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Suffolk: Animal magic with 'The girl Who Could Draw'

PUBLISHED: 18:08 18 July 2011

LIGHT AND SHADE: Artist Frances Vincent in her studio near Ipswich

LIGHT AND SHADE: Artist Frances Vincent in her studio near Ipswich

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'Work hard at school. Get a regular job', runs conventional wisdom (always assuming you can land a job, of course). Art? You'll never make a living from it. It took Frances Vincent a while to realise she should be following her heart. A couple of months after taking the plunge, she tells Steven Russell there's no looking back

YOU need a lot of self-confidence to turn right when the rest of the world is nudging you left. Frances Vincent dreamed of becoming a full-time artist. She felt sure she had the ability – hadn’t people been saying so ever since she was a little girl at school? – but jumping into the deep end wasn’t easy. Conventional wisdom appeared to suggest she ought to get a “proper” job and do her artwork on the side, almost as a hobby. Any money she made selling her drawings would be a bonus. It wasn’t her relatives saying such things – they were all highly supportive and believed in her – just the vibe from society in general.

The teenager had a part-time job at a supermarket while at college – plucking items off the shelves to put together customers’ online orders for home delivery – and kept it after graduating in 2010. Drawing had to share her time and energies.

Trouble was, the job didn’t really bring in enough money. Frances couldn’t increase her hours at the store so came up with a Plan B – becoming an apprentice in February of this year (in a different line of work entirely) at £95 a week, in the hope of better future prospects.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t all she hoped. The 19-year-old stayed for only three months – deciding to leave and devote every minute of every day to her art, and figuring out how to get exposure in galleries.

“I’ve managed to do that since I quit. It really spurred me on,” she says, a couple of months down the line. “Now I’ve experienced it all, I don’t want to do anything else.”

The effort is already paying off. Frances says she’s filled her calendar for the rest of the year, securing spots in either galleries or shows. The schedule includes her London entrée: at The Llewellyn Alexander Gallery as part of the Society of Feline Artists’ annual show (August 26 to September 16.).

Animals dominate her work. (She’s an animal enthusiast, which helps.) Her chosen branch of art is photo-realism: a type of drawing that is very detailed and whose end result resembles a photograph.

Her normal method is to work from a photograph, taking between one and two weeks to finish a drawing (though she’s happy to burn the midnight oil if a client needs the drawing sooner – and was recently, in fact, toiling until 1am).

As a rule of thumb, a long-haired animal will be quicker to draw than a short-haired one, as the latter is more detailed.

The hardest to draw, she says, is probably a horse, though she likes doing them and enjoys capturing the equine muscle tone.

“Horses actually take a long time, because of the detail. When I do fur, I just flick my pencil, but when you do a horse, the hair is so tight that you need to draw every bit of it.”

It’s not all about four-legged friends. One of Frances’s haunting drawings is of a young soldier. Based on her brother, who was in the air cadets, it was done within two hours – drawn for a year 11 final exam at school. It earned her an A* grade.

“I have a massive passion for animals. If I didn’t do art, I’d want to get into a career with animals. But if someone wants to commission me to do anything, my drawing can be transferred to other areas. I can draw landscapes, flowers and especially portraits. I do really enjoy drawing the human form.”

The tools of her trade are regular Staedtler pencils. The hardest Frances uses is a 4H, giving a nice light line, and the softest an 8B.

Her “studio” for the past five years or so is the conservatory at her mum’s house near Bramford – just outside Ipswich – which has been given over to a light and airy workspace. My easel and other stuff does get moved out of the way when there’s a big Christmas dinner gathering, though, Frances laughs.

The bungalow is her home, too. Mum has been “really nice and charitable and let me stay here, and get somewhere with it. She knows it’s a slow process”.

Frances grew up in Suffolk, going to Somersham primary and Claydon High schools, and from childhood onwards always had a pencil or crayon in her hand whenever she could.

“I was known, basically, as The Girl Who Could Draw. At school, all my teachers knew I was going to do something with it later in life, and they were always encouraging me.”

From the age of about 15 she began to sell odd bits of work for £20 or so a pop, starting with commissions for friends and their parents – mostly drawings of pets such as dogs and horses.

It helped foster a belief that she might make a career of it. Not that life is that simple . . .

“All I wanted to do was draw, and sell my drawings, but everyone was telling me ‘You can’t make a living off of that. You can’t sell them for very much. It takes too long to do. Just keep it as a hobby.’”

After GCSEs came a national diploma in art and design at Suffolk New College during a time of transition for the institution: the first year spent in the established building, with paint splattered up the walls, and the second in the brand-new college art room that was clean and crisp and didn’t yet look like an art studio.

College was very good, Frances reflects, because it took her out of her comfort zone by encouraging students to try other media and approaches, such as digital design, graphics and painting. “But I always come back to drawing!”

