It is my great pleasure to introduce readers to British artist Michele Clamp, scientist turned watercolourist.
Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Michele Clamp and I am a watercolour artist.
Why do you do what you do?
I am tempted to reply ‘Because I can’. If you had the opportunity to create beautiful things that reflect who you are as a person and how you see the world why wouldn’t anyone? But maybe that’s too glib an answer. On a day to day basis painting simply makes life worth living. Even when the work goes badly (as it often does) it is still worthwhile. Painting is difficult, frustrating, unpredictable, and often not taken seriously by many. And objectively I am unlikely to go down in art history and sometimes it seems unlikely I’ll make a living at it. But none of that detracts from the satisfaction of setting your brushes down at the end of the day with something new on the easel. If, as I am lucky to have happen, other people want to take your work into their homes and it gives them pleasure in their lives so much the better.
How do you work?
Regularly. That’s the main thing. I have a routine – go upstairs to the studio, put the lights on, put the radio on. Open the palette, top up any colors that are running low. Arrange the brushes and get the water pot filled with fresh water. Tape a fresh piece of paper to the empty board resting on the easel. It’s almost a ritual and it’s necessary. I am then in the right frame of mind to prod around in my subconscious to find out what I am itching to do.
As I am a watercolour painter and paint quickly I almost always complete a painting in a single session. This creates a lot of forward momentum as the weeks go by and I can move from subject to subject quickly. Other times I’ll work in series over a month or so. It could be birds one month, cityscapes another.
Even if a brush isn’t put to paper on any given day ideas are bubbling through my mind. These could be ideas for subject matter, design or style. A big portion involves reflecting on past works that may or may not have succeeded. What do I like, want don’t I like. Did I capture the light or the mood? Did it capture something about the moment that I didn’t expect and can I build on that.
What is your background?
Like many artists my interest was sparked in childhood. My father was a talented amateur artist when he was young but only had a limited amount of time to spend on it when I was a child. Even so I remember sitting beside him as he sketched outside. I had my own small sketchbook and tried to learn from him as he drew landscapes in the Essex countryside, marking in color and lighting notes as he went. These were intended to be preparatory sketches for larger oil paintings but sadly these almost never came to pass. However, I had almost no detectable talent at that point. My mother is still incredulous that I’ve ended up painting as she often remarks how bad I was in those years. It turned out that the art bug didn’t bite me hard until I was about 13. Somehow something clicked in a school art lesson. Mrs Amner our art teacher had put a group of us in front of a huge old mechanical typewriter and we were instructed to draw it. Not an easy subject for us but the longer I looked the more the complex mechanical shapes made sense and my pencil followed suit. I’d discovered the pleasure of truly seeing something and representing it on paper.
I loved painting and drawing throughout the rest of my school years and did them both in parallel with science and maths. When it came to deciding on college I plumped for science and went on to do a degree in physics at Oxford followed by a PhD. Art was on the back burner for many years. I had a wonderful career in science and worked in many interesting areas including the Human Genome Project. My science career took me from Oxford to Cambridge to MIT and Harvard and I was extremely lucky to be part of the genomics revolution over the past couple of decades.
I always knew I’d come back to art at some point although I didn’t know when. It’s little appreciated that science is a hugely creative endeavor. Like art it’s also all-consuming – you can’t dabble and expect to do it well. So after emerging 5 years ago from immersion in the research world I needed a creative outlet again. And watercolour was there waiting.
From 2012 to the end of last year I balanced painting with working. This year, however, we bit the bullet, quit our jobs and I get to paint full time. It’s bliss.
What is integral to the work of an artist?
Ah. There’s a quote about science by the famous physicist Richard Feynman that pops into my mind here. ‘The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.’ So honesty, humility, and at least an attempt to keep the ego on a short leash.
What role does an artist have in society?
Wow. That’s a biggie.
What has been a seminal experience?
These are all hard questions but this one stumped me for a long while. I have to admit that I am not one of those artists that hate everything they do. Not that I’m uncritical (not at all) but I’m usually pretty positive about the work I produce. Very rarely does something emerge that is totally worthless in my eyes. I am self-aware enough to realise that I am hugely biased and lucky enough that I don’t need huge amounts of external validation. A year after I had returned to painting, however, something happened that made me think this wasn’t just an activity to please me. I used to go to a lot of classes at the local adult education centre in Cambridge, Mass. and they’d regularly run shows with students work. When I’d been painting for about a year I managed to get 8 pieces into their summer show. I’d put prices on them but really had no expectations in that area. When I arrived at the opening I was astounded that 3 had already sold. As the evening went on 3 more sold and I was emailed by someone later to buy another one. One painting was so popular the organisers emailed me to ask if I had anything similar as they’d had so many requests. It gave me huge confidence that this wasn’t just a solo journey.
How has your practice changed over time?
The big thing was understanding how important just showing up is.
What art do you identify most with?
We live in a very noisy world. So shouty art is not my thing. Art that screams at you and grabs you by the lapels is not for me. I like art that slowly gets under your skin. Art that creeps up on you over a period of time. Art that you come back to after years away and go ‘Ah yes now I get it’. Subtlety, nuance, layers, longevity. I’m British – what do you expect?
What work do you most enjoy doing?
Oh that’s easy – good work. Definitely good work. Seriously though it’s easier to answer that by thinking about the work I don’t enjoy doing. And that is work that I do when I start taking myself too seriously. Stuff that I plan when things are going well and I think I’m really getting to the next level. I get really ambitious and start large complicated paintings and work really hard and all the fun goes out of it. I start fooling myself in other words. I learned early on that your really good work comes from painting what you want to paint. However you don’t consciously choose what you want to paint – it comes from somewhere below the surface and it takes practice to let that side of yourself free.
What is your favourite artwork?
That is far too difficult a question to answer. If I absolutely had to pick one it would be John Sell Cotman’s Chirk aqueduct. It’s a watercolour (of course) and I first came across it as a kid in one of my parent’s art books. It has everything I love – subtle colors, strong design and I enjoy it a little more every time I come across it. The composition is slightly off kilter – it looks as though it doesn’t quite fit on the page. It’s a little disconcerting the first few times you come across it but it’s that little bit of quirkiness that offsets the restrained colors and apparent lack of action.
Is the artistic life lonely? What do you do to counteract it?
Hmm. Is it any lonelier than all the corporate nonsense I’ve had to deal with elsewhere? Performance reviews, 360 assessments, endless pointless meetings, snotty emails, deadlines and justifications? Nope, not really. Just don’t look at the bank balance.
What is the best piece of advice you have been given?
A few months after I’d started painting again regularly I was showing someone photos of what I’d been doing on my phone. I was still feeling my way but some were good, some not so good, but there was definitely something worthwhile there. On one photo they stopped – it was a quick watercolour still life sketch. I’d managed to do something with lush colour and broad brushstrokes and it had confidence and ease and energy. ‘Oh Michele’ they said, ‘If only you could live your life the way you paint’. That comment has always stayed with me.
What wouldn’t you do without?
My husband James Cuff. Constantly supportive and encouraging even when things aren’t going well. And makes a mean gin and tonic.
Thank you for the insightful interview Michele. To see more of Michele’s work please contact her on the details below.
Website : micheleclamp.com
For Sale: micheleclamp.com/paintings-for-sale
Beauty, one brushstroke at a time.