Emma Carlisle is an artist and lecturer, based in Plymouth, UK. Her work is primarily concerned with the landscape she encounters in Devon and Cornwall, a subject that allows her to revel in colour and expressive marks in pencil, watercolour, gouache and acrylic. A burst of abstract, dynamic marks often becomes the land on which a small cottage or tree sits upon. A dedicated Instagrammer, Emma has garnered a substantial following thanks to her openness with regards her creative thoughts and processes. In this interview Megan Fatharly asked Emma about her approach to work, how she pushes herself and some of her favourite Jackson’s products.
Megan: why is drawing so important to you and your practice?
Emma: Drawing saved me during one of my toughest times.
At the start of 2018 I suffered from burnout after finishing one of my busiest work years, I was running an Etsy shop selling hand painted ceramics, lecturing part time at Plymouth University and trying desperately to write and illustrate more picture books (traveling backwards and forwards between Devon and London to meet with publishers and sell at craft fairs). This burnout coincided with some huge changes in my personal life which I wasn’t expecting and the two of them together took a big hit on my mental health. I know it might sound a bit dramatic but I basically fell apart.
Drawing has always been such a huge part of my life but for the first time in about 15+ years I didn’t want to create anything which felt so strange. I closed my studio door, focussed on my lecturing job and based my routine solely around teaching and going to the gym. In January 2018 I sold my kiln and my potters wheel, shut my Etsy shop and shortly after this left my literary agent. Again this all sounds really dramatic but I knew deep down none of it was making me happy.
About 5 months after I’d stopped creating I felt the urge to pick up a pencil again but by that time I felt out of practice and actually really scared to make anything. I thought back to the last time I was truly happy with my work and remembered the 6 week location drawing project which I’d done during my MA in Children’s Book Illustration at Anglia Ruskin. I decided to set myself a personal project of 6 weeks drawing on location which was probably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Not only did it get me back outside into nature (which is great for mental health) but it also eased me back into drawing and eventually at the end of June 2018 I felt happy enough to post what I was up to on my Instagram account, the support from everyone was really encouraging and so I started to share more and more pages from my sketchbook.
6 weeks turned into 6 months and I gave myself an extended deadline to the end of the year and after that I’d have to start doing some “proper” work. But when January came around I didn’t want to stop because I felt like I was onto something really exciting. I realised I was the one giving myself these deadlines, no one else, so I trusted my creative instinct, sacked off the deadlines and agreed to just carry on going indefinitely. Even though I’m still not sure where this work is going I know I’m on the right path because this is the most proud I’ve been of my work and other people seem to like what I’m up to too, which is always lovely to hear!
Drawing has been so important to me over the last year and a half, it kept me going and by posting the work I was making on Instagram it meant I could document my practice developing. If you scroll back through my feed you can see where I start to add colour, play with tone and introduce more materials. Looking back now I can see my confidence growing within my work and I know that is a direct correlation between how I felt within myself too, although it’s not been the easiest 18 months I feel like everything that has happened was meant to be; as my mum says – everything happens for a reason!
Megan: What’s your favourite Jackson’s product to draw ‘on the go’ with and why?
Emma: I couldn’t be without a Caran D’ache Luminance pencil, if I had to pick up just one specific colour to go out drawing with it would be the Paynes Grey 508. I try not to use black in my work as I think it can be quite restricting and often means I’m filling in blocks of tone rather than looking at the subtleties within it. The Paynes Grey Caran D’ache pencil gives you the option of creating some quite dark harsh lines but also can give you a lighter coverage if you use it with less pressure. If you wanted to add in a few other products you could combine it with a 553 Tombow Brush Pen and a Light Beige Neocolour II Crayon which will give you a lovely mix of tone and texture.
Megan: What other materials do you have your eyes on to have a play with?
