FEATURE INTERVIEW WITH:

Amy Blackwell

Reading Time: 14 minutes
In an old building in Sneinton, you can find a menagerie of creative talent in the studios at Backlit Gallery. Illustrator and painter Amy Blackwell is one of them. We caught up with her to talk the convenience of paint pens, productivity and the changing nature of selling your art.
Words & Photos by Mitch Proctor

To begin with, could you tell me about where you grew up?

Well, I am originally from Derby though my family are all London based. I came over to Nottingham to study, did my foundation course, then went on to do art related subjects at university and I’ve kinda just stayed around here. I’ve always been sort of involved in the little creative ins-and-outs of the local community.

I mainly lived in areas close to the city centre – ‘cause I’m not a driver. It’s such a good sized city, a little bit bigger than Derby, and there always seems to be a lot more going on when it comes to art and music. There’s always something happening, especially in the last decade, or in the last five years, I’ve noticed there’s a real boom in the creative energy of this city and it’s just magic to be either involved or just to witness it going on. Which is pretty cool.

Tell me about your path to what you’re doing now? How did you become an illustrator?

All of my family are makers or artists so I’ve always had that, that’s always something that they’ve done, and I think from day one they really made an effort to encourage any sort of creativity. We’ve got a scientist in there, not sure where that’s come from…  It’s always been something I’ve done, I don’t think there was ever really any other career path that I thought “I’m gonna do this” or “I’m gonna do that”. It’s always been something around the arts.

I’ve never been very good at academic studies, but I came over to do college, did my foundation course. I really didn’t get on with my degree. But it did teach me a lot of things about myself and how I work.  It was very shortly after I graduated in 2007 that I started exploring more digital illustration and that’s around when Etsy came along. I think those online selling platforms revolutionised how people could approach selling things online and establishing themselves as a business, as opposed to it being this big daunting, government, HMRC kinda thing– do you know what I mean? It all seems so threatening and alien, it wasn’t something you were taught.

From selling online it just gradually grew to doing fairs and things. It’s very recently that we’ve gained this studio space at Backlit Gallery that we can knuckle down and I guess be a bit more professional and organised with it and separate it from the home, ‘cause sometimes it can get a bit claustrophobic when you’re living in your studio, so to speak.

Do you find it’s difficult to separate home and creative work when they occupy the same space?

It’s that weird balance you have to try and juggle, that’s nearly impossible. I found it hard because you’d be sat at home and you have the freedom and access to make things, no question, any time of day and that’s brilliant. But the worst thing is when you’re sat there and you’re kind of in the middle of something but you’re not really that sure if it’s gonna work out and then you suddenly think “you’re being lazy, you should probably put the washing on” and that just completely kills the mood of creating anything because you’ve got the housework elf on your shoulder tutting.

It was a breath of fresh air moving into a place like Backlit.

Do you work other jobs to support your creative work?

I pay the bills by working in a cinema as a projectionist. That’s my “day job” but obviously… at night. I aim to be in the studio Monday through to Wednesday, all day. If I can squeeze any more time in I welcome that, that’s the admin, business-y time of getting commissions done and working on projects. It’s actually quite nice having the day job, so to speak, because I think you’d lose touch otherwise. And, because I work in a cinema it’s already quite a creative environment anyway, so I can take lots of things I need to be working on with me and work on them there which is really lucky.

What is the biggest risk you’ve taken so far in your career?

I think probably taking on a space here at Backlit Gallery in all honesty. I’m not great with change so it was quite dramatic coming here from my own little enclosed workspace at home. I’ve also since moved and sold the house that I had my studio in, so I had to find somewhere because the new place I was looking at on the other side of town was never going to be big enough to accommodate a studio. I also realised that I wanted to try out having a space that’s separate.

Committing to a space like this financially is a risk. I have very small outgoings, even still it’s quite a shock. Also sharing a space with another person is a risk, but a really exciting one. It’s not something that ever felt really threatening. Cause I knew we were on the same page, so that was really cool. And just being able to bat ideas around.

Since I moved here I’ve seen my work change really dramatically. Which is just fascinating to watch, so I don’t know if that’s a knock-on effect from physically being in a new environment to create, or it was just time for that to happen. It just seemed to coincide, it worked.

