Inspired by an old-fashioned dipping pen, Clare Brownlow has put unwanted pheasant tail feathers to good use, as Janet Menzies discovered – but you might want to stand back while she’s working
Clare Brownlow is proof that inspiration can spring from anywhere. For her it was an old-fashioned dipping pen, a pheasant tail feather used by her father to write his game journals, which she now uses to create her signature splatter effects.
For more sporting artists, Jolyon Madden‘s work is as attention grabbing as his front page splashes for The Sun. And Edgar Degas may be better known for his ballerinas, but his sporting art is any racegoer’s favourite.
Marriage and motherhood rarely make life easy for the budding artist, as Clare Brownlow discovered while trying to finish her end-of-year show at Edinburgh’s Leith School of Art before the birth of her first son, Harry. “The smell of the oil paints just wasn’t great,” she remembers. Harry has since been joined by Alfred at the family home, Ormiston House, near Kelso, where Brownlow’s husband, Charlie, has businesses running sporting holidays and recycling waders.
Having enjoyed painting at school, Clare Brownlow read History of Art and Fine Art before a brief period in investment management and meeting her husband. But art still called, so she attended Leith School of Art. “It was so incredible,” she enthuses. “Mixing pigments was fascinating. I did a lot of oil paintings of seascapes and landscapes. Then Harry was born just two weeks after the end-of-year show. I was painting as much as I could when Harry was little but with a small baby to look after it wasn’t ideal.”
The idea for using real pheasant feathers to paint pheasants and other birds came to Brownlow a little later. “I was at my parents’ house in Norfolk and my father had a bunch of pheasant tail feathers in the kitchen. My father writes his game journals using an old-fashioned dipping pen and it gave me the idea of using a pheasant feather like a goose quill as a dipping pen in different inks. I liked the results of that and the splatter effects. I took some of the sketches back up to Scotland with me and people started asking me for them. So, gradually, I found I was producing a range of different images and grew the commercial side of it.”
Certainly, this has been successful for Brownlow, whose paintings can command £3,500 or more. “I am branching out to do the retail side of things now,” she explains. “People can have my pheasants on place mats or mugs and so on.” Brownlow is also working on textiles and fashion prints for a country-clothing company.
What clients love about her work is that she so clearly loves it herself. Not for Brownlow the awful struggle with the empty canvas. “I love getting into the studio to paint commissions,” she says. “I was asked by a leading milliner to do one of a pig wearing a fascinator – that was certainly different and so much fun. Then I did one for the Buccleuch Hunt Ball of a fox in a top hat. One particularly nice commission was from a couple in Singapore who wanted me to do a Singaporean kingfisher for them. They had been trying for a baby for some time and apparently the kingfisher was flying around the house on the day they got news of the pregnancy, so that was very special.”
Brownlow is ambitious to expand her spectrum. “I am currently working with the Edinburgh Zoological Society doing some designs, which is really interesting. I also want to do lots more exhibitions and a wider range of subject matter,” she explains. “I would very much like the chance to get out to the Middle East to paint falcons flying, and horse racing is something else I would like to work on.”
But still nothing pleases her more than a quiet morning painting while her sons play happily outside, although this might not be as often as she would like. “I would like to do more work specifically for myself but I just don’t have time. The other day was so nice. I had some time in the studio while the boys were outside making dens and I loved it – but I do really like to paint things for other people. You would not want to paint anything that wasn’t lovely.”
Brownlow sees one of her strengths as a painter in her imaginative use of pheasant tail feathers to produce the finished work, and she hopes to build on this. “Compared with the traditional sporting art, I would like to bring a modern twist,” she explains, “something a little bit extra.” In a genre that includes luminaries such as Charles Audubon and Archibald Thorburn, and contemporaries Rodger McPhail and David Shepherd, this is perhaps a tall order – but Brownlow has ticked all her boxes so far.
Clare Brownlow can be commissioned via her website: www.clarebrownlow.co.uk