have moved on from the planning and drawing stage of creating an image and have moved on to mixing my brightly coloured paints to bring the lines to life.
What would you like people to notice in your work
My work is highly detailed. I paint every hair and freckle and my paintings are very time consuming. But I don’t think I’d like myself to be know as the artist who make detailed portraits. I think I like painting such high resolution detail because I feel that for me this is the only to capture an overall beauty, the true essence of a thing. We are used to looking from the moment we open our eyes in the morning but really seeing is different. We can look at a bird flying by us on our morning walk to work, but we have such regular encounters with these everyday creatures that we very often fail to really see them. With my paintings, and the detailed observations that I use as inspiration to create them, I hope for people to use my images as their own spark of inspiration, so to start to look at the animals and birds that we encounter everyday in a new way. To see them as beautiful and inspirational.
What attracts you to the mediums you work in
My favourite medium is oil paint. It has been used for centuries to create paintings which will survive for centuries, and there is a reason why it is such a well loved medium. The paint has the potential to create great depth and the oil base allows the pigment to shine out from the canvas with great intensity. You can add oil mediums to the paint to create translucent glazes. I love oil paint for its versatility. It perfectly fits with the way I work, allowing my to create painstaking detail with vibrant colour.
What equipment could you not do without
My glasses! I don’t wear them all the time but when I draw I can’t do without them! I am quite short sighted and have an astigmatism and if I draw without them my forms end up being distorted. This quirk is actually something I have thought about exploring in my work from time to time. Maybe one day.
Who or what inspires you
I guess its clear that creatures are my inspiration. Big or small, if it’s alive, or has been, I’ll want to paint it! For one project i bought some dead pheasants from a posh butcher, hung them in my back yard and let them decompose for months. Disposing of them was not fun!
Does gender affect your work
Not overtly, but I suppose being a woman is definitely part of who I am and so in this sense I paint and observe the way i do because I am female. I certainly don’t have a feminist agenda though, my work is far more a stand alone visual statement.
What’s your favourite gallery, or place to see or experience art
Living in London you are spoilt for choice when it comes to viewing and experiencing old and new art. One of my favourite spaces has to be the National Gallery. I normally buy any new art materials from Cass Art on Charing Cross Road and after battling through the hectic crowds of Trafalgar Square I love popping in the National. It’s a haven of peace and cool on a hot day. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been but every time i get a feeling of inspiration from my visit. It’s got everything, stylised Byzantine religious art, Renaissance perfection, Impressionist tranquility. My favourite place.
If you could own one piece of art, what would it be and why
I studied Durer at university and his work and close observation of nature was a big inspiration for me. I think if I could own one of his paintings it would be The Hare. Its a watercolour, the hare is lying still against a plain background and casts a subtle shadow upon the paper. It is beautiful in its simplicity. Its’ exquisite detail becomes secondary to the utter perfection of the image.
If you could collaborate with one artist, from any time, who would it be, and why
Probably Durer. He has the same meticulous approach to creating art as me and has a sensitivity to nature which is depicted in his drawings, engravings and paintings beautifully. I could definitely learn from his techniques to explore and develop my own style.
Is there an artist, movement or collective you’d like to see re-evaluated, or a contemporary artist who is underrated
One of the most inspiring artists I have studied and who is still relatively unknown to the general public is Artemisia Gentileschi. The very fact that a woman in the Seventeenth Century managed to work within a discipline that was almost exclusively the terrain of men is a miracle in itself, but the fact that this woman was brave enough paint from her own experience is breathtaking. She was raped by a man her father had hired to tutor her. This could have silenced her into obscurity, instead she overcame this tragic episode and even drew upon it and used the experience to paint popular biblical scenes in a new and inspiring way, from a new perspective, one very rarely scene in art of the time – the perspective of a woman. Her Lucetia is not some titilating object of male fantasy, she is a real woman of flesh and blood who wants to die because of the abuse she has suffered – we can only imagine that similar thoughts must have gone through Gentileschi’s head. She must have been a woman of great strength and I admire her work and her tenacity – she is not talked about enough!
What’s your favourite colour
All the colours of the rainbow…..my work just wouldn’t work without a spectrum!