Vivienne Cawson is a professional painter who works in watercolour and water-based media. Fascinated by geometric designs from an early age, she trained as a textile designer at Leicester Polytechnic, winning awards for her designs, then worked as a freelance designer in the carpet industry. After teaching part time in further education Vivienne became Head of Art and Design at Stephenson College in Coalville, Leicestershire. In 2005 she decided on a complete change of direction and became a full time artist, and now shows her work at high end events nationally. and runs workshops from her studio.
A DAY IN YOUR LIFE
Tell us about what you do
Flowers are my main subjects. My love of geometric pattern has been with me for as long as I can remember and I often combine this with other elements and flowers in my painting.
Vivienne Cawson, 'Cosmos in a Pink Jug'.
As a young child, I would study my bedroom curtains trying to work out the repeat. My father, a designer, was a great influence and I took great interest in his projects which ignited my love for interior design and furnishing fabrics.
What does a typical day as an artist look like for you?
I love my garden and I love my studio and sometimes it can be a battle between the two. My garden is my inspiration, so I need to keep on top of it. I’m not an early bird, but try to get in the studio by 10am to do a few hours and then I get in the garden if the weather’s good. At some point during the day I’ll take a walk and I do yoga twice a week. The walk, the yoga and the gardening help me to sort out my head. They also allow me time away from the painting, returning with a fresh mind.
Has the lockdown made a difference to your routine?
Lockdown and Covid 19 have taught me to slow down and not feel guilty if I don’t paint every day. With everything being cancelled this year, I have worked harder to promote myself with monthly newsletters and social media. It has paid off and I have been successful with online sales.
What is your favourite media?
What I like about watercolour is that, if you allow it to, it produces lovely, sometimes unexpected effects.
Vivienne Cawson, 'Moth Orchid Stem in a Small Vase'
The secret is to let it happen and not fight it. Different pigments create different effects, according to whether they are transparent, opaque or somewhere in between. I mostly use transparent watercolour as I love the granulation it gives and I'm now a convert to the Daniel Smith range. I like to use other watercolour media with paint to create interesting effects. Caran d'Ache NeoColour II, Stabilo chunky water-soluble crayons, acrylic inks and water colour pencils are favourites.
What is the most challenging part of your work?
Getting started. When I go into my studio, the radio goes on straight away. If I don't like what's on the schedule I turn it off. then I make a start.
Vivienne Cawson, 'Pearl Harmony', watercolour
What is the most rewarding part of your work?
Being pleased with what I’ve painted. Customers parting with their money to buy a painting is the biggest compliment ever!
What skills are essential to you?
Drawing, observation and a good understanding of colour.
What were your best subjects at school?
Always art, it came naturally to me. Although I went to a Grammar School, I wasn’t academic, but enjoyed music, English and French lessons. I achieved well until it came to the exams which I just couldn’t cope with and usually put in a lousy performance.
How did you get to where you are now?
I studied Textile Design at Leicester Polytechnic, focussed on furnishing design. I won the RSA Bursary Award for carpet design in 1973, which took me to Turkey for three weeks. Instanbul was full of colour and I particularly remember seeing the rugs in the Blue Mosque - at that time the carpets were in layers with the newer carpets overlaying the older ones, sometimes six or seven deep.
Vivienne Cawson, 'Three in a Row', watercolour & gouache
On student work experience with a designer for ICI, my job was to produce hand painted colour samples to match the selected forecasted colours, provided by the Colour Council, for the season. The samples were distributed across the various divisions in ICI, paint colours for bicycles, plastics and other products. It was important to mix the colour completely accurately by eye and this has stayed with my throughout my teaching and painting career.
On leaving college, I worked as a freelance designer to the carpet industry for the European and American markets. I also taught part time at Southfields College, now Leicester College.
I was appointed Head of Art & Design at Stephenson College. I loved my job, with art modules included on a range of vocational, Access to Higher Education, GCSE, A Level and GNVQ courses at the college and I also worked with severe special needs groups. I usually painted during college holidays, but in my latter years of teaching, there just wasn't time for this. New contracts had been introduced and holidays were eroded and, becoming increasingly frustrated, eventually I left to become a professional painter in 2005.
Vivienne Cawson, 'Moth Orchid in Kew Pot', watercolour
How did becoming a professional artist work out?
