Photography by Greg Funnell, words adapted from Petsa Kaffens.
Artist Vanessa Bowman lives in scenic Dorset – the heart of Hardy country – where she finds inspiration from nature and everyday objects for her enchanting oil paintings.
Artist Vanessa Bowman
Growing up in artistic surroundings, Vanessa admits, “It never occurred to me that there was anything you could do, apart from go to art college.” She paints almost every day as well as juggling a family. Married to graphic designer Nick, they moved to Dorset 14 years ago and have three kids, – who all like to paint – and Smartie the dog. From the time she and her sister were small, Vanessa’s artist father would set them up with easels to paint and also taught her A-level art at school. “My dad showed me the techniques, but his work is very traditional with landscapes and portraiture, whereas my paintings are quite naive”.
Colour and Pattern
Vanessa got a First Class Honours degree at Winchester School of Art in Printed Textile Design in 1993, but she thinks that she was probably always a frustrated painter. “I’m very glad I did textiles because I think it’s really informed how I work now. I worked in a commercial design studio after graduating with specific briefs and often had to choose only four colours. This made me think very closely about colour, so now I really limit my palette and my work is much more pared down, flattened and simple. Now it’s all about colours, shape and pattern.
Until seven years ago, Vanessa only painted in watercolours and had to build up many washes to get the right intensity of colour. Her father urged her to change to oils and now she’s able to get more brilliant tones. “Oils also have different possibilities of texture,” says Vanessa. “For instance you can stretch and drag a rag across a painting which creates different surfaces to work on top of that.” Looking at Vanessa’s paintings, you are immediately struck by their utter translucence, as they don’t have the chunky texture associated with oil. To get this effect, she thins the oils with turps and uses them more like watercolours. “Using turps every day for years gave me headaches” she says. “Now I use a natural orange-based solvent to dilute the oils. You can mix a little for a glossy result, or thin it right down for a watercolour effect. It smells lovely, I use it to clean brushes and it’s biodegradable!”
Unusual Subjects and Techniques
She always varnishes her paintings, which wrecks her brushes, but she keeps them to add texture that you can’t find with a soft brush.
The first thing that you notice about Vanessa’s paintings is that she uses familiar objects like cups, shells, fruit and flowers and “stuff” she gets from Bridport market. “I paint a lot from the garden and my landscapes are based on where I walk the dog in the morning. I see subjects everywhere”.
Working from Home
Vanessa treats work as a nine to five job. “I have to be quite self-disciplined as I’m with six galleries”. Alongside that, she does art fairs, Christmas shows and, in Summer, there’s Dorset Art Week, where artists open their studios and homes to the public.
“I can’t imagine doing anything else – it’s lovely living here. I tried working from photos, but I couldn’t get a connection. My work is quite seasonal – the winter landscapes have little rose hips and berries and in the Spring it’s snowdrops and primroses. I make up the other elements!”
Vanessa would like to do larger paintings, but doesn’t have the time. I’m kept busy, but I do find it hard to say no. I’d like to teach as I’d have some company – I’m on my own all day with the dog and Radio Four! But I don’t ever run out of ideas as there’s always something to paint. I love it.”
Oil Painting Basics
If you’re getting started, Vanessa recommends…
- An easel
- Range of surfaces : artists board (so paint won’t soak in), strong surfaced card and canvas
- Soft pencils
- Six brushes of different thickness
- A beginners oil paint kit with essential colours plus black and white. Later, you can add specialised colours that can’t be easily mixed
- Low-odour turps or an alternative like Zest It
- Rags for texturising paintings
Vanessa’s Tips for Getting Started
Painting at home is brilliant, but most people would rather keep the mess out of their living room! You need to set aside a room – your own studio – specifically to work in, but there are a few things that you ought to bear in mind :
- The room can be any size, but needs plenty of natural light.
- Oils are messy – so make sure precious objects are covered.
- You need good ventilation as you’re inhaling fumes.
- Keep work on an easel.
- Clean brushes thoroughly otherwise colours get muddy.
- Look out for brush and paint deals!
- Keep a sketchbook for reference.
Find out more about artist Vanessa Bowman and her work on her website, www.vanessabowman.co.uk.
First published in Hobbycraft Magazine, Spring 2012.