Nicky Hunter is an artist, textile designer and art tutor. She works in the fashion industry creating bespoke designs, runs popular watercolour workshops and is well known for her particular style of loose and lively Watercolour florals.
Nicky has a studio at Westbury and shares with us how she became a textile designer, the differences between being a designer and painting as an artist and of the recent challenges she's faced during lockdown.
HOW DID YOUR ARTISTIC JOURNEY START?
I don’t ever remember a time when I wasn’t creating and making something, as a child I was always drawing or tinkering with a craft kit.
I remember going to Girls brigade for no other reason than being able to join the art activities and sewing badges and braid to my uniform and parading around in it so proudly!
My love of art and making things continued into secondary school, I loved being in the art room, I would spend hours and hours in art class obsessing over my work. I tolerated doing other subjects just so I could get the grades in order to go to art college.
I completed a diploma in general art & design and loved it! I hadn't discovered the joy and challenges of watercolours at this stage, no body teaches you such a refined skill at that level of education. It's more about developing a wide variety of art and design disciplines in order to find your artistic preferences, but colours and patterns and the textile classes were my favourite, aside from fine art and painting!
I really did want to pursue fine art, however I remember a family friend making a comment "You will never make any money out of being a fine artist and you'll be starving". Whilst I didn't appreciate hearing it at the time perhaps it did make an impression and helped me think about the direction that I wanted to take. So I decided to focus on textile design and I began to concentrate my energies within this area.
"You will never make any money out of being a fine artist and you'll be starving!"
I really enjoyed all of the textile projects which were thrown my way – including designing and making a big swirling skirt covered in poppies! For my final project I made a patchwork jacket out of dried bits of fruit; I used the scanner at college and would spend hours scanning in bits of fruit, orange net and fruit bags as well as the odd sticky fruity sweet wrapper - I'd wrecked the scanner in the process but had produced an amazing patchwork jacket that was all plastic and scrunchy with zainy neon colours. Totally unwearable but a real show stopper.
This piece got me a place at University where I embarked on a degree in surface pattern designs. It was very much a commercial degree, developing design skills, designing wallpaper, cards and gift wrap as well as fabrics for fashion and home furnishings.
Having completed my degree at Demontfort University in Leicester I began working in a silk manufacturing company, it was a family business who were just entering the UK bridal market. My job was to design the embroidery to go on the bodices, waistcoats as well as the bridesmaid dresses - I loved this job as much of my time was spent drawing patterns and playing with jewels, different coloured threads and luxurious silk fabrics.
I particularly loved the trips to the fabric mills in India where I would be totally immersed in a rainbow of colours and the lustrous shimmering silk fabrics. The working environment and the culture of this amazing bustling country was equally as fascinating! We soon paved our way as the leading UK designers for embroidered silk products.
It was a great period for me, many of my designs were often featured in bridal magazines and some even made it onto TV. I had one of my designs feature in Coronation Street!
I felt a little bit famous for a while!
I dealt with some amazing clients from film set dressers on films such as Gladiator, Hannibal & Cleopatra to clients from manor houses, theatres and palaces. It always felt exciting to think of all the fabrics going off to such wonderful destinations.
Later on in my career I Joined Jacques Vert (Women's clothing brand) - This is where my love of flowers really flourished!
Designing embroideries and printed patterns for a variety of ladies fashion brands, I was working with a team of fashion designers where everybody had a fantastic creative mindset combined with commercial skills, it was a great learning curve and very fast paced.
Whilst all this was going on I was also working for an agent doing some freelance work, this developed into a fairly busy part of my working life, I suddenly found myself doing a collection a week which consisted of 4-8 designs.
Some of Nicky's textile designs
Times have changed more recently – At one point all my designs would sell, now it’s a little more challenging. The global economy has had a huge effect and people aren’t as interested in fashion anymore.
