Today’s podcast features Rhian Wyn Harrison, a mixed-media artist from South Devon. In the last 3 years, Rhian has rediscovered her passion for drawing and painting. She loves to produce mixed-media illustrations, repurposing old books and maps as both backgrounds and inspiration. She also has greeting cards and was recently featured in a tourism film about her local area. In this episode, Rhian shares how she creates her unique mixed-media style and her process for keeping track of ideas and getting unstuck.
What you will learn in this episode
• The story of how Rhian rediscovered her love of drawing
• How she creates her unique mixed-media style
• Where Rhian has found some commercial success
• How to keep track of ideas and find inspiration
• What to do with too many ideas, or when you get stuck
• Rhian’s favourite creative tools and resources
Rhian trained as a graphic designer and typographer and worked in that industry for 15 years before taking a career break to raise her children. She then worked in a school as an art technician for a long time. However, when she turned 50, she started thinking about what she would do with her life if she only had a year to live. Her own mother had only lived to 51, so something about nearing that age made her focus. She read ‘Screw Work, Let’s Play’ by John Williams and did a 30-Day Challenge to see whether she could still draw, as she’d loved it as a child.
During the 30-Day Challenge, Rhian began putting some of her drawings online, which gave her the confidence to experiment. She then found a website called Illustration Friday, where various artists post their responses to a prompt word each week, and found that really helped her get her passion for drawing back. She began drawing anything around the house using a variety of media, from sketching to watercolour to pastels. It was the very last illustration for her 30-Day Challenge, when she tore out a page of a book, that Rhian discovered her collage-style mixed-media that she just loves to create so much. It’s been 3 years and she says it’s not like work, it’s fun and can’t ever see herself retiring.
Rhian’s unique mixed-media style
Rhian uses vintage books and maps as the inspiration and the background for all of her illustrations. She loves the beautiful old paper, and enjoys the fact that she’s giving it new life. The books and map have to be very old for copyright reasons; for books it’s 70 years after the author has died, for a map, it’s 50 years after it was printed. The oldest thing Rhian has worked on was a 132-year old Times newspaper.
Because the paper is so old, it can be fragile, so Rhian has them dry mounted onto a board at a local framers. This makes it much easier to draw and paint on. She mostly uses Inktense pencils with water because of the vibrant colour they create.
With the dictionary pages, Rhian will paint something that links to a work in an obtuse sort of a way. With maps, she usually paints animals related to the area. Rhian also does commissioned works when people want something particular. She likes doing commissioned works because there’s a certainty about the sale, but they can be a challenge when people want particular things. Obviously, she likes doing her own ideas as well.
Her favourite subjects are birds. They have personality and they’re both challenging and enjoyable to draw because of all their feathers and colours. She takes her own photographic reference where she can, and she goes out with the camera most days. Rhian usually sketches the shape of the animals before starting on the old paper, to figure out the shape and to see if it balances correctly on the page. She’ll also use tracing paper to help with the layout. Because the old paper is old and fragile, you can’t rub out once you’ve drawn on it, so you only have one chance. Rhian finds that both an exciting and scary challenge. Her advice is that if there’s something you really want to do, just have a go. What have you got to lose?
Rhian’s early commercial success
Rhian started selling her artworks almost immediately. She met a lady at a gallery, who liked her work and almost as soon as she had them in the gallery they were selling. She had a solo exhibition last year, was accepted for the South West Academy Open Exhibition last September, and was selected for a show in Dartmouth this year where her pieces are all selling well. She also has an exhibition next month in Dartmouth called ‘Fish, Ships and Quays’ to do with sea birds, Dartmouth and the Regatta. Recently, Rhian also hosted a film crew in her home who featured her for a film promoting Torbay Tourism and the Seafood Coast.
For one of the exhibitions last year, Rhian was asked to do greeting cards. She researched and found a company in Cornwall that prints beautiful cards, and they sold out during the exhibition. In fact, they made as much money as the paintings! Now Rhian does them quite regularly with different designs. She sells them on her website along with prints of her works, which are more affordable for many people. At the moment she can only do A4 and A5 ones due to the size restriction of her scanner. She does the prints herself at home using a special printer with pigment ink on archive paper.
Keeping track of ideas and finding inspiration
Writing everything down is Rhian’s preferred method of keeping track of ideas. She uses a bullet journal for her lists and ticks them off as she goes everything is in one place. She says she doesn’t really get stuck for ideas because she can just open a page in the dictionary, pick a word and try to think of an obtuse thing related to it to paint. Sometimes the process works the other way, where she’ll start with the animal she wants to paint and then pick a word that links somehow.
Rhian’s advice for finding inspiration is to go outside and walk in nature. She recommends getting fresh air, taking deep breaths and getting away from the desk. Trust that if you take a break, your brain will do it for you. Don’t try too hard, just let it come. When you stop thinking about it, your subconscious chugs away and does the work.
Too many ideas and getting stuck
Rhian does find working with the old books and maps helps prevent artists block. There isn’t the same intimidation of staring at a blank canvas, because her page already has stuff all over it! One strategy Rhian does use when she gets stuck is to post a ‘work in progress’ shot on Facebook. This helps her to complete it because it creates a little bit of accountability and a sense that she’ll let people down if she doesn’t finish it. Plus, it’s fun and people enjoy seeing the work in progress. It’s a different way of working. She also uses a proper old sand-filled hourglass to help focus, but also to remind her to have a break and stretch. It’s important to keep track of time, otherwise, Rhian will find she keeps going and doesn’t move at all for 3 hours.
Rhian doesn’t feel like she suffers from the problem of having too many ideas and not being able to stick to one. She always has a list of her ideas and sometimes does have more than one artwork on the go. However, more often than not she just looks at the list and picks whichever idea she fancies the most and that’s the one she’ll do next. With every single artwork, Rhian says she gets to a point where she thinks it’s rubbish, but she knows if she keeps going it will come right. It always does.
Favourite creative tools, books, people and courses
Rhian’s favourite tools are the old books and maps she uses to create her artworks. She just loves the old paper.
She also uses Inktense Pencils made by Derwent because of the vibrant colours they create.
She also recommends the website Illustration Friday that has been such a big part of her journey http://illustrationfriday.com/
Connect with Rhian
Rhian has a website and various social media channels.