 

“I’ve noticed there’s a real boom in the creative energy of this city and it’s just magic to be either involved or just to witness it going on.”

 

You say your work’s changed since moving to Backlit gallery, how so?

Visually. I mean, these neat ones are the older style ones, and these have gotten a bit more expressive, been playing around with shapes and block colours, almost simplifying them a little bit, and then allowing the patterns to come back in… I don’t know, I just feel like I’ve made a lot while I’ve been here and I’ve only been here for a short amount of time. So I’m intrigued to see what’s going to happen… I also hope to sell some of it, because storage is going to get to be a problem otherwise [laughs].

Could you explain your process when you create your own work? How does it get from an idea or concept to a finished product?

I’m usually quite messy [laughs]. I’ll scribble down a rough composition and usually have a vague idea of a colour scheme as well. I think a lot of my work is driven by colours that I’m interested in and enjoy looking at.

I’m a little bit of a perfectionist but I’ve been trying to get myself to lighten up a bit and be looser with the drawing and a bit less precious, just to get idea down be a bit more about mark making and playing with colour. I do a lot of pattern design and illustration in my sketchbooks, but I have a habit of buying quite cheap, nasty little books that look really cool but aren’t functional. I’ve had to find a way to prepare the pages so that they don’t self destruct if you put any kind of liquid near them, because paint, unfortunately, is quite damp. I prime the pages with acrylic, then I can use paint pens as a way to paint on top and things start to take shape in front of you. These books become almost like catalogues that you can go through like “this pattern would work for this idea I’ve got” or “that pattern might work for this idea”. You sort of develop colour schemes you know will go well together.

With the nature of using paint pens you can make work very quickly, which allows you to create more work and try those ideas. If you finish it and don’t like it, you’ve not wasted, like, 3 weeks on it. You’ve given it a go. It’s either rewarding or educational.

Why do you start with colour?

I source a lot of my inspiration from colours that are around me. I didn’t realise until recently, actually, that a lot of them are seasonal, which kinda makes sense. You soak up what’s going on around you in the shops, in fashion, just in the streets, in the world. In the spring there’s lots of fresh colours, in summer everything gets a bit richer and more vibrant, then things tone down again over the winter and you get that nice circle. I think that reflects a lot in what I’m doing but I don’t think that means anything other than they’re colours you’re attracted to at that particular moment.

So I definitely start off with a colour idea where I’m like “I really want to see these colours together” and then my brain starts trying to piece together a picture with that will work.

You mentioned you use the paint pens, could you tell me a bit more about what mediums you like to work in?

I go around and collect acrylic paint pens, mainly cause I like having lots of different colours. Originally I got them because it was a great way to paint in sketchbooks, but also they’re a great way to paint on the go. It was a way for me to play around and actually do something that could be turned into a print or go on to be developed into a bigger piece of work when I have the time. And now I’ve just gotten myself hooked on them. They’re such a quick easy, way of playing around with colours and ideas and shapes. You can be quite scruffy with them, but you could also be quite neat.

I flip between using acrylic paint and these paint pens. I also have an iPad and that’s where I can do more commission based or illustrative-led projects. But I also branch out and do whatever takes my fancy really. If I’m feeling like I’m gonna muck things up or, like the other day, if I’m having one of those days where you feel like you can’t draw a straight line or you put a ruler down and your fingers just get in the way, I can switch to digital because you can edit, there’s an undo button.

 

“I think a lot of my work is driven by colours that I’m interested in and enjoy looking at.”

 

What’s been your favourite project to work on, your own or for someone else?

I guess a lot of the new portraits I’ve been doing I’ve been really enjoying, and they seem to be getting recognition, like people are recognising that’s my new style. I got a couple portraits featured on the cover of Flow Magazine, a European magazine I think that’s based in Holland. Last year I got a cover girl, as I call them because they’re all ladies, on the Dutch issue, another girl on the international one, and a different one on the German and then another one on the French edition. So that was amazing, getting a full set.

But I think that was more a reward, like someone had seen the work and gone “I think that would work really well here”. It was just so satisfying to see those pictures being used in that way, because that wasn’t why they were created, they were just little selfish art projects.

They weren’t a commission or for a client?

