In Conversation with Celia Lewis

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Posted 21st January 2019

In Conversation
with Celia Lewis

CELIA LEWIS has lived in Surrey all her life. An author as well as an illustrator and artist, Lewis has produced six books published by Bloomsbury, among them The Illustrated Guide to Pigs (2011) and An Illustrated Coastal Year (2013).

Wanting to create more interesting illustrations for her books, Lewis developed printmaking skills, beginning with drypoint engraving then linocutting. Lewis's work draws on the countryside around her; besides the odd eureka moment her creative process is gradual, with ideas often taking a month or so to form and overcoming many pitfalls along the way. Although she also paints in pure watercolour, Lewis has developed a technique of combining other mediums with linocuts to produce unique artworks. By constantly evolving and changing her approach, Lewis hopes to keep her work fresh.

Celia Lewis won the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolour RI Medal in 2005 and the Royal Watercolour Society Winsor & Newton Prize in 2010. More recently, Lewis received her Diploma from the Chelsea School of Botanical Art.

Tell us a little about yourself

I've painted or created things with my hands as long as I can remember. Even at school my week revolved around double art on Friday afternoons (the only A I got at O level!). When I was 16 I went to a finishing school in Florence and we attended Signorini Simi's art school (her father had tutored Pietro Annigoni, the Italian portrait and fresco painter), where I studied life and portrait charcoal drawing. The school is now called the Charles H Cecil Studio and many artists began their career there.

Marriage and children intervened but I still found time to make and sell such diverse things as painted wooden firescreens, bargello cushions and large painted silk quilts. Being keen on art I joined a local group taught by Clare Hackney; when she moved away the group remained together and we now provide our own set-ups and models and have the occasional workshop. I sell my paintings through local art societies and galleries, and also open competitions in London with the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolour (RI) at the Mall Galleries and the Royal Watercolour Society at Bankside. I have also had works hung by The Society of Women Artists, David Shepherd Wildlife Artist of the Year and the Federation of British Artists.

"Inspiration is a fickle thing. Sometimes it can be lacking and then, bingo! You see something and it seeds an idea."

Having kept chickens most of my life I thought I could write a down-to-earth book about keeping them. I was lucky enough to have this published by David & Charles, who included a few of my paintings of chickens. This opened the door to a more comprehensive book about chickens: The Illustrated Guide to Chickens with a foreword by HRH The Prince of Wales, and a further five books after that.

By the time I was working on my third book I began looking for ways to vary the illustrations and attended an 'Introduction to Printmaking' course at Ochre Studios in Guildford. At first I concentrated on dry point engraving but then discovered linocutting and have never looked back!

Where do you find inspiration?

Inspiration is a fickle thing. Sometimes it can be lacking and then, bingo! You see something and it seeds an idea. Sometimes that seed is slow to germinate and sometimes an idea arrives fully formed. It might simply be seeing oranges in a supermarket and thinking of complimentary colours, maybe using two pieces of lino. Or perhaps visiting the Isle of Mull (where I holidayed with my family every year, for 21 years) and seeing the puffins. One thing leads to another.

Or it might be during one of our art group set-ups. We had a huge glass bowl full of apples, on black felt on the floor; the black felt produced wonderful reflections and I noticed how the black background made the fruit zing out.

What draws you to nature?

To me nature is a constant interest and joy. This means everything from flowers (I have a herbarium - a collection of pressed flowers, seaweed, tree leaves, etc - running to 12 huge albums), to birds, animals, animal signs - even droppings, believe it or not! You can learn a lot from them.

I have written and illustrated two books about nature; I get so much pleasure and excitement from small things like seeing or hearing a buzzard, or spotting the first celandine in the spring. My inspiration comes from what I see around me in the country. You can tell the time of year most of my pictures were created by what's in them, be it
convolvulus or quince, tulips or fieldfares.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

I love the physical carving of my designs: will it work or will it be a disaster after all that labour? You never know until the first print comes off the press. I also enjoy the total absorption of painting - people say it's so relaxing; it's not! It is quite exhausting if you are concentrating hard, but there is nothing better than finishing what you are sure is a masterpiece. It is usually wise to put a painting away for a few days and then have another look. Often you can see what needs attention - or that it is not the masterpiece you thought, after all.

Any advice for would-be printmakers?

Give it a go! Don't be fooled into thinking linocutting is just what you did at school - you can produce quite sophisticated works of art of a style sometimes stronger than a painting. Also, buy the best tools you can afford.

What connects the works in this show?

The works in this show represent my interest in birds and nature and love of colour. As an artist one is continually evolving new ideas and I am constantly striving to improve technique, approach subjects from a different viewpoint, try different media and genre, all of which I hope comes over in this show.

Any plans for the future?

One thing I've never tackled is landscapes; I would love to be adept at abstract landscape. I would also like to try Japanese woodcut.

Inspired by Nature: Celia Lewis runs until Sunday 24 February at Watts Contemporary Gallery.

Images: Barn Owl, linocut; Cacophony of Cockerels, hand-tinted linocut; Celia Lewis in her studio (credit: Emma Lewis); Margaretha's Coffee Pot, mixed media; Pears in a Glass Bowl, watercolour.

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