Sara Butt makes gorgeous animal portraits of domestic and wild animals using acrylics. We were delighted to hear she won the Jackson’s sponsored, Chairman’s Choice Award at the Association of Animal Artists Exhibition 2018 (you can see all the works exhibited here). We found out how she creates her accomplished, textured, highly realistic pieces and why she paints the animals she does.
Tegen: What first inspired you to start creating animal portraiture?
Sara: It was purely by accident, even though I have never been without animals in my life, and drew them while growing up. In my spare time I painted a lot of beach scenes, as I was living by the coast. I didn’t consider painting animals as a career until I was asked, and it all started from there, at first by commission… while I was working full time as a designer for an enamel giftware company.
Tegen: How did it feel to find out you won the People’s Choice Award from the Association of Animal Artists Exhibition 2018, with your charming and intricate piece Sweet Dreams?
Sara: It was a wonderful surprise, and unexpected, but fantastic to have your work acknowledged as I’m sure all the award winners at the AAA will agree.
Tegen: Your spectacular work is done mainly using acrylics, how do you build up these fascinating hyper-real pieces? What’s your process and how long will it take you to create a finished piece?
Sara: Ha Ha… where does one start! Yes, nothing but acrylic straight from the tube, oh and water. I always work from dark to light, layering the colours I see till I get the desired effect…. the feel of texture of my subject. The timescale of finishing a painting varies, a small painting can take ten days, large pieces can take up to eight weeks, depending if I go through a few … I’ve lost the ability to paint days!
Tegen: Your pieces are quite incredible in their depth and detail. If you had to recommend or explain to a fellow animal portraitist your essential 7 brushes to create an animal portrait what would they be and why? Also, we have to ask what surface do you work on to create your exceptionally smooth finish?
Sara: Umm brushes … I don’t think I have ever discussed brushed with other artists, and I’m not sure I could recommend… it’s what works for you. I’ve used many, many makes and types, and I look for a brush that keeps its shape and can paint for as long as possible, I can only presume most artists would too. When I first started to exhibit I received a prize of some brushes by Rosemary & Co, and to be honest I didn’t use them for probably over a year. The reason why being… they were watercolour brushes! I had only used brushes for acrylics. I can’t remember the exact reason I opened them, but I loved the brushes, so I popped on their website and have been using their brushes ever since. My favourite is their Sable blend series 401 either 2/0 or 0 and their Shiraz range for background work, if I forget to order and need a brush quickly my go to is the ProArt 202 acrylic 2/0, 0.
If you want a smooth finish, I can, and do, recommend Gessobord. This is ready prepared board, so the acrylic paint goes on beautifully, with less layering too, making painting quicker.
Tegen: Except for commissions how do you choose your subjects and where do you get your source material from? Nearly all the compositions give the viewer a sense of intimacy how do you achieve this and do you have any tricks?
Sara: For choosing a subject, I have collected a lot of references over the years, and also use wildlife photographers that I’ve got to know. I like to choose a subject I haven’t painted, or at least one I haven’t for two or three years, to inspire and motivate me. I’m not sure I have any tricks, but when I’m looking for a certain subject there has to be a connection, between me and the subject a feeling for their character — expression be it the eyes, movement, composition or behaviour, I try and replicate what I feel and see in my paintings.
Tegen: You started off as a designer and illustrator and then moved on to doing portraits of domestic pets. How does your design background affect your work, did it help you develop your style and is there a reason so much of your work now focuses on unusual wildlife?
Sara: Studying graphics and illustration, has probably helped in putting a painting together with the thought process, subject, positioning, composition and balance. My style I think has developed on its own, probably more over the last ten years and is much more detailed.
The choice of wildlife I paint is purely what interests me at the time, I’m always jotting down future subjects.
Tegen: Similarly, you’re part of SOFA (the Society of Feline Artists). Is there something about cats that appeal to your artistically as a subject and is there also a personal connection to them, if so what?
Sara: I came across SOFA while visiting an exhibition, not to do with cats, in London… but I picked up a brochure for an upcoming SOFA show. I am a huge cat lover, they have been constant companions in our family, beautiful and elegant and naughty, the eyes are a giveaway! I thought this would be a great opportunity to paint cats and a venue to exhibit too, purr-fect!! I’ve now been with SOFA since 1998, and am currently an editor.
Tegen: Do you find you like to work on several pieces at once or work with one subject? Do you find you go through phases of thematically linked work?
Sara: One piece at a time with one subject; I find to keep motivated my next piece of work has to have a completely different subject and not linked to any other previous work I’ve done.
Tegen: What’s your perfect working day? Is there a particular way you like your space to be set out and how do you keep yourself motivated?
Sara: I have no particular layout requirements, as long as there is good light, peace and quiet with no interruptions… apart from the radio. Motivation comes before I start, by being happy with the reference and seeing in my mind’s eye the finished painting, of course when it’s all going to plan, that helps.
Tegen: Your portraits have an absolutely beautiful and subtle colour range, it really illuminates and intensifies your subjects. How do you go about colour mixing and do you have a strict palette you work from?
Sara: My strict palette consists of 10 – 12 colours, no mediums. With these, I can mix all my colours to match what I see.
Tegen: What’s coming next for you and do you have any projects or commissions you’re particularly excited to be working on currently?
Sara: I’m coming close to finishing a young tiger, I tend to work on something that interests me, then later decide when or where I will exhibit. I have an exhibition in mind in London, but first the painting has to be accepted. And possibly another AAA exhibition. A small commission after that, then some feline paintings for an exhibition being held by ICC (International Cat Care) later this year, followed by another wildlife piece ready to exhibit next year. Usually, we have our annual SOFA exhibition which is very successful in London, but earlier this year the gallery that’s held the exhibition for 22 years has closed due to a well-earned retirement, so we’ve been working hard to organize a new venue, for if not this year, then for the next.
Tegen: Where online, or in the flesh, can we view more of your work?
Sara: You can see my work on my website www.sarabutt-art.com. In the flesh, at ICC feline exhibition in Wiltshire, which has been confirmed. Latest exhibition information updates will also be listed on my site and on my Facebook page.
The image at the top is: Snow Leopard by Sara Butt.