I don’t really find exercise that exciting so I’ve been listening to a great podcast whilst trying to counteract all my lockdown baking (and eating) on my exercise bike. It’s called ‘gently does it’ and it’s hosted by John Dalton, who interviews very successful contemporary painters. I’ve loved hearing their thoughts on how they got to where they are now and how they deal with being artists, as well as what materials they like to use and what drives them.
I’ve also been enjoying listening to the artists chatting on Portrait Artist of the Week about their work and motivations.

I thought I’d pull together a few of the threads from the artists I’ve listened to on the podcast and on PAOTW in a blog post. The artists featured are predominantly portrait and figure painters, and I’ve linked to their instagram accounts at the bottom of this post.


A lot of the artists on the podcast are American and the art education system is very different there to the system here. Many artists train in a very traditional atelier system, where they learn from cast drawing at first in black and white and eventually move on to painting from the model. This training is rigorous and often takes many years. According to an artist interviewed, the atelier system is cheaper in America than studying art at university where the emphasis is not on technique but on individuality and creative response.
In reality, an artist needs both technical training and experience in researching art and theory and responding creatively.
It seems to make it tricky for artists to survive after emerging from the atelier system and trying to find their ‘voice’, that unique aspect of the artist in terms of their style, subject matter and motivations that make them who they are and help them appeal to their buyers.

In this country funding works differently. Atelier training is not funded by the student loans system that cover art degrees at university, making it out of reach of many (Lockdown has helped, with much more tuition and life drawing available online at a fraction of the cost).
University art degrees do not always teach the technical aspects of art, so in this country (and this is a very sweeping statement) many students emerge with very creative ideas, but knowing they need to go back to the drawing board (literally) to gain technical skill. I haven’t yet listened to a British artist on the podcast but on Portrait Artist of the week two of the demonstrating artists (Samira Addo and Kimberly Klauss) avoided studying art because they didn’t want their style to be altered by needing to work in a different way. Of course both of these artists gained success through the Portrait Artist of the Year competition.

It’s very difficult to know what the ideal balance is. I think we are lucky that so many artists today teach short classes where we can learn techniques at a more affordable price, but it is difficult to apply these techniques outside of a learning environment with enough concentration to achieve mastery. And it’s definitely important to spend time researching the art of the past, and contemporary issues that help us know what we should say as artists.

There doesn’t seem to be a way round putting in hours and hours of training to become an expert in painting, which is how it should be really.


The artists I’ve listened to differ in their materials and approaches even though some started out with the same training.

Some artists still use traditional methods such as oil painting with the Zorn palette (Ivory black, cadmiium red light, yellow ochre and titanium white) or the Impressionist palette (White, and a warm and cool version of each primary colour), some adapt these techniques, and some invent their own.

Felicia Forte spent two years using the Zorn palette in order to master the limitations of a limited palette before breaking out into glorious full colour. Sarah Stieber lit her subjects under tinted lighting at first to ‘see’ the heightened colour of her ‘electric realist’ acrylic paintings.
In terms of working methods, Martin Campos makes his life studies in the space of the model, paints outside en plein air, then takes all this information back to the studio and is able to create his paintings in a responsive, expressive way.
Some artists, like Martin Campos and Daniela Astone work exclusively from life, valuing the energy that the model brings and how that informs the painting, some like Colleen Barry who is uncomfortable with sharing the space with the model,  work from photographs, and some work from a mixture of photographs and life.

Christian Hook and Martin Campos use different ‘utensils’ such as rubber colour shapers to apply their paint, adding exciting marks and abstraction. Samira Addo constructs lines that form the basis of the energy of a portrait, instinctively building the marks and colour around it. Colleen Barry builds monumental paintings through beautiful traditional application of paint. Kimberly Klauss uses oil paint in a very dilute way that shows the striations of the brushmarks in the bodies and faces she paints, and which  reflects the different colours of her colour mixes. Some favour expensive brushes, some like Aine Divine, use cheaper ones.

Every one of them has found their own way.


There are two different threads to working as an artist, the practice of drawing, sketching and painting what you see, and the creation of ‘works of art’ that come from within.

Martin Campos and Colleen Barry are inspired by the figure, though for Campos this is translated into a love of applying the paint and colour in expressive ways that approach abstraction, and for Barry this is about imbuing the people in her painting with a timeless sense of universally recognisable emotion. Sarah Stieber is inspired by the bright sunshine that surrounds her and her fashion loving friends. Felicia Forte is interested in the everyday, the stories ordinary things can tell.

Several artists said they struggled to find the inspiration to create their own ideas until they became mothers, at which point ideas about life and mortality took on a heightened meaning, though this did also curtail the amount of time they were able to spend in the studio.

I think all successful artists reflect the world they live in, their problems, their passions, interests and the things they love, it would be inauthentic for them not to.

Motivation and mindset

Mindset is crucial to success as an artist. You’ll only become successful if you have the resilience to cope with the confidence blows and knockbacks that come from putting your very precious work out there in the big wide world. There are several parts to this, firstly how the artist manages creating the work in the first place, and then how they cope with it being seen in public. So how do artists tackle this?

Many artists work on a number of pieces at a time so as not to get too bogged down by one in particular, there are sometimes sticking points in painting so it’s good to be able to move on to a different piece. Martin Campos likes to keep the momentum going by working on twelve pieces at a time, he says he ” looks after them and feeds them like they’re his children”. John Dalton put it to him that working on a painting is like a boxing match, sometimes it knocks you back, then you get a good hook in. He wholeheartedly agreed with this description.
Aine Divine spoke about how you need to “learn to find ease in risk”, a way of saying it’s good to get out of your comfort zone. Christian Hook spoke about this too, he deliberately makes ‘mistakes in his work to see where it will go, as it can throw up exciting new possibilities not offered by staying safe. Noel Fielding  said that he finds it difficult to tread the line between spontaneous furious working and ‘getting it right’.

Colleen Barry and Felicia Forte both spoke about how it takes years of perseverance and practice to keep working in the years between finishing study and breaking through and finding your style and making successful paintings.

Sarah Stieber works tirelessly promoting her work, hiring venues, staging events to add a showbiz pizzazz to her colourful, high energy work. She is inspired and mentored by the fearless self-made artist Ashley Longshore.

John Dalton asks all artists a question about why they paint. Some do it to create a kind of immortality for themselves, their work will live on and not be forgotten, some do it for the process, most say they are compelled to paint and do it because they have to.

Please have a look at the work of all of these fantastic artists, and I strongly encourage you to listen to the artists you love in conversation where you can, it adds a much deeper level of apprecation of what they do.



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