Artist Portrait - Karen Willis | Living North

Artist Portrait - Karen Willis

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Karen Willis
The coast provides an endless source of inspiration for the North East’s artists, and here Karen Willis tells us about her childhood memories, celebrity clients and favourite beaches
‘I love blustery days and moody seas, voluminous clouds, thundering seas like wild horses galloping, and yet at another time the sea can be as still as a millpond’

Karen Willis can’t remember a time when she didn’t draw and paint. Studying at Herefordshire College of Art and Design and later doing a BA (Hons) degree in Photographic Art under the tutelage of renowned photographer John Blakemore, she got married and had two children, but any spare moment she had, she would paint – putting on little exhibitions in friends’ houses. ‘My exhibitions usually have a theme – it helps me to focus,’ she explains. ‘Since starting small, I have had work exhibited in London, Edinburgh, Dublin, Newcastle and many other places through various different galleries and art fairs. Various celebrities own my paintings, including Aled Jones, Noel Edmunds and Sir Peter Vardy. It is amazing to think that one of my paintings of the riverside in Morpeth hangs in pride of place in Clarence House, and it was a real honour to meet Prince Charles. The journey for me has been quite amazing, but I’ve still got a lot more to do and paint!’

Karen creates landscapes and seascapes using vibrant shades and sweeping brushstrokes, building up layers of colour to give a feeling of real depth. ‘Coastal scenes are my passion, and I love to express my deep sense of delight in the ever changing light and mood. I love working on a large scale to convey the sense of space in the seascapes, but I also create small, intimate works conveying an enduring moment of beauty. My desire is to create works of art that are contemporary, yet recognisable – verging on the abstract but timeless.’

As a child, she lived in the Shetland Isles, a stone’s throw from the sea, and says that the coast is in her DNA. ‘Perhaps one of my fondest memories is of one of the islands in Shetland. Burra Isle has this beautiful white sandy beach with a Caribbean blue and green sea. My friend was swimming, just bobbing up and down, when suddenly I saw an enormous black fin behind her...I thought of Jaws, what a fright! She just waved back at me and didn’t realise. Thankfully the black fin vanished!’ It was natural that the coast would provide inspiration, and Karen says ‘I am still constantly amazed by the rugged beauty, the wild waves, the still mornings with bands of bright colour over the horizon, and the glorious light that streams through the clouds. I love blustery days and moody seas, voluminous clouds, thundering seas like wild horses galloping, and yet at another time the sea can be as still as a millpond. Figures walking along the beach give a sense of perspective, which helps to show the height and depth of a painting. The Northumbrian coast really inspires me, and at the moment I am staying at the Beach House in Beadnell. When we arrived at Beadnell the weather was wild, black clouds and pounding waves, the smell of salt air hitting your nostrils – very exciting! Then yesterday there were blue skies, golden sands, boats sailing by, and children making sandcastles by the water’s edge. With amazing castles and landmarks thrown in, what more do I need to say...’

Karen works from photos and also from nature itself. ‘Photos are a great record of the day, but can be dull and flat at times to work from. I try to soak in the atmosphere and memorise the colour, the mood and the scene, then hope I can express that through my painting. I love to paint en plein air, although unfortunately the weather is not always so kind, especially with the rain that we have been having recently... Working outdoors gives you a tremendous feel of scale and atmosphere that you can’t always achieve working from a photograph. For me, the most challenging aspect of seascapes is in painting the incoming waves – achieving the correct perspective, the light and shadows on top and underneath them, and creating the illusion of movement.’

As she loves to travel, choosing her favourite beach is difficult. ‘In Northumberland though, my favourite beach has to be Druridge Bay. To be honest, the Northumberland coast has many amazing beaches – Embleton, Lindisfarne, Bamburgh and Beadnell. But as I said before, I love Druridge Bay – a long sweeping, sandy beach, a real hidden gem. It was here that I painted on the beach whilst being filmed for the TV programme Songs of Praise with Aled Jones. Truly magnificent!’

Published in: November 2013

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