Emma: I’ve just treated myself to 4 R&F pigment oil paint sticks after Emily Powell recommended them, I went for three bold bright colours and then one subtle cream colour, they’re amazing for adding extra texture to my bigger pieces but I’m too scared to take them out on location so I’d like to try some Sennelier soft pastels, I think I’ll find them a little bit less daunting and the colour range they have on Jackson’s website looks amazing! Plus a can of fixative so I don’t get them everywhere!
Megan: Where’s your favourite place to go and draw?
Emma: That is a tough one! I’m forever inspired by Cornwall, I love going to St Agnes and also driving the coastal road between Sennen and St Ives. I’ve felt an instant connection with both of these spots and I always come home feeling a complete sense of magic and wonder. However I’ve not actually stopped to draw at either of them, just snapped some reference photos to use when I get back to my studio.
I recently went for a drawing trip to Salcombe with my friend Holly Wales and every bench just seemed to have the most beautiful view, I’d like to head back there because I feel like there was a lot more to draw! At the beginning of the summer I went drawing at Wembury on the wettest most miserable day and I loved every minute of that, there’s a small rocky island (which I’ve just googled and it’s called The Great Mewstone) about half a mile out to sea and I think on a normal sunny day I would have concentrated on drawing that but because it was obscured by the sea mist I was forced to concentrate on the way the sea met the shore and how the church seemed to loom in the grey-ness, it felt really spooky and mystical, very cool, I’d like to visit again on another grey day.
Megan: How do you keep your visual language fresh and energising? Your work is very experimental and free but anchored with illustrative elements…
Emma: I’ve always said that I learn more from the drawings that go wrong then the ones that go right. I’m not really like this in other areas of my life but with drawing I’m really happy to take a risk and just see what happens. I think because I’ve got this laid back attitude I seem to discover something new with every drawing/painting I work on. People keep telling me I look like I know what I’m doing but I’d like to break that illusion and say that I have no idea what I’m doing (I am a prime example of fake it till you make it – haha) but I don’t see that as a negative. I’ve said to a few people recently that as an illustrator I was always editing myself and chasing that “style” but as an artist I’ve had to flip that mentality and I’ve got lots of different ways of working now which I love, each one influences the other and I think that’s why my work has this freshness to it, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Megan: Who are some of the artists and processes you enjoy following on Instagram?
Emma: Oh gosh this is another tricky one there are so many!
Heather Day – I’ve loved her abstract paintings for years and always wished I could be more free like her. I feel like I’ve naturally progressed to a looser way of working (especially with my larger paintings) but I’m so glad that I didn’t just try and imitate her work or be directly inspired by just her. By going through the last 18 months of experimentation and process I feel like I’m able to have my own way of working, some people have commented on it having similar elements to Heather’s but I still feel like my work is very different from hers and very ‘me’ which is really important.
Helen Stephens – Helen came to speak when I studied on the MA in Cambridge and I felt so inspired by her lecture, I’ve since told her it really helped me start to value my sketchbook work and gave me more confidence when working on my picture book ideas. 6 years later and Helen is still inspiring me with her own location drawing posts as well as the #walktosee hashtag which she started for others to document their observational drawings. It’s one of the only hashtags I follow on Instagram because I love seeing what everyone is up to, constant inspiration!
Emily Powell – Emily is someone who I met through Instagram and then last month we met up IRL when I invited myself round to her home studio. I genuinely thought I’d already met Emily at Native Makers Christmas market but then quickly realised I hadn’t (haha – face palm emoji!) I was already SUCH a big fan of her work but now every time I see her I come away feeling so pumped and ready to paint! Her use of bold colour, looseness and material experimentation are things I could only dream of and since inviting myself over we’ve built a friendship based on our mutual appreciation of art supplies (we both love Jackson’s, tea and You’ve Got Mail – what more could you want?
Emma Farrons – Emma is currently on a maternity break from drawing but her location sketchbooks from earlier this year as SO inspiring and some of my favourites to see (she’s one of the few people where I regularly check her feed to see if she’s posted!) I love the way Emma captures the softness of movement and character in her figure drawings, her work has a 1950s charm but is still so modern and fresh, 100% one to follow!