An Interview with Alison Nicholls from Port Chester, New York

Don’t let her current location fool you, Alison is a globe trotting watercolorist with an amazing talent, one of the best jobs in the world, and is doing some of the most noble work of anyone I’ve interviewed for The Watercolor Gallery.

I feel so honored to be just an aspiring watercolorist that has the chance to interview some of my favorite artists in so many areas of the world. Alison Nicholls was the artist that I started this series for, after I featured her Elephant Dust piece, and so I’m extremely happy to be publishing this interview now.

Growing up in England Alison began doing watercolor as a child. She then moved to Africa for 9 years sketching and painting in the bush. Recently she spent a considerable amount of time in the mid-western United States in Yellowstone National Park sketching and painting its wildlife. She is also a signature member of Artists for Conservation and frequently takes part in fund raising events for the benefit of our earth’s wildlife.

Let’s see how Alison answered our questions.

Alison, how did you get started in watercolor?

“As a child I was always sketching and in England (where I mostly grew up) watercolor is very widely used. It is also easy to clean up and great for outdoor use, so when I moved to Africa in 1994 and started sketching in the bush, I naturally turned to watercolor.”

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How have your tools changed from when you got started until now, and what are your favorite tools currently?

“I have 2 distinct sets of watercolor – the sketching kit I use in the bush (solid half-pans of paint) and the tubes of paint I use in the studio. In the bush I fit everything (except paper) in a large pencil case. In the studio I work on 2 large tables and use white plates as palettes. I prefer larger brushes and use a lot of water in my loose background washes. My small brushes don’t get too much use and the very smallest is only used for signing my paintings! I’m a bit of a purist and hardly ever use any ‘special effects’ in my work – its all done with paint, water and brushes.”

How do you prefer to work? Plein air, from a photograph, from memory? At a desk, outdoors, in a closet?

“My preferred studio is the African bush, where I sketch using pencil, pen and watercolor. This is my equivalent of a life-drawing class – I sketch whatever I see and don’t worry about composition or future paintings. When I get back to the studio I create my larger watercolors. Usually I come up with a painting idea and composition while I’m out walking – I don’t like to be in the studio as my previous paintings, sketches and photos will influence my thoughts. Once I have an idea in my head I come back to the studio and draw some small (1” square) pencil thumbnails to test the idea and composition. Then I draw the animal in pencil at the correct size. If I need to check specific details of an animal’s stance or shape I will find a suitable photo from my collection (I only ever use my own photos and don’t really like to use photos at all as they can be very deceptive). After that, I start painting on stretched watercolor paper.”

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What has been your favorite painting or painting experience?

“I don’t have a favorite painting, although generally I prefer pieces with a limited palette of colors and minimal detail. For example, I was very pleased with this piece “At Night” which shows 2 elephant bulls feeding at night. I particularly enjoyed painting the background wash and using these soft ochre colors. The painting has been accepted into the 97th Annual Exhibition of the Allied Artists of America at the National Arts Club in New York (November 2010).”

“Much as I enjoy studio work, all of my ideas and inspiration come from my bush sketching trips. So, if I had to chose my favorite painting experience, it would be sketching wildlife in the bush, surrounded by the sounds, sights and smells of Africa.”

Perhaps you could share two artists that have inspired you?

Adrienne Pavelka and Ali Cavanaugh.”

I think a lot of times we all take for granted the amount of work that goes into an artist’s work. It is really great to peer into Alison’s process. I love the idea of working on the composition of a piece by simply sketching a 1” version of the painting before you get started.

In addition to Alison’s website you can find her on the Twitter.

I can’t thank Alison and every interviewee that we’ve had so far here on The Watercolor Gallery enough. We’ve got a lot more really great interviews coming up and I hope you are all enjoying these interviews as much as I am.