Snooping Through Studios column: Nel Whatmore

By September 29, 2022

Art & Photography. Leeds.

Nel Whatmore has been a professional artist all her working life. Her main medium is pastel which she uses across varied subject matter and is constantly exploring colour, mediums and their ability to convey emotions. For the last three years she has studied the emotive nature and power of the British coastlines from the far north of the Isles of Lewis to the calmer shores of Devon.

Court went to her studio at Sunny Bank Mills in Farsley to find out more about her practice and approach. 

Nel in the studio.

Court: Oh it’s fab to be back here, I absolutely love Sunny Bank Mills and these studios. You were one of the first studio holders here in the Twisting Gallery. How did that all come about? 

Nel: Hi Court, you’re right I was the first artist in the Twisting Gallery Studios. It was one of those ‘good things’ that came out of a difficult time. I had been diagnosed with breast cancer in January of 2019 so wasn’t as busy as usual and had time to look for a studio whist recovering. I found out that the Twisting Gallery had been refurbished and studios were available. To say I was excited is an understatement! The light was just brilliant and Sunny Bank Mill seemed like a great place to be.

One of Nel’s studio walls at the Twisting Gallery, Sunny Bank Mills.

Court: What a find! You have a decent commute coming from Tadcaster. You must really value your studio space. Can you tell us a bit about that? 

Nel: I am lucky that I have a studio at home but it had started to restrict how I was working. Here I have the space to see a series next to each other whilst I’m working on it, which is so much better for me.

It’s funny that you say I have a ‘decent commute’ so many people raised this as a negative about the studio. But I find that I spend so much time thinking about painting that I need those 40 minutes to ease myself into it. Without sounding too weird about driving, it’s almost meditative!

Nel in her boiler suit.

Court: That makes sense. So when you get in, do you have a routine? 

Nel: I always make a coffee, change my shoes, put on my paint encrusted RAC boiler suit and listen to music or an audio drama. I then sit on my chair and spend a lot of time just looking at work in progress to decide whether to continue a piece, leave it or start something new. It’s like looking at a wall of puzzles that are all missing something. If I’m failing to start, and let’s face it we all have days like that, I take it back to basics and paint over work or prime new boards and just get moving. Something always emerges from moving paint around, like an artistic warm up.

Work in progress in the studio.

Court: And what are you working on at the moment?

Nel: I have two distinct areas of work. The first focuses on being able to pause and be present, and this often centres around my garden. I’ve studied plants for years but during lockdown I started a visual diary to study the anatomy of the plants in the garden.

My other main interest is roaming the country, studying water and the coast. My fascination with water runs deep as I both love and fear it. Being connected to nature is so important. It’s a simple thing, not complicated but often taken for granted. I suppose I’m constantly wanting to explore through colour and tone, the positive emotive benefits of taking the time to really see what is around us.

I think a lot of art is viewed as ‘incomprehensible’ or people feel it is ‘not for them’ or that they are not clever enough ‘to understand it’. That mystification and alienation makes people not even want to engage with the arts for fear of ‘looking stupid’ or saying ‘the wrong thing’. I’m interested in countering that by producing work that is emotive and connects with people. To me art is about communication and a connection to nature.

Nel at work with pastels.

Court: That’s so true, a lot of people worry they don’t ‘get it’. How would you describe your practice?

All my work is related to colour and nature and the emotional rollercoaster that experiencing those can bring. I have spent a lot of time in nature. To paint it I have to have really experienced it, the feelings, the sounds, the smells. I usually do smaller paintings on the spot that act as a colour library, as photos are often hopeless for that, but they are great for reminders of composition and form. I have found it useful to take slow motion videos of water to see how it actually moves. It’s part of being able to see more than the naked eye. Up in Scotland it was sooo windy I was on the ground with works wedged between rocks.

When back in the studio I often bring together all that information or work further into pieces painted outside. It’s only through spending hours looking that they evolve further. I work in pastel most of the time although I’m doing more mixed media now. I’m a very tactile person so having the immediacy of holding pure pigment in your hand and have the range of colours at your fingertips makes pastels so appealing.

Court: You’ve also published poetry, can you tell us about that?

