Today’s show features still life artist Sandra Busby. Based in East Sussex, Sandra didn’t take art seriously until her early 30s. Largely self-taught, she describes her style as ‘romantic truth’ because she takes what she loves about something and enhances that, while pushing back the qualities she doesn’t love. She paints the world as she likes to see it. A wife and working Mum, Sandra squeezes her painting in around her life. In this episode, she shares her journey rediscovering creativity, some of her creative routines and how she finds inspiration.
What you will learn in this episode
• Sandra’s creative journey teaching herself to paint
• The creative routines in her life
• The creative projects Sandra’s currently working on
• Why she prefers a balance between working from real life and photos
• How Sandra finds inspiration and keeps track of ideas
• Her favourite creative tools
Sandra’s creative journey
Sandra loved drawing when she was small, but stopped in her teens due to insecurities. In her early 30s she started painting and did a little art class, and eventually enrolled in art college. However, she found it wasn’t for her. She felt stifled by the modern way of teaching, finding they didn’t teach the basic skills she wanted to learn before going on to other things like imagination and expression. Sandra already knew who she was and what she wanted to paint, so she decided to study on her own terms. She says she ‘just wanted to know what she wanted to know.’ She dropped out of art school after 2 years and taught herself from books and videos the classical methods of the old master painters. She studied everything she could get her hands on and picked out what felt right and what interested her. She spent time also staring at the masters’ paintings, studying them up close in the London galleries.
Sandra says she learnt more in her own art studio in 6 months of intense, self-directed study than her 2 years of art college. She wanted to use the old master techniques but put her own spin on it. Painting using the old techniques for oil paints is what makes them last a long time, and not crack and fall to bits, so that’s what she taught herself. Through constant practice she learnt about layering and glazing, and now uses the classical techniques in a more contemporary way in her still lifes.
Sandra’s first painting was a teddy bear still life. It was mainly about the light and the dark, and she went back every day to keep working on it. It took probably 40 hours, and was very valuable learning time. This then turned into a series of 8 bears and each one got a bit better than the last. It was lovely for Sandra to look at the improvement between the first and the last bear painting. The whole series was dark and in a Rembrandt style of things coming out of the gloom. After she finished the series, Sandra had an urge to paint light, and now all of her paintings are bright and colourful. It’s all about the play of light and colour for her. She says she turned on the light and has been painting like that ever since.
Sandra’s creative routines
If somebody asks ‘What do you do?’ she says she is an artist, but Sandra has a day job—something completely non-creative—that she relies on to pay the bills, and is what allows her to be an artist. She never wants to rely on painting for her sole income because it would turn the pressure on and take the joy out of it. She works and paints from home out of the garage, which her husband converted into part office, part art studio.
Sandra usually paints after work and at weekends, when she can completely focus on it and lose herself in it. She also spends about an hour sketching in the morning before work. As a wife and Mum, this morning hour is her ‘me’ time, which she used to use for catching up on TV shows. However, feeling like she was neglecting her drawing skills and using the excuse that she didn’t have time to draw, she realised this hour could be the perfect time to practice drawing. She finds it a fantastic start to her day and helps her not feel resentful about the day job because she has already scratched the creative itch before she starts work for the day. She finds it amazing how quickly she can progress just by putting a bit of time into something every single day.
Current creative projects
Generally speaking, Sandra normally works with small paintings (8×8) because she likes to have finished paintings and has limited time. However the one she is working on now is 2 ft x 3 ft which is large for her. It’s of 2 Coca Cola bottles up against the sky, with all the light and sparkle from the bottle and the sunshine, and colourful straws popping out the top. The bottles are arranged on a window sill, tilting towards each other. They’re up against each other, with blue tac and one leaning on a book, but as Sandra is only painting the tops in the sunlight none of that can be seen. She’s enjoying having so much space to fill and hoping to do more larger pieces in the future. With social media you’re expected to share something every day, but because the painting is bigger Sandra is posting more of behind-the-scenes process because she isn’t able to post the finished paintings.
