As the nights draw in, and it gets colder and greyer in the city, it’s easy to understand why artist Nicola Wiltshire named her new exhibition at Paul Smith Borough Yards in London ‘Midnight Oil’. She was, she explains, “thinking of London in the winter.” And wanted to inject a double dose of vibrancy to those long nights and after-work drinks. “These colourful oil paintings act as a ripple from summer,” she adds.
The work, which has been specially created for this exhibition, is painted on leftover fabric stock from our HQ – finding a reuse for a material that may otherwise go to waste – and connecting the pieces back to Paul Smith collections.
With a background in portrait painting, Nicola brings an uncommon energy to her abstract paintings – managing to capture elements from the natural world as if they had the full personality and spirit of living beings. Alongside her bold oil paintings, the artist has also created a selection of very special ink and pastel works on paper, which will be available for the first time at Paul Smith. To celebrate the opening, we caught up with the artist on where she gets her inspiration from, what it’s like to work with fabric and how any place can become a painting.
Why did you become an artist?
I've always wanted to be an artist and no one seemed to question it, so here I am. Of course, it’s been difficult to get to this point and I still have a long way to go, but it feels good to be on the right path. I loved art at school and it was one of my highest graded subjects, so it made sense to pursue it. I’ve always painted, it’s just part of my nature, so I’m not sure what else I’d do.
Why do you work primarily in your medium?
There are so many reasons I work in oil paints and charcoal on fabric. On the most basic level, I absolutely adore how the three materials sit together. I love the contrast between the matte black charcoal and the glossy oil paint. And the way the oil holds pigment differently to the dyed fabric. These components create a surface with a dynamic, almost sculptural quality. Working with fabric can also feel like a collaboration with the designer. It’s unpredictable and fun.
Where do you find inspiration?
I’m inspired by many places, people and things. I started as a figurative painter, so I paint everything like a portrait. I imagine the leaves of plants as people moving towards, or away from each other and see my landscape paintings as portraits of a place. I rarely paint something I haven’t experienced. The works are like a visual diary – places I’ve visited, plants from cafes or Airbnb’s and the people I meet along the way.
How would you describe your work?
I would say my work is colourful, bold and simplified. I try to paint subjects that are familiar, yet dreamlike. The colours are amplified and the shapes are not quite abstract, but heading that way. I love artists like Matisse, Hockney, Gauguin, Manet and Dumas, who have all influenced my work.
What do you hope people take away from your art? What are you trying to say?
With my work, it’s not so much about saying something, but more about creating a certain atmosphere. I want my work to be both stimulating and relaxing, so I try to balance bold, saturated colour with pared-back, yet confident shapes. I’d love each painting to be a portal into the viewers’ imagination; the combination of energetic colour and calming form helping lull them into their own thoughts. I suppose my work is about saying nothing, just making little suggestions that the viewer can untangle.
How does being an artist affect your outlook on life?
Being an artist is a fun way to experience the world. Living in Scotland, the seasons have become a big part of my practice. Some of the warmer colours like orange and yellow can take weeks to dry in the winter when direct sunlight doesn’t make it into my studio. I look forward to spring when those first rays of light break through and I can embrace the yellows again. Being an artist also gives me a reason to explore. Every place has a potential painting, which is exciting.
How do you feel while you’re working? What’s going through your mind?
Lots of things! I paint best when I feel reasonably at peace. I find stressful thoughts swim round and round in my head, so I do my best to relax before I work. This isn’t always possible, so it can sometimes be really hard to ‘see’ the painting. The wrong frame of mind can add months to the process. The best works feel effortless and the colours just slot together in an intuitive way.
Do you have a particular routine or any “rituals” when you’re working?
Not really, I just go with the flow. My studio is on a busy street, so sometimes the sound of the traffic is enough to set the scene. Other times I like to put on albums, or sometimes podcasts. It depends how I feel and the stage the painting is at. I work in lots of layers and often feel like the first few layers I’m just ‘doing the work’, whereas the last few are much slower and more considered. I don’t really have any rituals, but burning Nag Champa [incense] and listening to my favourite CDs usually sorts me out if I’m struggling.
What does your typical working day look like?
It really depends on what I’m doing. I work on multiple paintings at once, so a day can involve stretching fabric over a wooden frame, drawing, priming, oil painting, painting frames, building crates, or chatting to people about commissions. I find I only have about five or six hours of quality painting in me a day, so I keep this in mind when planning out my week.
If you weren’t an artist, what would you do and why?
I used to be a visual merchandiser and dreamed of window dressing for one of the big London department stores (not a unique aspiration!). The furthest I got down that path was selecting jewellery for the mannequins in Selfridges. It was before online shopping really existed, so it was a surprisingly stressful job with these huge, ever-increasing targets. Ultimately my heart wasn’t in it, as it was just a side job until I could paint full time. Plus, it wasn’t as creative as I thought it would be. I still love retail though, especially the London stores, which are given more creative freedom. Actually, that’s probably why this exhibition appealed to me so much.
EVENTS & EXHIBITIONS
Paul Curates: Chihuly At Albemarle Street
To mark this year’s Frieze Fair in London, Paul has curated a selection of his close friend Dale Chihuly’s Studio Edition glass sculptures and prints in a special, exclusive exhibition at the Paul Smith flagship shop in Mayfair.
The Residency: Béton Brut At Paul Smith
Furniture dealer and founder of Béton Brut, Sophie Pearce, has curated a dedicated space in our Albemarle Street shop in Mayfair and filled it with rare vintage pieces – plus, everything is available to buy.
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