"Saturday’s used to be the day when you went out to buy new clothing and wear it that night"
The way people go out now is different, younger people aren’t as individual or as experimental with their personal look as before. Nobody dresses up as much now, it’s all jeans and tops. It’s more informal both at work and in leisure, peoples shopping behaviour has changed and it's almost like fashion has become less important and less interesting in the world.
Before the internet, fashion offered really exciting careers, you had to get on a plane to go to a trade show to source inspiration and develop a range, you used to buy glossy books and magazines to see new trends emerging, a lot of this is done online now. Consumers have lost their enthusiasm for fashion and brands have lost some of their uniqueness and identity and many no longer exist!
IS THERE A PROCESS TO YOUR DESIGN WORK?
I tend to look at the catwalks and I’ll see something I like and think I’ll do something along those lines. I'll look at colours and patterns to establish what's ‘on trend’, for example it may be supersized tropical floral patterns or dainty micro scale florals with a summer meadow feel.
I also think about which country it's likely to sell to, the markets are very different across the globe and change constantly with the season.
Once I've established these fundamentals I'll make a collage around me and scatter a load of photos and flowers for inspiration. I then start illustrating and painting the elements for each design. A set of designs could include 5 or 6 designs with a similar look or feel, often with a similar colour palette.
I then scan my images and modify the scale, colour and take out bits that I don't like, I then turn it into a repeat pattern so it looks like a piece of fabric on screen. The design gets sent off to the fabric printer to be printed after which my agent will take a sample in order to show to clients.
TELL ME ABOUT YOUR CURRENT ARTISTIC PRACTICE AND YOUR TEACHING, DID YOU SET OUT TO BE A TEACHER?
I still work as a freelance textile designer and my work is still very much floral based, I also work as an artist where I continue to paint flowers, although more recently I'm breaking into new subject matters.
For the last 3 years I’ve been teaching others to paint flowers. People love it and I’ve improved as a watercolourist in the process - I have quite a following now. Flowers are the usual subject matter but sometimes I’ll throw in something else like a landscape or still life or something fun like characterful little puffins, my students loved this class and it was a delight to see their paintings and puffin characters literally come to life on the page.
I didn't plan to be a teacher it sort of found me, although I did do a teacher training course some years previously which I left in order to pursue design.
Four years ago I was painting in an open garden and a lady came up to me and asked whether I would teach her and a small group, I agreed to do a one day workshop. They must have really enjoyed it as this group formed the first of my regularly monthly flower painting groups and some of these students still paint with me today.
I continue to run regular watercolour workshops, and have a loyal following of students. I offer classes at Westbury Art Centre as well as other venues around Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire and Oxfordshire.
I do enjoy teaching I liken it to being on stage, you're holding a space for students to create something magical. It's fantastic to welcome students to the class all nervous and excited and see them leave exhausted but happy with what they've produced.
"I love the magic of having a blank piece of paper and a whole world of something when you've finished - The white paper has transformed!"
WHAT DOES HAVING A STUDIO AT WESTBURY MEAN TO YOU?
I’ve been here for 6 years – I was getting tired of commuting to London and I really wanted to broaden my illustration and painting repertoire. I knew this could only be done through the freedom of freelance work for a fashion studio rather than working in a commercial design role as there is a tendency to get pigeon holed doing the same style of work.
Westbury has become a massive part of my life, it's my creative base. My studio is where I am most "on purpose" and developing my life's passion, both for myself and others to enjoy.
I go there almost daily and treat my creative work with full-time commitment and full focus and dedication.
When we were in lock down I felt like I'd lost a limb. I was trying to paint at home on the kitchen table - My work became very small, tight and very botanical, although a great period of observational practice It did reflect how the world and our mindsets had become, I found it quite frustrating to work in such a confined way.
As we started to re-open from our isolated worlds I returned to Westbury and my work started to open up – looser, bigger bolder brush strokes and I went back to how I love painting.
I NOTICE WITH SOME OF YOUR MORE RECENT WORK YOU’VE CHANGED DIRECTION AND SEEM TO BE PAINTING OTHER SUBJECT MATTERS, IS THIS DELIBERATE?
