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The Botanical room 26 -College Days

To Art or not to Art, that was the question.

My blog is late again but this time I can blame my countryside internet, which has been blown away on a breeze for 3 days.

It’s been a while since I’ve thought about my college days, so I thought I’d use this blog to talk about art school and how it led me to where I am now. Obviously I can’t include everything that happened during those days, it’s just a quick look back at how I think I arrived at my style of illustration.

I had set my sights on fashion illustration and design fairly early in my teens. My parents encouraged me to stay on at school and do A-levels to open my options in further education. My school encouraged me to follow my mum into hairdressing but I knew that wasn’t for me, I don’t think they ever thought that I would go for a degree in anything. I had been discouraged from doing art at O’level, for some reason art was frowned upon at my school. My mum was a great homemaker, and I think her only true ambition for me really was to have a good marriage, settle down and have children. My dad was adamant that I should not go into the art industry, he was in graphic art, and I think his office was entirely male, I don’t think he thought it was a suitable career for his daughter.

I would argue with him about art careers but I don’t think either of my parents knew much about the opportunities or variety of jobs that exist in the art industry outside of dad’s job.

Once you get to art school, you realise that you could go in any art direction, you could design anything and if you put your mind to it were interested in it, you could literally go down any branch of design.

I recall a very interesting conversation between myself and my school headmaster, who also advised me not to go into art, not that he had any idea who I wanted to be, or indeed, what I was interested in, he always seemed very detached from the students.

In his office one day,just before I was due to leave school, he told me that Art was not a particularly stable career, and that I should’ve concentrated more on my maths and chemistry. Neither of those subjects excited or interested me and I had stopped chemistry before O’levels! After hearing his points, I found myself telling him that everything he touched, wore and used was designed by somebody and therefore art school would seem very useful. I already had my offer of a foundation place, so I must have felt emboldened to speed out like that. I surprised myself by being so outspoken, it was certainly not my normal way of being. That day, I realised that I had an inclination to do what I wanted to do and not what I was told to do, if I felt it was right, so I had put my foot down, in a very quiet way of course.

So with my stubborn streak ignited, I headed to art school. By chance I really liked and was accepted by the art school in Epsom, whereas most of my school friends who were heading into art preferred the art school at Reigate. I think it was destiny that I ended up at Epsom college, because the building, halfway between the college, and the pub, (where I had a part time job as a barmaid), was a commercial model making studio, where Simon, my future husband to be, was employed.

I was still toying with the idea of going into sculpture when I noticed that the course held upstairs from the foundation course was the very successful 2 year fashion course.

After just a few months of being on the foundation course, I managed to worm my way into some of the fashion drawing classes, they were excellent and the best fun ever, and I was hooked. At the end of my two years at Epsom, I applied to Saint Martin’s School of art, as it was then, (now Central Saint Martins) and after much nail biting and anxiety, waiting for the reply, I discovered I’ve been offered a place on the three-year design and illustration course, I was off to London.

My friend, Neil from school had been living in London for a year, I asked him if he wanted to flat share with me and we set about finding somewhere to live. It was hard going, but in the end, we ended up in Peckham Rye, in the flat above an estate agents. It was really good fun living with Neil but it was the coldest accommodation ever and I think my parents thought I was mad not to commute from home. I recall the first day of college and skipping down Peckham High Street with my portfolio, and saying good morning to everyone I passed. I’d been used to living in a village before then, and very quickly learned to stop my ‘good mornings’ as this is rather odd behaviour for London.

I loved being a student at St.Martin’s. I love the old building on Charing Cross Road and I loved the fact that I could make art every single day. I was one of those odd students that was in college all day and would often stay late as the library was fabulous. I made a dear friend, Sarah Treble, who is now a successful wedding dress designer, we laughed so much all throughout those 3 happy years. It was the most intoxicating building and I felt so honoured to be there with all the history of the incredible alumni that had gone before.

In most colleges the fashion students often seem aloof and apart from the other of students, and that was one the thing that I didn’t like about being on the fashion course,

I was still finding my way, but felt a slight nagging sensation that I might not be on the right art path but maybe it was too late to change?

