With her Captain, cocker spaniel Murphy, watercolor artist Holly Smith lives and paints aboard her sailboat, Helian. Combining watercolor and color pencils, Holly makes efficient use of limited space to create custom dog portraits that capture each pet’s unique personality.
How did you get started making art? Why do you do it?
Coming from a creative family I always had the freedom to be creative. I took art classes from a young age, which lead me to pursue art throughout my education. I went on to study a Contemporary Crafts BA HONS degree.
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At the time, I was far more interested in making pieces rather than painting and drawing, so I specialized in silver jewelry. However, while studying for my degree I ended up sharing a home with a few illustrators; they inspired me to start drawing and painting again.
I pursued jewelry, and various other career options, including working on a farm and managing a chain of independent bakeries. I dabbled in crafts and creative hobbies along the way. When the coronavirus hit, I found myself furloughed. So I took the time in lockdown to reignite my passion for painting and drawing.
I’m passionate about being creative. It gives me so much drive and satisfaction when I have a finished piece in front of me. I know the hours of care and attention that I have put into it. After posting my artwork on social media, I started getting requests for commissions of the pets of family and friends; my pet portrait business has grown from there.
How has your creativity evolved over the years? What triggered the evolution to new media/kinds of work/ways of working?
I still have a love of making things as well as painting and drawing. So I always have a craft project on the go; I have tried many different media and all types of crafts over the years. My current evening and weekend hobby is crochet. You can often find me sailing our boat Helian and crocheting along too!
My illustrator friends at University introduced me to Winsor & Newton drawing inks. I fell in love with the packaging and how they came in gorgeous little bottles, so instantly started my collection. While working with these, I loved the vibrancy of this medium’s colors combined with color pencil. However, they weren’t colorfast (they fade in the sunlight) so weren’t good for an artwork intended for longevity. The search for a colorfast medium with similar qualities lead me to watercolors.
I now work in watercolor and color pencil to create my pet portraits. I find the softness of the watercolors and the flexibility of mixing shades and tones, combined with the crispness of the color pencil really works for my artworks. Combining these two mediums means I can create more detailed work.
I have always been interested in mixed media and don’t like to create things the straightforward way. I choose to work in two mediums as I love the idea of combining materials to make something unique.
What inspires you to create? What is it about a subject that inspires you to continue exploring it?
My love for animals – especially dogs – nature, and being outdoors totally inspires and drives my creativity; and gives me the urge and desire to capture the beauty and detail of these subjects.
I feel inspired by the sea and have a constant urge to explore. That combination lends itself perfectly to living on a boat.
I find the best way to inspire ideas is to do something creative. When I involve myself in something, inspiration comes to me and I feel more and more excited to create. I could sit there for days trying to force myself to come up with ideas. But if I just go and do something creative without the pressure, it sparks inspiration and my ideas grow organically.
Getting involved in painting and drawing gets my brain working so I keep a pen and notebook next to me; I will often come out with a list of ideas just from getting immersed in my painting and drawing.
Where do you feel most creative, and are there any environments which lower your productivity?
I love being outside and so working in a light airy space is very important to my productivity; I do a lot of my painting onboard Helian.
When sitting in one place, I get easily bored with my working surroundings. That’s when it helps that we can just sail off and change location whenever we feel the urge.
The environment I’m in is important and I definitely feel more inspired being surrounded by a visually pleasing set up. I love nothing more than spending hours rearranging my set up and working area. I want my materials perfectly placed, easel at the exact angle and the lighting just right before I start work. So I find myself rearranging my studio almost every new piece I work on, learning what worked and what didn’t. However, I’m not sure I will ever find the perfect configuration!
Are there particular challenges when you make pet portraits?
Often I can’t meet the pet, either due to geography or because I’m creating a surprise commemorative piece. Capturing the character of a pet is essential and may not be apparent from one photo. So I make sure I have multiple photos to ensure I represent their coloring correctly and reflect their true character.
Another challenge is clients not having high quality photos, but this is where an understanding and observation of many different animals and learning their breed characteristics really helps – it allows me to offer detailed portraits even if photos aren’t perfect.
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
A decent pencil sharpener for crisp lines and white pens have been game changers. They help me pick out highlights and create layers in my work. (I use several different brands as each has a different quality and finish.)
I like to keep it simple, working with just the materials I need around me. A pot of fresh, clean water and kitchen towels are essential for mixing the correct colors.
I also have a little ceramic mixing pallet which I try not to clean. I like the idea of the colors I’ve mixed being used to help mix my next color to feature in my next artwork, thereby each artwork inspiring the next.
What is your favourite lesser-known tool for your trade? Have you taken something designed for another use and repurposed it for your studio?
When I first started offering pet portraits I wanted to record time lapses of my artwork developing. There are so many cell phone holders that I felt overwhelmed. Not knowing exactly what I needed, I decided to make one from two wire coat hangers, some string and tape. This worked well for a while but was unstable so eventually I upgraded. I bought a stand which now holds my phone and allows me to film time lapses of my artwork with ease and without the risk of my home creation dropping my camera!