Nel: I have always been interested in the relationship between words and pictures. What you name something has a direct effect on how the viewer sees it. It’s an added dimension that taps into the emotive power of art. Titles of paintings often pop into my head while painting, as if they crystallize all that I’m trying to convey in a piece. Some years ago, for some inexplicable reason I got a great rush to write a poem at the end of a painting day. It became an extension of the whole process. I never really brought my poems out to see the light of day. I’m married to a writer so words were always his thing and visual things mine. Which sounds rather ridiculous to say now.

I had an exhibition tour the UK and as part of the catalogue my publisher at the time wanted to include some words, so I added some of my poems and to my surprise they got a great response. That gave me the confidence to include them in a one woman show I had at Ripley Castle. I was so moved by people’s kind words about them that I collated the poems into 6 little books each focused on an emotion.

Detail of Emerald Cove, 2022. Acrylic on wooden panel.

Court: That’s so nice. You’ve got such a savvy approach to your practice. You’re always a driving force behind open studios, full of positivity, kindness and just an all-round fab person! Do you have any advice you would give artists who are perhaps not as established?

Nel: Well thank you for your very kind comments, which I am not sure I deserve. Like most artists it’s all just been a process of trial and error, I’ve just perhaps been doing it for longer than most and therefore have picked up a few more tips along the way.

I think artists are often reliant on galleries and now social media also, but I would say these are only two avenues and the importance of having your own mailing list is crucial. Keeping in touch with customers and taking them along with you on your journey is key, as people like to buy art from people they like and know.

Keep a good digital record, the best promotion comes from having good photos of your work. Galleries are more likely to show and promote your work if your images are good. Don’t have all your eggs in one basket, be open to different opportunities and value your work at a price that you are happy to let go of it for. Women artists are paid on average a tenth of what male artists get. I heard that on the radio recently which appalled me! So don’t be afraid to put a high price on something, don’t price work at a value only you can afford, as that does not relate to what someone may actually pay for it.

Court: What are a few career highlights?

Nel: Blimey that’s a hard question! It’s like asking someone for the highlights of their life. Where do you start and what do you place value on? Some would list highlights as successful exhibitions, sell out shows, the winning of awards or general recognition by a wider audience of your artistic endeavors.

The things I really treasure and have felt profoundly humbled by are the connections I’ve made over the 36 years I’ve been doing this, with customers many of whom are now friends that I’ve met along the way. Many have followed my career, supported me and my family through the most difficult of times, all because we once met and they connected with what I try to say everyday through art.

It’s things like when Peter Caruth who was 18 and chose to study me at A level. He then persuaded his Dad to drive him from after his hockey match to catch the ferry from Ireland to come to my one-woman show at Ripley Castle. He arrived still covered in mud! Pam Teed now in her 70’s who I met at the first show I ever did in Leeds, and now always brings me cake to my shows. Joe Dunn who comes from Liverpool with lilies, who has pretty much been to every show. Every time something like that happens, I think what an AMAZING job it is to be an artist.

Court: Oh I love that! Connections really are absolute highlights. Do you have a dream project that you would like to make happen?

Nel: I really loved being Artist in Residence at RHS Harlow Carr Garden for a year and would relish doing a residency at the newest garden RHS Bridgewater. On the water front I think I have to return to the Outer Hebrides to explore the wild and wonderful coast. Neither of those are dreams really as I hope to make them happen.

I suppose a dream would be to go in a submersible and study water from below as I’d be rubbish at diving with a ‘go pro’ camera. That really isn’t going to happen! So we will see!

Nel’s piece Silver Linings, 2022 at The Mercer Open.

Court: Do you have any exhibitions coming up?

Nel: I have a piece in The Mercer Open that runs 17 Sept – 8 Jan at The Mercer Gallery in Harrogate and I am opening my studio for the Heritage weekend 25-27 Nov.

I’m planning to work towards two shows for 2023, one based on my garden and the other around water. The venue for which will be posted on my website.

Court: That leads us on nicely to the final question. What’s the best way for people to follow your work or get in touch?

Nel: The best way for people to get in touch is via my website and joining my mailing list on the home page or just email me on [email protected]. I’m also on Instagram and Facebook.

Court: Fab! Thank you so much Nel, I really appreciate it.

Nel: Thanks so much for the questions and thank you for being such a great studio holder, we were so sorry to see you go. Your wit and great conversations are very much missed and of course Oscar, the studio dog!