Everyone else seem to live and breathe fashion, whereas for me , my happiness was all in the drawing. Our first design tutor was actually an artist, so initially I did quite well in the illustration critiques. I laugh at the image below of me as I look so confident, I wasn't.

As we moved on through the years, I realised that the designs I created, were not all that great, and I didn’t really have that love the fabric and clothing design creativity to make things work. I guess you could say, by year three, I was floundering, I thought that I needed more time at college to develop. I applied for an MA, and was accepted onto the MA at St.Martin’s. But suddenly frightened by another two years of self funding, that summer I changed my mind and began to look for a job instead.

I suppose I never really imagined myself at the cutting edge of fashion, I’d just look for a job in the industry. Eventually a position for pattern room assistant with the high street group Wallis was offered, it was a bit of a step away from design but I thought to myself I will see if I like the business side of fashion, and maybe I could work my way up and into the design room. Surely I would know by then if I was cut out for fashion, moving forward a few years, I can tell you that I wasn’t.

On the cusp of moving to the design room, I realised that my love of drawing could no longer be denied. I was just curious as to how I could make drawing into a career.

Simon persuaded me to leave the job at Wallis and come to work with him as a mural painter. He had become a mural painter after his job as a model maker and he was really busy, so I didn’t really have time to dwell about the decision that I’d made. I left my job on the Friday and started work with him on Monday.

Strangely my parents thought this was a fabulous idea. I think they loved the idea of Simon and I working together and they’d known how unhappy I had been with my fledgling fashion career.

A few years passed, and mainly due to my pregnancy and having to stay at home, I gradually became a part-time painter and illustrator, selling my work through an agent based in Lincolnshire.

I started painting flowers, because they were easy to find. Our first little flat had a small strip of garden at the back, and we had filled it with flowers. I was very unwell during my pregnancy and so couldn’t go to work, especially as we would travel to each job on a motorbike! So I used my time to develop my painting skills.

I painted all kinds of flowers, things that I didn’t know the names of, and still don’t, and all kinds of weird little seed cases. I was painting in oils in those days and just onto hardboard as I couldn’t afford the canvas; with only one of us able to work, it was really difficult to find the money for any paints besides those we’d bought for the murals. It was, for us, a time of financial struggle and even though it was stressful we did have some very happy times.

As my style developed,and I switched to watercolour, I noticed one intriguing aspect. When I looked at my compositions. back when I had been illustrating my fashion designs, I had always imagined them in the round, I would always include the side view of my designs as opposed to just the front and back. As I could only afford one flower from the florist, I would turn-my flower around, and realised I could make multiple paintings from just one flower, turning it to create different compositions that appeared to me, reminiscent of my fashion plate layouts.

I had found a runway style for my flower studies that suited my hand and now all I had to do was run with it. The fashion illustration had influenced my flower painting and now I was finally following a path that made me happy.

We continued to struggle as all young couples do, we painted murals, I sold a few paintings and eventually I began to teach and discovered that I loved it. Simon moved sideways into painting handmade kitchens. We brought up the boys, worked crazy long hours, I wrote some books and here we are.

Nowadays, I always tell young artists not to worry so much as to what career in the arts to follow is a road of many turnings and little leaps of faith. Follow what makes you tick, spend lot of hours at the drawing board and take each opportunity that comes your way.

I think my parents were surprised and delighted with what I eventually made my career.

I hope you can see the similarities between my first drawing love and my second.

Notes from the drawing board

I am working a lot with graphite at the moment and find it a fabulous way to see and determine tone. Often we struggle to go dark enough in our studies which can leave the looking flat. One of my favourite tips is to take a photograph of your subject edit away the colour, increase the contrast slightly and print it off. Make a study of this in either mid tone grey paint or as I have to to the cherries, work up a study in graphite using Hb, 2B and 4B for the darkest, this will familiarise you with the tiones. When you do the painting, do the same thing, take a photo, remove the colour and compare it to your tonal study to see if you need to make it stronger.

It's good fun too!

I hope you had a wonderful April.

May is my favourite time of the year, may this May bring you love, sunshine and peace.

Billy x

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