Yes I’ve been painting mushrooms, people, swans as well as other subjects, I’ve set myself a goal of being able to paint anything within 5 years.
I don’t really think I will be able to paint anything, as you do need to have a passion for the subject to dedicate your time and attention in order to paint it well. However I would like to branch out and paint other subject matters with the same proficiency as my florals such as lush floral filled gardens, dancers or people and places from locations I love such as India, Spain and Morocco.
Florals will always be my first love, painting and illustrating them in various mediums such as ink, watercolour and pastel.
I’m currently going through a transition period from a textile artist to more of a watercolour artist, its exciting but takes focus and dedication.
IS IT A CHALLENGE FOR YOU AS AN ARTIST TO GO FROM PAINTING FLORALS TO A DIFFERENT SUBJECT MATTER?
Yes, I’m totally out of my comfort zone, but I think the desire to overcome that discomfort really is an essential driver to be a successful artist and move forward .
As a textile artist you design a collage of appealing floral images that mingle together sympathetically but have to be graphically strong to have a visual impact. The design must be bold, clear and balanced in colour and scale and effective from a manufacture point of view to mass produce.
Art is viewed and sold in a totally different way, so although my illustration and painting skills are fundamentally in place it feels like I’m almost going back to the drawing board and finding out how to be a fine artist, which was after all my original dream at college. When creating a painting you are setting a stage to be observed by a viewer from one direction. Composition, depth of field, subtleties in colour and tone and taking the viewer on a journey through the painting are many of the different things to consider and skills I’m developing.
Both the artistic process and end result of what a textile designer and an artist are aiming to achieve are very different, not only do the final results look distinct but they feel different when creating them too, a separate energy and mindset is applied for both practices. Different materials are used too, watercolour doesn’t translate well for textile design so I use bolder inks and more saturated colours. Both are satisfying and challenging but very different.
WHAT'S NEXT FOR YOU AS AN ARTIST?
I’m aiming to constantly improve my watercolour skills and expand the quality and depth of subject matter, but without making my work tight or laboured; that loose transparent glow and spontaneous splash of colour with the evident dance of the brush stroke must always shine through.
I’m inspired by watercolour artists like Jackie Deveraux – She encouraged me to develop as a fine artist. She’s a wonderful tutor and friend, she’s the president of the society of graphic artists, Jackie is a true inspiration to so many. She's in her 70’s still brimming with energy, and creativity and teaching regularly. She uses the most vibrant and delicious water colour combinations that glow and radiate from the paper which can be seen on her website https://www.watercolour-online.co.uk/
I'm looking forward to getting my classes up and running again and expanding my teaching.
I'm due to start some workshops at Missenden Abbey – which is a prestigious venue, I used to go to paint there years ago with inspiring teachers such as Jackie Deveraux, and now feel honoured to be one of their guest tutors.
I’ve also been working on a series of Roses, at some point when Covid is a thing of the past and I can have a proper Private View and go to town with an exhibition I'll look at showcasing this particular series of work.
WHATS YOUR PROUDEST MOMENT AS AN ARTIST?
As a designer winning awards “for the best fabric collection”, I obtained this award when working for the bridal company. It was a fantastic company achievement, I felt proud of myself as well as the team. As an artist I feel I'm on the cusp of something exciting right now and the best is yet to come. I'm really proud of my recent paintings. Lock down has been a tough experience but the time and space I've had to focus purely on developing my own watercolour skills has been a revelation.
WHAT DO YOU LIKE ABOUT BEING AN ARTIST?
You can make your own world as an artist, a magical world of colour. You start in the morning with a blank piece of paper, if it’s a good day something fantastic turns up!
On a not so good day you may end up feeding the bin with paper, but you have learnt on the way and just have to start afresh tomorrow.
I’ve started taking photos as I’m doing the work so I can look back and see the process evolve and share it with my students to help inspire them.
If you would like to find out more about Nicky's watercolour classes contact her on firstname.lastname@example.org