It was just my own personal work, and I popped it into my portfolio and someone saw and said “I’m gonna put that on the cover of a magazine”. That was probably the most exciting and kind of fascinating process to be involved in.

I think mainly the most rewarding projects I have are my own little ones. Little goals I set for myself, the portraits I’m naturally developing, that’s what I get a lot of satisfaction from. People have been responding really positively to them as well which is reassuring because I think when you change your style dramatically quite quickly you can shoot yourself in the foot.

 

“You’ve got to leave your mark, whether you’re a viking writing runes on a wall or a slightly frizzy blonde girl sat in a studio scribbling out weird pictures of cats and ladies with bouffants, you hope someone’s enjoying it.”

 

How does living in Nottingham influence your work, creativity or style?

I never really think of Nottingham as being a place that’s inspired me to do lots of stuff… but there’s so much going on here and it seem to be such a creative hub with so many different and new projects happening, there seems to be a bigger dialogue about it all. You get involved in it, you try out new things, you go to new places. It’s forever changing. I think that the city itself, the city centre has changed so much since I’ve been here, that’s probably affected a lot of it…

And the nature of selling has changed. You’ve got pop up shops and online places like Etsy that made selling your work to a wider audience easy and accessible. You could try it. And I think more of what has come about, I don’t know if it’s necessarily from funding or just the nature of how these creatives bursts happen, but there are places like Pop Press, Dizzy Ink and Cobden Chambers, there are things like the Creative Quarter and places like Backlit… there’s stuff happening. There are workshops and you’ve got access to these processes you might not have had before, but now you can sign yourself up and try it. You can make zines and get involved and sign up for fairs and meet your audience. I feel like a lot of that has really changed and started to blossom here in Nottingham. It’s just the right size, the right environment, the right time for that to happen.

So that’s inspired me, I think, and the sheer frustration I got from University. Anger is very useful motivator [laughs]. You do some seriously good work when you’re miffed.

Would you say you are creatively satisfied?

[Laughs] Yes…? I’m going to say yeah, because I’m in a position where I’m very fortunate to have a lot of creative, loving, kind people in my life. I have a studio space I love to come to as often as I can. I mean, who says they want to got to work as much as they can? That’s pretty cool. I work in a cinema that probably feeds a lot of my creativity, whether that’s making me annoyed or showing me a really cool film.

I think I’ve just got so many opportunities to sit down and create things and share them with whoever wants to see it, and opportunities to grow and change it and develop a bit. So I’m not saying I’m at the absolute peak of it, but I’m totally digging where I am right now.

Don’t go to uni! [laughs] Trust your instincts is a good one, and don’t be afraid of criticism.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

I think take yourself seriously. Don’t think you’re not serious just because you’re starting something new. It’s alright to ask questions, and kind of bumble along and have a go, but do think of yourself as a professional as well. We belittle ourselves so often and I know I’m guilty of it. I’ve lowered prices and underquoted because I’m like “I’m not really sure I’m the right person for the job”. Seriously, from day one, just crack at it, do it, trust yourself. Listen to what your heart says and your instincts.

Another thing I’d have said is be safe and sensible with the content you put online. I’ve had a lot of trouble with people stealing my work and illustrations. I know a lot of illustrators who have had things taken by corporations and companies. I know there are loopholes… just be sensible with it, but have fun.

Oh and don’t have a really stupid email address.

Finally, what kind of legacy do you hope to leave?

Hmm… I think if people have pictures on their walls that I’ve drawn and they’ll wake up in twenty, thirty, forty, year time and either still have that on their wall or it still brings them some kind of satisfaction or joy of owning it then that would be pretty cool. I think I just want as many people to enjoy the work and the things that I do? I mean I just do it ‘cause I want to, and if someone wants to give me money for it as an exchange or commission me for something that’s special and personal to them then that’s great, that sounds like fun.

I’d like to think that maybe some of the things I do aren’t going to turn into these throwaway fads and stuff. You hope don’t you? You’ve got to leave your mark, whether you’re a viking writing runes on a wall or a slightly frizzy blonde girl sat in a studio scribbling out weird pictures of cats and ladies with bouffants, you hope someone’s enjoying it. But I don’t know how paint pens will last, come back to me in forty years time.

You can see more of Amy’s work and shop on her website.

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