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An interview with... the artist Rachel Lockwood

I must have been four or five when I knew I wanted to be an artist. My dad sat me on his knee and did a drawing of a seal balancing a ball on its nose. I looked at it and everything lit up in my head. From that moment onwards, it was my mission to be an artist.

Everyone used to give me ‘Paint By Numbers’ for Christmas. I was probably obsessive. At school the headmistress put a table outside her office so at break time, instead of playing outside, I could sit and draw. I was utterly focussed and just drew and drew and drew.

I went to Psalter Lane Art College in Sheffield, which was brilliant. You were allowed to delve into everything. Afterwards, I wanted to escape to London so I chose to do a degree in scientific illustration at what was then called Middlesex Polytechnic, formerly Hornsey College of Art and Crafts.

It was an intense four-year degree course - they gave me Gray’s Anatomy to read before I started. It was the best grounding. You had to observe. I’d go to London Zoo and spend ages just watching one creature, drawing its movement. I chose a squirrel monkey (I love a challenge!); I sat there for weeks producing pages and pages of line work.

It was around this time I met Sarah, who became my agent. My boyfriend and I decided to travel in Indonesia and Australia for a year. It was amazing, letting everything go. Then Sarah invited me up to Norwich, where she ran a wildlife art agency. I never left. It felt like home straight away.

I took a studio at Muspole Workshops in Norwich and it was full of artists. People in Norfolk were accepting of who I was; they were more relaxed. It felt like there was space to grow within myself, rather than being told what I should or shouldn’t be.

Sarah and I went for trips along the Norfolk coast and it opened up our world. The beaches, the woodland, the marshes… my love for it kept growing. But I felt more and more trapped in what I was doing as an illustrator. Then I got ME and had to take a couple of years off. During this time I started oil painting.

Oil painting is so instant - I love the intensity of colour. I felt my way through, as I didn't learn to do it at art school. But gradually it becomes part of you. You become inventive because you have tools you are trying to learn and push.

I’m like a hunter-gatherer. My subconscious mind is constantly gathering, whether it’s people or the landscape. I start with a mark on a canvas and if I’m not being distracted by anything, I go deeper into my mind and it starts to drag things out. The trick is not to let your conscious layer get in the way as it wants to organise and make sense of everything. It’s getting to the things that don’t make sense, which I find exciting. That’s when I know it’s getting good.

If I haven’t been outside for long enough my pictures stop. I like to wander around and absorb haphazard things; sometimes I am conscious of it, sometimes not. Up on the heath, the light glitters through the trees. At times I think, ‘oh I have to remember the light coming through the trees' - and other times, it’s just shapes and movement. I find movement really important, the creatures moving through the landscape. I just let it go in.

Cities fascinate me as well. We were staying in Highgate and I noticed a skinny building, squeezed between others, which someone had painted bright yellow and black. It really struck me. The same day, we walked round the park and I looked at the structure of the trees, and I had a painting in my head. I painted it and called it 'Urban Forest Highgate'. I was so pleased with it.

My studio is my haven. I need space to let the ideas come out. When I look at a blank canvas my brain has to be empty, then I see marks coming out of the canvas. I make the mark wherever it wants to be and then the thing starts to evolve. It’s a bit like feng shui in a painting. I feel that mark has to go there. And then another mark has to go there… This amazing thing starts to happen. It begins to connect and I realise it is something that I have seen. I trust it each time.

Reaching 50 has been a benchmark for me - I feel like it is a new beginning. I have a feeling something big is coming. It’s really exciting. I just have to be patient. I always want challenge and to push my work on, but I am being gentle with myself and letting things evolve. I have done a lot less work in the past year, but the pieces I have done I’ve been really pleased with.

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