Meet the Maker: Emily Tull
Artist Emily Tull describes herself as a “thread painter”. Using a needle as her paintbrush and the threads as her paint, she makes extraordinary works of art, creating shades and textures with every stitch. She is one of a growing band of artists using traditional craft techniques to create fine art, and her work has been exhibited in galleries across the UK, the Royal Academy among them. We talked to Emily to discover more about her creative process and influences…
Can you introduce yourself and describe what you do?
My name is Emily Tull and I’m a thread painter.
How long have you been stitching and sketching?
I’ve enjoyed sketching since my childhood. I trained as a painter, so drawing has always been an important part of my artwork. I was very lucky to have two great art teachers when I was at school – one in senior school and the other during my A-Levels at college. Both introduced artists relevant to my style and a variety of different techniques and materials, although it was more art-based than craft. I started stitching in 2008 and most of my craft education has come from family knowledge or my own self teaching.
What or who inspires your work?
Lucian Freud, Jake Wood Evans and the Pre-Raphaelites have all influenced my work (both painting and stitching). My earlier thread paintings were inspired by Egyptian Tomb paintings and relics – I like the broken-up imagery. This interest in fragments has now progressed on to ripped wallpaper. My wildlife artworks come from my love of botanical illustrations, folklore, curiosity cabinets and my mother’s bee collection.
I vary the size of stitching to create the right feel for feathers or fur. I find the hand stitching therapeutic, though painful on the fingers.
Can you talk us through your making process?
Once an idea is in place, I work out what fabrics I’m going to use – sometimes a piece of material can inspire the subject. My base fabric is stretched on to my wood frame and then I draw a rough sketch of the subject. Once drawn in, I can work on any background that needs to be placed and pinned. Then the stitching can begin.
To help get the detail of colours I work with my laptop next to me with the imagery zoomed up close. Whatever the subject I always start with the eye, and once I’m happy with that I can move on and progress across the image. I vary the size of stitching to create the right feel for feathers or fur. I find the hand stitching therapeutic, though painful on the fingers.
Whatever the subject I always start with the eye, and once I’m happy with that I can move on…
Can you describe your workspace?
My studio is organised chaos! A lot of the time when I’m working on small pieces I tend to sit on the sofa with my large crate of threads next to me, but for the larger pieces I have to work against a wall. I have a shed called the Culture Shack, which is home to my artworks and my paints. The majority of my fabrics are arranged into types and because I have so many threads now they have to be put into clear boxes, sorted by colour and stored in drawers. There are less tangles that way and it’s so much easier to find threads.
Otter by Emily Tull – hanging in Emily’s studio
What’s the most precious item in your studio and why?
The most precious object is my great grandmother’s ceramic thimble. She was a seamstress and a painter, and I grew up with her paintings. She was an early inspiration for my childhood drawings. I don’t use the thimble but it’s lovely to have a piece of family history.
What’s the best thing about being creative for a living?
The best thing is having the freedom to make what you want to make.
The thread paintings are pieces of art and I do exhibit them in galleries regularly. There has been an underground movement of techniques deemed as craft being used in a more ‘arty’ way for a while and they’re appearing more and more in galleries, which means the art world is becoming open to the inclusion of these processes.
What’s been your proudest moment so far?
This is such a hard question. There has been many highs in terms of my artwork that it’s too hard to pick just one, so I’ll say running the London Marathon – it had been my one ambition since I was 10 years old.
Would you describe your stitched pieces as art or craft? Do you think there is still a distinction, or do you think those lines have been blurred?
The thread paintings are pieces of art and I do exhibit them in galleries regularly. There has been an underground movement of techniques deemed as craft being used in a more ‘arty’ way for a while and they’re appearing more and more in galleries, which means the art world is becoming open to the inclusion of these processes. When I exhibited in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition there were at least six textile-based artists, all with different styles. That was so refreshing to see and I felt proud to be one of them.
As ‘craft’ techniques are being used with photography and painting in a mixed media way alongside the more ‘out there’ subject matters, there is a blurring of the lines but there is still a distinction too.
What does craft mean to you?
Craft means high quality and full of love.