And, actually, the drawing was going pretty well. The artist had built up the number of art shows she entered around East Anglia – commonly held in community centres, village halls and buildings like that, and lasting a weekend or three days – and sold an encouraging number of drawings.

At the start of the college course she had a part-time job at Primark in Ipswich, swapped that for the supermarket role, and continued working there a few days a week after getting her diploma.

Realising she needed a bit more cash, she took that chance with the apprenticeship in the hope of boosting her future prospects. The fact it didn’t go as well as expected wasn’t all bad news: it helped crystallise her thoughts about art. It would be a crying shame if she didn’t attempt to fulfil her potential, so she’d give it a good crack.

Frances had thought she might have been able to combine “normal” work with art, and then reach a tipping point where the drawing could support itself. She had suspected, though, that creativity would suffer if she tried to hold down a full-time job. Tiredness would be a deterrent, “and I wouldn’t have that fear and incentive to push and try my hardest with art”.

Basically, she realises, being a freelance artist is what you make of it. Motivation comes from within. You have to push, shape your own opportunities – and take advantage of any luck along the way.

At this early stage, Frances is pretty pleased with progress. “I think I’ve achieved enough in a few months to make me think there’s something here that I can develop and make a living out of. I just dream of making a living out of it.

“If this is what can happen in three months . . . next year – well, limitless, really!”

What would really thrill is having people so like her work that they decide to collect it. Another ambition is to break properly into the London scene.

Something that frustrates is the popularity of modern art. Frances admits getting annoyed when she sees work she “could dash off in three minutes” – a mark on a canvas, say, or a piece of paper on a table that’s described as an installation and is snapped up for thousands of pounds.

“It really does frustrate me, because it could take me two weeks of constant patience and determination to get a drawing done. It’s really, really satisfying when I’ve finished it, and I really want to show it to the world. But someone might look at it and think ‘Well, that’s not ‘saying’ anything to me . . . it’s not communicating anything.’

“Well, I’m an artist that has used a photo and made a piece of artwork out of it. As far as I’m concerned, that’s good enough to go on a wall and look proud on that wall!

“These modern artists: they get a chair, stack it up, and say it’s art – and then sell it! You haven’t made the chair; why are you selling it?! Silly!

“I feel like I’m battling against that. I hope people out there understand what I’m saying and relate to me, and want to buy my art even though I’m not going with the times. I’m old-fashioned, I suppose, and I like my fine art.”

She agrees she probably wouldn’t have much in common with Charles Saatchi, the legendary collector of modern pieces. (That said, she does have a presence on www.saatchionline.com, set up by the Saatchi Gallery to let artists display their work and sell directly to buyers.)

Drawing is such a fundamental skill, Frances argues, though not one to take lightly or for granted. It’s the basis – the foundation – of a painting, and it’s hard to produce a painting without making a proper drawing first.

Photorealism’s more than a drawn outline. “It’s a layer on top of a layer on top of layers, and finally you get this drawing that looks like a photo.”

The eyes are always the most important aspect. “They bring a drawing to life, and if you can’t get the eyes right, it’s not as sellable. You want to have a connection with the person looking at it. The eyes are powerful, strong; they’re really detailed” – hence the advice to clients not to provide a photograph in which the subject has red-eye! There wouldn’t be much there to copy!

Frances spends her time producing pieces – either to commission or to put on show – or trying to catch the attention of galleries. Much time is committed to writing emails or speaking on the phone. One does have to be quite pushy and confident, she says.

Rejection is hard to bear, but the life of a freelance means dusting oneself down and ploughing on. If something doesn’t work, take another tack.

Self-motivation is crucial. Frances concedes that, being a one-woman band, it’s easy to feel downhearted from time to time.

“You do get to points when you think ‘How am I ever going to make any money out of this?’ Because it’s so unpredictable, you think ‘How am I going to pay the bills and do all the normal things in life?’ But then I think to myself ‘I’ve got something; I need to stick at it and prove it.’”

There are, of course, moments along the way that set the spirits soaring. She remembers the time she sold all five drawings at the East Anglian Art Exhibition and Sale in Needham Market for £35-40 each.

“It’s such a satisfying feeling when you go to collect your art and they say ‘All your pieces are sold.’ You think ‘Wow! People have wanted to spend their hard-earned money on my work!’”

Why does drawing thrill her?

“It’s mostly knowing that people are going to get pleasure out of the end result. It’s satisfaction: that was a blank bit of paper and now it’s a horse. I can look at it and say I’ve created that. My patience and – well, don’t want to boast – my skill has meant that this blank piece of paper has turned into something someone can enjoy.”

n Phone: 07904 725 128 or 07508 276 011. Web: www.fvarts.com

n Forthcoming gallery dates include Bookends Gallery, Sudbury, August 13 to September 10; The Gallery Highwaymans, at Risby, near Bury St Edmunds, September 30 to October 30.

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