Another creative project, or goal for Sandra, is to have a YouTube channel with lots of quality videos and time lapse of her paintings by this time next year. She’s making a time lapse of the current big painting, and has the camera going every time she’s in the studio doing even a little bit of painting. Sandra has had some success with YouTube for a video of her dancing for joy after finishing a painting. Normally she gets about 30 views on her videos, but the dancing one got 1.7K views.
Working from real life and photographic reference
Sandra works from both life and photo reference, depending on what she is painting. Once she painted a raw egg, and obviously had to use a photograph from that because it would stink and run everywhere. Another time Sandra was commissioned to paint a glass of rum, so she got the exact rum and lime, and put it in a shadow box her father built. A shadow box allows you to put whatever background in it that you want and shine a diffused light through it, manipulating the light how you want. Once it’s set up the light pretty much stays the same. Sandra still took a photograph for a reference but largely with that one she could work from life, using the shadow box.
Sandra always takes a photo for reference because it helps to freeze the shadows so she doesn’t have to worry about them moving and can refer back to them to get the right at a later date. For the Coca Cola bottles painting, it’s completely from photographic reference because the bottles were set up in a way that they would fall down over time.
Sandra has a specific thing that she loves to paint, which is to capture the playful light in and around objects. Although she enjoys looking at other’s work on these subjects, she’s not that interested in painting flowers or landscapes. She has a love for reflective objects like water, bubbles or glass, such as crystal balls, marbles, bottles, cocktails. Because she knows she wants to paint something where the light is bouncing off, she will find inspiration in noticing this in real life.
Creative blocks happen for Sandra when she is trying too hard to force ideas. She feels the worst thing artists can do is try too hard. Inspiration creeps in when the mind is quiet, so she tries to embrace silence, leave the phone behind and take the dog for a walk. Sandra does suffer from blocks sometimes because, like many creative people, she puts a lot of pressure on herself. Some of her best ideas have come along when not trying to think at all and just allowing things to come into her head naturally.
Sandra loves looking at other people’s landscapes, as well as raw and loose sketches. She likes cartoonists, like Danny Gregory. She has also been lucky enough to paint alongside one of the living masters, Rosa Branson. In her 80s, Rosa still paints for 7 hours a day and Sandra finds her work routine inspiring. Sandra’s Uncle Danny was a great artist and played a massive part in where she is now. She often finds inspiration in thinking of him and knows what he would say even though he’s not here.
Although they seem to be a dying breed, Sandra likes art blogs, and following other artists on Instagram. Writing is another passion of hers, so blogging is a creative outlet for that. And whether online or in person, Sandra loves looking at other people’s artworks. She doesn’t like to be too influenced by them but finds others’ work really inspiring.
Keeping track of ideas
Sandra says she could not live without a whiteboard, and she has one on the wall of her art studio. She also uses the voice memo feature on her phone to record ideas when she’s not in the studio, and these get transferred to the whiteboard and soon as she gets back to the studio. She knows not all ideas will get painted but finds ideas happen in the most random places and random times, and always tries to get them recorded. Sandra doesn’t like notebooks or phones for long term storage because she needs the reminders to be visual and regularly seen. This way, when she has a creative block she can easily refer back to it and spark ideas.
The morning sketches that Sandra does are never inspiration for paintings because at the moment she’s sketching faces and figures, which is not what she paints. However, she does have some ideas to incorporate a bit of those figures into the still life work, but they’re not developed enough to explain yet.
Favourite Creative Tools and Resources
Although she enjoys watercolour and pencil, Sandra’s love is in oil paints. Her favourite tool is the paint brush.
Other than iMovie, which she uses for editing YouTube videos, Sandra has never tried any kind of digital art form. Tara suggests that she try the iPad Pro and Pencil!
Connect with Sandra
Sandra loves to hear from people. You can find her at her website www.sandrabusbyart.com and share her personality and the process of her art on her blog at www.sandrabusbyart.com/blog. You can also find her on Instagram @sandra.busby as well as Facebook and YouTube.