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
I am a daydreamer and very easily distracted. So I find I’m most productive if I put my headphones on and listen to music – probably louder than I should!
Wearing my headphones really helps me focus and I can get fully immersed in my artwork by blocking other noise or distractions and forgetting about the outside world.
My music choices vary daily but recently I find myself drawn to 90s throwback mixes.
Is Murphy a cooperative model? How do you get him to pose with props?
Murphy my cocker spaniel and little shadow, is very obliging. He helps me market my artwork and assists in spreading a positive motivation with #murphysmondaymotivation every Monday. He knows there’s going to be a treat and lots of praise when he helps out. As we all do, he definitely has days when he’s feeling less helpful, but I try to respect that. If he’s not cooperating, I’ll give him space and leave it for another day!
Some ideas I think are never going to work, like him holding a mini pumpkin on Halloween. But he quite often surprises me. I try not to put too much pressure on an idea or Murphy; if it works – great – if not, we move on and come up with another idea or try another day.
I am truly grateful to have Murphy around as a studio buddy and Captain of Helian! Having him does more than giving me some company when painting. He ensures I take breaks in the fresh air and that I actually step away from my artwork.
It’s very easy to get caught up with a piece of artwork and not know when to stop. Sometimes stepping away from a piece, even leaving it until the next day, gives me a fresh pair of eyes. I’ll always spot something new when returning to an artwork.
Tell us about Helian. How does Murphy get on onboard Helian?
Helian is our Westerly Fulmar sailing boat, aka “Holly & Murphy HQ”. It’s great to have a floating studio. There is no greater sense of freedom than being able to travel and explore under your own means.
Murphy has been on boats since a puppy and is very at home afloat. He sits up on deck watching the sea birds and getting just as excited as me when we moor up in a new place.
He loves nothing more than to hop off Helian in a new destination, and having an explore.
When we are in a marina he is always up on the bow saying hello to anyone walking down the pontoon – he gets many smiles in his little life jacket.
We are currently taking the time to explore the UK coastline, but have plans to travel further afield. I feel lucky to have established a business I can do anywhere alongside my second passion of sailing.
Combining, painting, sailing, the freedom and independence to travel and have adventures with my best friend Murphy, together with running my own business – with all its ups and downs – I’m living the dream; the only question I ask myself is, why did I wait so long to do it?
Who is the most creative person that you have ever known?
Definitely has to be my parents. My dad is a Master Carpenter and forever making things, and he isn’t happy unless he has a project. My sister and I were very good at providing him with projects growing up, requesting elaborate play and dolls’ houses. He would disappear off to the garage and emerge with the most amazing creation – far exceeding any of our expectations!
Mum is a very keen knitter and crafter and is just as creative. We were always provided with incredible handmade costumes for school plays, Halloween and themed parties. Mum kept us constantly entertained growing up with creative fun tasks she thought up. We enjoyed decorating cookies, rubber stamping and having free reign of the “junk cupboard”. A place full of egg boxes, cardboard boxes, popsicle sticks and glitter glue! It doesn’t sound much but when we let our creativity and imagination run free with friends we invented all sorts. We spent hours planning trips to the moon on our very own handmade cardboard space ship. I think I can safely say my creativity came from Mum and Dad.
What advice would you give to emerging artists?
Use Social Media to get your work out there but don’t get caught up comparing your work to other artists.
What I personally love about art is it’s your own personal expression of creativity; there’s no right or wrong way. We all look at things through different eyes and everyone interprets things differently. Ask any number of artists to paint the same subject and no two artworks would turn out exactly the same!
Being an artist is one thing. But turning creativity into a successful business that earns a living requires a whole different skillset. I can’t recommend enough how enlisting the help of my business coach has aided me in launching my business. He ensures I’m heading in the right direction.
I know for a lot of artists – myself included, it is hard to go out there and sell your work; it is something so personal to you. A coach gives me the confidence to do it; it’s a comforting feeling knowing you have someone “on your side”.
My business coach, Karl M. Gibbons from Third Eye Management & Associates said to me, “You don’t know what you don’t know, and what you don’t know can hurt you”. That really stuck with me and proves my point perfectly as to why having a coach had been so valuable. Ensure you do your research and find someone with a proven track record who has worked with artists before.
Tell us about your website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting? Where can people find finished pieces or commission something special?
At www.hollyandmurphy.com I hope visitors get a full sense of my style and a glimpse of life painting on board Helian, with Murphy by my side.
You can find examples of previous commissions as well as current artwork for sale. I have designed homewares and prints, also.
Social Media has been the best outlet for getting my work out there and commissions are always welcomed. These can be ordered through my website, or via direct contact. I do have a few live painting events planned over the summer. That’s when I get to show the process involved in each piece of artwork. I especially enjoy meeting potential clients face to face rather than virtually.
Interview posted January 2021
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