Nicola Wilkinson, who won the Animal Category Award in the Jackson’s Open Painting Prize 2018, is a UK based, wildlife, equine and pet portrait artist. Working almost exclusively in watercolour pencil, she combines her lifelong love of art with her love of animals to create photorealistic images, each and every one a reverent meditation on her craft. We caught up with Nicola to find out more about her process and motivation.
Clare: Tell us a little bit about your artistic background/education.
Nicola: Art has always been an important part of my life and although it’s not something I pursued far in education, I’ve always kept that interest alive. I loved art in school, it was definitely my favourite subject, and I studied it up to G.C.S.E level where my final piece focused on Indian wildlife. I remember struggling with the decision to take it for A Level but instead choosing to pursue alternative subjects. This enabled me to study Zoology at University which I loved, but even then I would spend my spare time drawing.
Clare: How did you become interested in photorealistic drawings of animals?
Nicola: It’s something I have never really thought about, it has just happened quite organically, for as long as I can remember I have always loved animals. It made sense to draw what I love and the detail has just come over time as it’s what I’m drawn to when I look at other artists work.
Clare: Can you describe your process?
Nicola: I spend a lot of time researching before I even begin drawing, often I have an idea in my mind of what I want and so I spend time getting that right before I begin on the actual piece. Most of the time I will start at the top left of my piece, to avoid smudging and I lay down a base layer first. Depending on the type of paper I use this is either with coloured pencil or watercolour pencils, before slowly adding in the detail. I try and block in rough detail before going in and spending time putting in all the fine detail. This is what takes the most time, but is my favourite part of the drawing as it’s where I really get to focus and bring what I am drawing to life.
Clare: The detail in your work is really impressive. How long does each piece take you on average?
Nicola: This is a question I always struggle to answer as I tend to work on pieces in small periods as I have to fit my art around a full time job! I always say around 40 hours for an A3 sized piece but that’s a very rough guess, I have yet to actually time myself for a whole piece. This also doesn’t include the time spent beforehand researching and drawing out the sketch which can sometimes take hours.
Clare: Do you prefer to draw fur or feathers, and what has been the most challenging animal texture for you?
Nicola: I love all textures, I think what I enjoy the most is the variety, as no fur ever seems the same and feathers also seem to vary. I love the colour variety you can find in feathers, it’s always nice when I can use the pencils in my collection which don’t often see much use. Several years ago I drew a Kingfisher and it was so nice using so many different shades of blue. One of the most challenging textures I have found is long fur, it can twist in so many directions and be very time consuming but I do really love the challenge and the final results.
Clare: From your process photos on Facebook, you appear to work quite methodically, moving across the image, drawing in the subject to its completion. Do you start with preliminary sketches or texture studies beforehand?
Nicola: I do spend a lot of time preparing before I even begin on the actual piece. Most pieces start with a preliminary sketch, this is so I can work out the composition, size and see what it looks like on the paper. If it’s a texture I am not used to or feel I need to understand better I will practice on a bit of paper and also look at photos to try and get a feel for what it would look like in real life. By having this understanding it makes the drawing process a lot easier and I think it makes the drawing look more authentic.
Clare: Do you have any favourite pencils, mediums, brushes or surfaces? Which colour pencil do you find you have to replace the most often?
Nicola: My go-to pencils are always my Faber-Castell Polychromos, once I started to become more serious about my artwork I invested in a full set and to this day they have been my favourite investment. For some reason I tend to stockpile their dark sepia colour, it’s a very versatile colour and great for creating depth without using black. I also love the Caran D’ache Luminance range, they have such a lovely selection of natural colours which I have found to be very useful. For surface depending on the subject and size I will either use Pastelmat, Fisher 400 or Fabriano Artistico HP. All are fantastic papers which produce amazing results.
Clare: What is a good day in the studio for you?
Nicola: A good day in the studio is getting to that point in a drawing where everything starts coming together so that you can take a step back, look at it and realise that everything you thought was going wrong actually looks pretty good. I think we can sometimes be our own worst critics, especially as pencil drawings can take such a long time which means a piece can spend a lot of time not looking very good before it all starts to come together. For me that’s when a bad day in the studio can turn into a pretty good one.
Clare: What makes a good pet portrait for you?
Nicola: For me it a good pet portrait has to capture the personality of the pet, otherwise you could just be drawing any dog. When taking commissions I always ask for lots of photos of the pet, as it can really help me get to know what the dog looks at from more than one angle and can be a great insight into the dogs personality, which really helps when it comes to creating a pet portrait for someone.
Clare: Who are your art influences? Who are your favourite animal portrait or contemporary artists?
Nicola: One artist whose art I have adored from a young age is Bev Doolittle. I remember picking her to study during a school project and just being blown away by the detail and cleverness of her pieces. Her artwork often has hidden meanings within it, which means people spend longer looking at it and understanding the story she is telling. While this is something I don’t do with my own art, I think part of me loves drawing detail, as it invites people to stop and spend time looking at it.
Clare: In the studio – music, audiobook, radio or silence?
Nicola: Music definitely. I have several playlists that I listen to depending on my mood, a lot of the time it’s a playlist of film scores but sometimes I like to listen to something with more of a beat. I sometimes put the radio on when I really need to focus so I can just have a bit of background noise, I really don’t like working in silence. This year I’m looking forward to finishing off my Christmas commissions with some Christmas music.
Clare: What is coming up next for you and where can we see more of your art in the flesh or on-line?
Nicola: I am currently working on opening my own Etsy shop where I will be selling limited edition prints of my most popular pieces, just in time for Christmas. I also have a couple of pieces on show at the Queen’s Hall in Hexham over the Christmas period. I still have my Instagram account, where I post pictures of my most recent pieces and works in progress. I think the aim for next year is to sell my artwork locally in fairs and galleries.