Down on the Estuary Banks (My Favourite Place to Be) #1, 2017
Louise Burdett is a Pembrokeshire-based artist who returned to painting two years ago after a long hiatus. She currently creates wonderfully dramatic landscapes inspired by the beautiful Pembrokeshire countryside and recently had her first solo exhibition at The VC Gallery in Haverfordwest.
Here she talks about her artistic journey, how the need to get a ‘proper’ job’ led to her to set aside her creative life, and how she finally found her way back.
To kick off, can you tell me a bit about your journey to becoming an artist...?
I aspired to be an artist from the age of 15 and lived and breathed art through sixth form and a Foundation year at Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication. I lived in Sidcup with my parents and grandmother in a very suburban environment which I found deeply unstimulating so art became everything and was an escape.
I then went to Coventry University’s School of Art and Design and found myself immediately floundering amongst lots of other talented artists and in a world of contemporary art which I was totally unprepared for. For two years after finishing my degree in 1993 I lived on the dole in Coventry trying a few things here and there. I didn’t have the confidence or vision to set up a studio and felt the crippling weight of being financially stuffed. However, an invitation from my former teacher to take a voluntary residency at my old school injected my life with a new direction which I ran to without hesitation.
I’ve never been as inspired as I was working with kids and young adults. It wasn’t a secure way to live but it was deeply fulfilling and I was exactly where I needed to be at that time - in a sense it brought me back to reality and mainstream life. However, eventually I sought to counteract my continuing sense of insecurity by accepting that I needed to be able to get a ‘proper job’.
So, what did you end up doing as a ‘proper job’?
After an office skills course and six months temping, I rolled up at the wonderfully creative and relaxed BBC Worldwide and found a home for four years in their Sales & Marketing department. I loved the structure and security, made some lovely friends and on the whole enjoyed my new career and the routine.
I continued to work in marketing and fundraising roles until I left the National Trust in 2013, during which time I had gained a husband, two kids and an inkling that this was the time to be me, and resurrect my artistic career. It had been 17 years since I had ‘been’ an artist.
That sounds like quite a leap to make! How did you find your way back to art?
It really started with my husband Jamie. His late Grandma told him he would marry an artist so when we met in 2005 I think it reasserted to me that I ‘was’ an artist, albeit a resting one. I always felt that I would one day take up the brush again and did produce a couple of large paintings whilst expecting our first child Isabelle. My resistance to regularly actively painting was a source of frustration to Jamie once he had seen what I could do, but for me, having a space and time to be freely creative was essential to making art and the pressure and exhaustion of motherhood in my late 30s knocked pretty much all of the creative stuffing out of me.
I felt like I’d given up on art back in 1997 and now I was bored of my own voice and aware of how hollow my words must have sounded talking about my career and that really underneath I WAS an artist, albeit one who never actually made any art. But it wasn’t until 2016 in more settled times, with both kids at school and a bit of loose cash, that I put a stake in the ground and converted a shed in a house that we were renting into a studio, to give myself the space I needed stop hiding away from what I was meant to be.
Lawrenny Sunrise #3, 2018
How did it feel to be back in the studio?
June 2016 and my first day under the roof window and newly insulated and painted walls was daunting. My biggest fear was failure, but my biggest hope told me that my brain had developed during this voluntary abstinence of 20 years and I would be a better artist for it, just as soon as I could bring my skills back up. I remember how tentative I was first putting oil pastel to paper, falling back on a medium I had probably last used in 1990 to give me some sense of comfort, despite not even really liking it. I knew I would paint with oils but it took me a few charcoal drawings and washy acrylics to realise that I just needed to get on with it and to hell with the skills deficit.
When we moved to Pembrokeshire just over a year ago, and once we had settled in to our new home, I found a studio with some new friends in the centre of our village, and made my first foray into landscape.
So landscapes are something you’ve come to later in life?
Yes. Phase one of my artistic career was largely focused on figurative narrative work. Not unlike other artists I tried to make sense of my life through expressing feelings and emotions through telling stories about myself on canvas and was greatly influenced by the renaissance portrait painters’ use of symbolism. I did the odd portrait but my art was mainly self-obsessed.
In the past I had always avoided landscapes as I just didn’t get it - I didn’t understand how to make it mean something on canvas. But, returning to it with a 20 year gap, I was able to develop a whole new approach.
What’s the Pembrokeshire countryside like and how does it inspire you?
The landscape here is less wooded and more open than it was in Kent. Panoramic skies are everywhere and it’s more dramatic with easy access to stunning beaches. Lawrenny (where I live) is on a peninsula of the Cleddau estuary, upriver from Milford Haven, where it branches off towards the Cresswell and Carew Rivers. It is tidal so breaths twice a day and is ever changing with the time of year, day, and weather conditions.
The weather can be crazy. I’ve been out with the dog and seen from afar rain coming, then heard it sweep in before ever feeling a drop. Five minutes later the sun is out again. I love it. It’s incredibly stimulating! So this weather experience, the solitude when being down on the estuary banks (my favourite place to be) the adjacent fields, and the breathtaking views from the old castle site is where my recent landscape work was conceived. Born from its impact on me and how it makes me feel.
Cleddau Barleyfield #5. 2017
Can also you tell us more about how you use Instagram in the production of your art?
Since Feb 2016 I had been making ‘art’ via Instagram, my first tentative explorations into creating visual images again and I began to love these little squares. I loved the format, the tools and more than anything the random connections of followers and likes that fell like a web around my first tentative posts. Most of all I liked the way I could access art and could connect with other artists. It was quick, exciting, stimulating and relatively easy. Just right for me at that time - a palette in my pocket and perfect for super-quick, gut-instinct photo-based art.
My ideas are often inspired by a walk somewhere, or come in my studio when I’m thinking about something I’ve seen. I often utilise Instagram to transform those mental images into a 2D format, from photos or other source material. Some Instagram images I publish, but most die as an Instagram pic as soon as they are created. You only see photo based images on my Instagram feed if they are there in their own right. Most get squirrelled away in my sketch books of ideas.
Although this is how my recent landscape work was created, I’m not fixed in subject, format or form, and intend to move between 2D & 3D. But I will always trust my gut instincts and try to work from the heart.
Photo of Louise Burdett, © Shaun Bowie Photography
What’s your process in producing a finished painting? Do you use preliminary sketches and photographs or do you prefer to plunge straight in?
I’ve learnt to trust my gut instincts so usually the first idea I have is the one I place at the centre of a new work. I may need to plan how I execute the application of paint, the layering, the light, the key colours, the composition, but I will never know exactly how how a painting will turn out because for me, attempting to resolve an idea in paint IS part of the process. I will have that gut image in my mind and strive to capture it, moving quickly and as lightly as I can trying above all to avoid being too literal.
My favourite way to paint is freely, enjoying the materials, utilising the unplanned drips or colours mixing together accidentally on the palette or canvas and playing with colour and light. The act of painting is as valuable to me as the starting idea - I love painting, the smell, the textures, the feel of paint on canvas and I want this to come across in what I do. I work instinctively and hope to reveal truths as they present themselves to me. As an artist I think that’s all you can try to do - paint the world as YOU see it and hope that it will connect with others on one level or another.
Thanks so much Louise, it was fascinating to get an insight into your process and inspiration. I’m so glad that you found your way back to a happy and fulfilling creative life!