Karen Birchwood uses bold colours to reflect the beauty of her surroundings. Originally a successful commercial designer, she moved to Kent to pursue her dream of painting. We talk to her about her journey as an artist and the stories behind her extraordinary work.
Q: Have you always been creative since childhood, or did you discover your talent later?
A: Yes, creativity is definitely part of me. One of my earliest memories from nursery class was painting a picture of children round a maypole and my lovely teacher, Miss French, who helped.
In fact, thinking back most of my memories from school are of paintings and drawings I made in art class – not the other bits of learning that I am sure I was meant to be doing!!
Q: Where did you grow up – and has this had a bearing on your work?
A: I grew up in Kent and it is where I returned with my family later in life. That strong connection with the area and the Kent countryside was definitely one of the reasons I wanted to return.
My work is very much influenced by my surroundings, I am not sure what my paintings would have been like if I had remained in London.
Q: Did you go to art college? Any key mentors?
A: After sixth form I went to Maidstone Art College for a foundation course in art and design. Following this I went to Middlesex Polytechnic to study a degree in Printed Textiles.
I remember my interview for Middlesex Polytechnic clearly. The head of the department looked through my portfolio of paintings and got so excited about my work, I knew I had come to the right college.
The course was very much based on working from our paintings to produce textile designs and I think my love of painting was cemented there.
Q: Have you ever done any other jobs before you became a full time artist?
A: I have always been in the art world. After my degree, I worked with a leading textile studio in London, Whiston and Wright, producing textile prints for fashion as well as furnishing designs until I returned to Kent in 2004.
The owners Clare Whiston and Melissa Wright ran a very creative practice encouraging creative techniques and painting. They had a big impact on my creative journey and very much influenced the way I paint today.
Q: ‘If I wasn’t an artist I’d be...’
Well, when I have time, gardening is a passion. I am lucky enough to have a big garden which I have designed over time as it was mainly just grass when we moved in. I also love interiors, my home is very much an extension of my work.
I tend to fill my house with colours I love and still life groupings – luckily my family let me do pretty much what I like to the house and of course, my garden is also a big influence on my work.
Q: Describe a working day, what time do you get up? Any daily rituals?
I take turns with my husband to walk our dog, Harry, in the morning. When I am not doing that I generally go for a run in the country lanes near our home, back for coffee, and try and get in the studio for 10 am, where Radio 4 goes on.
I can’t paint to music, it’s too distracting. I like to get a good 7 hours of painting in if I can, I find it difficult to stop! The only thing that does stop me is poor light – very frustrating, usually!
If I have time, I might have a day out down to Dungeness or to one of the lovely gardens I am lucky enough to live near like Sissinghurst Castle or, my favourite, Great Dixter, for inspiration.
And of course, there are days when I have to do other things like updating my website or sorting artwork for exhibitions, dropping work at the framers.
Q: Where do you work – studio or home? Do you have a room with a view?
A: I have a lovely studio attached to my house that overlooks part of my garden.
Q: Do you have a favourite painting outfit?
A: I always wear my denim apron and if it’s cold, my trusty olive green cardie and an old pair of paint-splattered slippers.
Q: What materials do you use?
A: I have always painted with acrylics. Whilst I was a textile designer, we would use acrylics for certain designs, and obviously, we needed a quick-drying paint for speed to produce designs.
Using acrylic became second nature so it was the obvious choice for me to use when I started painting. A lot of people struggle with using acrylic due to the speed of drying but, for me, it is ideal for the way I paint.
I love the way it can be thinned to a watercolour consistency or the opposite: thick and textural. I do use a few water-based oil paints also as well as collage, oil pastels, some chalk pastels and graphite pencils.
Q: What piece of equipment or other can’t you do without?
A: Rags. I often use them instead of a brush to wipe away areas to reveal marks and textures. Also, my ridiculously caked paint trayS where my colours get mixed.
I let them dry out completely to get a consistency where I then stick a fine pointed hard brush into the sticky paint – just to get a very hint of colour.
I use this technique in different ways, such as drawing lines across a canvas to maybe represent stems of grass moving in the breeze.
‘A brush mark can jog a memory or a strong feeling. Memory dictates a painting.’
Q: What are the main themes to your work?
A: Landscape, seascape and some still life. All very much inspired by my surroundings and home.
Q: Do you draw on personal experiences?
A: Strong memories from childhood holidays in Devon and Cornwall, and of course memories from holidays we go on as a family – now to the South West and Northumbria.
An amazing holiday to India in 2018 definitely influenced my work. It is almost subconscious. I can start a painting without much idea of where I want to take it and maybe a colour I use or a brush mark can jog a memory or a strong feeling. Memory dictates a painting.
A: Do you have a current/past favourite piece of your work?
My favourite painting tends to be the one I have just finished. Although I can look back at older work and they remind me of a time.
My paintings, to me, are a visual diary and looking back I can see the changes in my work as it progresses. Of the paintings I have as prints for King and McGaw, I think my favourite is Sea Rocks.
Q: What other artists inspire you? Who are your art heroes?
A: One of my favourite artists is Ivon Hitchens. I had the opportunity to visit an exhibition of his work at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester.
I love his stunning use of colour and the expressive loose brush marks of his paintings, they are just a joy.
Q: Are there any contemporary artists whose work you follow?
Sculptures: Richard Serra, Anthony Gormley, Christopher Marvell. Painters and printmakers: Simon Pooley, Melvyn Evans, Elaine Pamphilon, Kurt Jackson. Ceramists: Kate Schuricht, Jane Muir. These and many more.
Q: What art do you hang on your walls at home?
A: Mainly new work of mine so the walls are ever-changing. It gives me a chance to really study my new work before it goes off to galleries. I often carry pieces into my studio to help inspire new paintings on the go.
Q: What was the last art exhibition you went to see?
A: With 2020 being such a strange year, exhibitions were difficult to get to. I had a fabulous day with a friend last December at the Anthony Gormley Exhibition at the RA – just amazing – and last August, an impromptu visit to Tate Modern with my son, which is always inspiring.
Q: Any key ambitions/goals you still have on your to do list?
A: I would love to have a painting accepted for the RA summer exhibition. What artist wouldn’t!
Q: What have been the highlights or achievements you’re proud of?
A: Selling any of my work is always the biggest highlight; that somebody wants to put one of my paintings on their wall, that it means something to them, and also those who have bought several of my paintings.
The joint exhibition with my ceramist friend Kate Schuricht at Padstow Gallery in 2019 was certainly a recent highlight, as well as having two paintings accepted for the annual exhibition of the Society of Women Artists at the Mall galleries in 2019.
I also had a chat with Princess Michael of Kent at the Private View about my work.
Q: What are the challenges in being an artist now? Covid included!
A: I think last year proved that the inability for people to come and view your work for real, rather than looking at it online, is certainly a challenge. Working on my own at home is obviously something I am used to, so that doesn’t feel much different.
I always find it a challenge to strike the balance between doing the 'necessary' jobs like social media, updating my website, and preparing for exhibitions, and putting aside time for painting.
I tend to do blocks of painting time so I can fully concentrate on the work without being interrupted by other things.
Q: How would you describe the life of an artist in less than 5 words?
A: Both challenging and rewarding!
Q: What advice would you give to younger artists just starting out?
A: Stay true to what you love, don’t be swayed by others. Listen to your gut instinct.
Q: Best piece of advice you’ve ever been given and by whom?
A: Do what you love, by my Mum.
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