Newcastle-based artist Liz Whiteside always drew as a child but forgot about her talent as life and work overtook her. Six years ago a friend encouraged her to pick up a paintbrush again, and a new career in art opened up. Liz started to build a reputation for animal portraits and landscapes in acrylics, pastels and charcoals, and then last year while recovering from a major operation she taught herself to sew on the beloved 1966 sewing machine she had inherited from her mother. Her latest collection is a range of cushions that combine her artwork with complementary Harris Tweeds. We talked to Liz to find out more…
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I’m a self-taught artist who came back to art in November 2009 by sheer chance. My children had become more independent and I suddenly felt a bit lost and lacking personal direction. I couldn’t put my finger on what was wrong. A friend who was an artist invited me over to her house and took me into her studio. She put a paintbrush in my hand and told me to paint something. I was so nervous as it had been over 20 years since I’d last painted. I remember painting a very strange-looking flower, but it felt so good to do something creative again. I went home, bought some supplies and off I went. I started gifting my work to friends and they then started asking me for commission work. It was an incredible feeling and my confidence started to grow. My husband’s job took us to Aberdeen the following year and my art career took off when I had my first exhibition in a local café in town. We moved from Aberdeen to Newcastle three years ago.
I work in acrylic, pastels and charcoal. I love switching between the different media and my subjects are mainly animals and bright landscapes. I sell successfully from local galleries and I’m regularly commissioned to do dog portraits in either pastels or charcoal. I moved into textiles in April 2014 as I saw the trend for artists to put their artwork on to fabric, making it a more affordable way of having a statement piece in your house.
Did you have a creative upbringing?
I had a very creative upbringing. My late mother was a very talented artist. She would do lots of sketches and sell etchings at a small gallery in our local town of Bridlington. She never pursued her talent and kept it as more of a hobby. She owned a 1966 New Home sewing machine and would make my sister’s and my clothes on it. She could turn her hand to anything. I have fond memories of painting eggs at Easter. She had great patience with us. Sadly, she had just rediscovered her passion for art shortly before she fell ill in 2012.
How would you describe your aesthetic?
I think my work is bold and quirky with attention to detail. I like to mix textures on the deluxe range and incorporate my paintings, pastels or charcoals to appeal to all tastes and ages. I believe that each animal painting or drawing has a different personality, which is why I love to do dog portraits.
When and why did you begin producing your drawings as textiles?
I have a friend who is a seamstress and we would talk about how my work would suit fabric, but we thought I would have to paint straight on to the fabric and we weren’t sure of the process, so we forgot about it for a while. However, during my time renting a studio at Allendale Forge last year I met a printmaker who recommended some digital printing companies. I tried one but was so disappointed with the colour quality and their customer care that I thought this process might be a struggle. I gave a second company a chance and it’s like they were made for my work – they capture the colour beautifully and they’re so reliable.
How did you learn to sew?
In April 2014 my standard cushion range was launched. My friend, the seamstress, made all my cushions for me to a very high standard. I watched her work but never thought about sewing myself. I concentrated on building up my designs. In October 2014 I had a major operation and found myself unable to concentrate on drawing. After my mum’s sudden death in November 2012 I found her old sewing machine in her house and I asked my father if I could take it for sentimental reasons. I got it serviced, but never thought I would use it. During my recuperation, my lovely mother-in-law Viv, also a talented seamstress, showed me how to thread the machine and off I went struggling to sew in a straight line. However, I was determined and within the week I was producing lavender bags with my designs on.
Can you talk us through your creative process?
I always look around for inspiration. While walking through a department store cushion section I saw some animal cushions backed with quite a dull-coloured Harris Tweed. I thought, I could do that but with a pop of colour – and my designs would be unique with my original artwork. My seamstress friend came over and we designed ‘Rooster’. I watched her sew the first one and then I knew I could do it. Within two weeks I was designing and making them myself. It felt natural. I love the fact now that I draw or paint a new design and within a couple of days it can be a cushion, if the design works.
The combination of your illustrations with Harris Tweed works incredibly well. Was that an obvious choice of textile to complement your designs?
I’ve always loved the quality and look of Harris Tweed. Maybe it was my time in Aberdeen that started that. During our move to Aberdeen we stayed in the brand new Malmaison Hotel and they’d designed it in a beautiful way, showing that tweeds can be used in a very modern environment, mixing them with graphite-coloured sofas and hot pink velvets. It was stunning. I initially chose a few of my best-selling standard cushions and ordered some tweed which, I thought, complemented the artwork really well. Rooster was made and the reaction on social media was fantastic. I found that Beautiful Sky worked well too with the deep purple tweed and so it went on.
Have you experimented with other textile combinations?
I did try other fabrics but the design was too busy. The artwork and tweed just really work as I can pull out the colours from the artwork and find the matching tweed. It’s like it was meant to be – the Owl design is the best match so far, I think.
Do you have a sketchbook?
Dare I say, I don’t keep a sketchbook like many artists do. I do all the designing in my head. I always have. Art teachers would be ‘tut tutting’ at that I’m sure.
How did you learn to draw?
I loved art as a child but only really discovered I had a talent for it when I went to secondary school. I found I spent more time on art homework than anything else. I achieved an A grade for my O Level but due to family circumstances I was encouraged to leave school at 16 and go to college so I could get a paid job. Art then became a weekend hobby of sketching and, after a move to London in my early 20s, I slowly forgot about my talent as I pursued my career.
Do you think everyone can draw?
You know I don’t think they can, but that’s probably because they tell themselves that and don’t give it a try. I do believe we have either scientific or creative brains. I’m married to my complete opposite, which is great for me as I get to do all our interior design. As I’m self-taught, I personally believe you are born with the talent and there are so many amazing self-taught artists out there today. It’s no longer frowned upon.
Are there any artists or designers who you particularly admire?
I love artists who use colour – in particular David Hockney, who is from my hometown of Bridlington, and Louise Braithwaite whose paintings are so full of joy. I’m currently inspired by local artists and designers around me in Newcastle – I’ve recently met some amazing textile artists.
Where do you work?
I’m very lucky to have two small studios at home – one for my art and a brand new sewing room. The art room has a bay window with lovely wooden floors and a carpet on the floor as I like to work in bare feet. It just feels good. It has a table in it for drawing and a big easel for my canvasses. I have to have very loud music playing while I work, so speakers are an essential. My sewing room is nice and cosy with two small desks – one for my lovely sewing machine and one for my brand new overlocker. It’s looking a bit too tidy at the moment but I’m sure that won’t last.
What are your plans for 2015?
As my Harris Tweed range was only launched in November, it’s still a new process to me. I was so excited to receive my first order on Folksy the very same day I listed my work. Hopefully it’s the start of a wonderful year. I will continue designing in my head and will always be looking around for inspiration.