When I set up as a professional artist I was being asked about how to paint watercolour, which in my opinion isn't an 'easy' medium to use. I did a session and rediscovered my love of teaching.
Vivienne Cawson's studio workshop
Now I run my own 2 and 3 day workshops for about five times a year, but limited to just four students in my studio.
Some workshops are themed, such as ‘Orchids’ to complement my book, but usually they are not and involve seasonal flowers, jugs or vases and fabrics for a still life.
I teach mixed ability groups from absolute beginners to those with more experience.
I provide all materials - except brushes - and refreshments, along with a home cooked, two-course lunch.
Art in the Gardens, Sheffield Botanical Gardens
It took a huge dose of self belief going for the big shows, all over the country and getting my name out there. I take my work to high end fairs, such as Country Living, the RHS shows at Hampton Court, Tatton and Wisley, and Craft in Focus.
Vivienne Cawson, 'The Visitor' cushion
From my paintings, I produce limited edition giclee prints, cards, calendars, mini prints and cushions, which are invaluable when I do events. I am currently working on a range of scarves.
I was elected to the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists (RBSA) in 2013, and as well as taking part in RBSA exhibitions, I've also shown my paintings at Mall Galleries and Westminster Hall. I now have a large contact list, both national and international, but this doesn’t happen overnight and it can sometimes take three appearances at an event, before people start to take you seriously and buy into your work.
What’s the proudest moment of your artistic career so far?
My first book, ‘The Kew Book of Painting Orchids in Watercolour’.
Vivienne Cawson, 'Kew's Orchids', watercolour
I enjoyed every moment in it’s production. The publishers were so supportive and I was given complete autonomy in its structure and contents. It’s been received well with two lovely complimentary reviews in The Artist and SAA magazines.
The feedback from customers has been wonderful too. Kew Gardens hosted two separate book signing events in their shop which was amazing.
What challenges have you faced along the way? How did you overcome them?
Many will empathise with me here. When lockdown was introduced and everything I had planned for was cancelled I didn’t see any purpose to my work. The Artist Support Pledge, initiated by artist Matthew Burrows gave me the incentive to paint. The idea is simple and effective with artists selling work for up to £200 and purchasing from another artist once sales have reached £1000. ASP now has over 170,000 posts and has generated an estimated £20 million for artists and makers across the globe.
Vivienne Cawson in her studio
My other challenge has been my hair. Such a trivial thing in these times, I know, but I’ve overcome it by making headbands from old tee shirts! Needs must!
Do you have any regrets?
I wish I’d had the courage to end my teaching career sooner and take up painting full time. Hindsight is wonderful, but with two sons at university it didn’t seem possible at the time.
EITHER . . .OR?
Vivienne Cawson, 'Tulips', watercolour
Coffee or tea?
Both! Tea on waking up, coffee at breakfast and then at 11ish, tea around 3pm and more tea later. The coffee has to be good though, no instant!
Michelangelo or Picasso?
Michelangelo - for his influence on Western art
Mac or PC?
Morning or night?
I’m neither an early bird nor a night owl. I seem to peak between 11am and 1pm. It’s downhill after that!
FAVOURITES . . .
Do you like music on as you work?
I generally have Radio 4 on in the background for company, and I’ve always considered myself fortunate in having a story read to me whilst working. However, if I need to gee myself up I’ll play some Bon Jovi or something similar.
Vivienne Cawson, 'From the Garden', watercolour
Who is your favourite musician?
I enjoy an eclectic mix of music so it's difficult to pinpoint an absolute favourite.
Your favourite book?
The book I’ve enjoyed the most recently is ‘The Dutch House’ by Ann Patchett
Your favourite three artists?
Grayson Perry - I love his ceramics and the stories he tells through this medium. His ability to connect and engage with all walks of life is amazing.
David Hockney - for his energy and production. I think his drawing is amazing and I admire him for embracing technology.
Howard Tangye - A fashion illustrator whose use of line to covey form is stunning. He taught illustration at St Martins and I have a wonderful drawing by him of my son when he was studying fashion there.
………and there are many more!
Things to do on a Friday night
G&T of course
There are too many favourite holidays to mention, but a trip to India remains memorable.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
Be true to yourself.
Vivienne Cawson, 'The Kew Book of Painting Orchids in Watercolour', Search Press, 2020 . . . read more The book can be purchased direct from Vivienne Cawson
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