Art student Zoe Cooper looks all set to become another of Suffolk’s young art ‘stars’, following in the footsteps of Jelly Green and Ania Hobson. 

Zoe has just picked up the annual Anna Airy Award, given to the most promising young artists in Suffolk, and has also been selected by the Royal College of British Artists to be part of their Rising Stars exhibition at London’s Mall Galleries next year. 

It’s clearly been a dizzying couple of months for the 18-year-old, which have seen her move from being a student at One (the sixth form college just off the A14 at Copdock, formerly known as Suffolk One) to setting up as a professional portrait artist. 

She clearly has the talent but, perhaps, more crucially, she has the confidence and an awareness of the world at large. Two key assets to make her mark in the highly competitive world of commercial art. 

Despite that confidence, she remains grounded. Speaking to her at the Anna Airy exhibition, she is very down-to-earth and acknowledges that she still has much to learn, much to discover. But it is this artistic adventure which excites her. 

“I have just finished studying two years of A Level art at One, which was great, and I have decided to dive straight in and try and establish myself as a full-time artist," she says. 

She admits that this bold move has taken a lot of people by surprise and her parents took a lot of convincing before they came to terms with the idea she could make a living from art. 

“Everyone is very surprised when I tell them and I have thought long and hard about this and I don’t think that university or art school is right for me at this stage. 

“I am afraid that they may try and shift me away from what I know I am good at and divert me away from painting into some other branch of art, something I know I will not enjoy.” She pauses for a moment collecting her thoughts before adding: “I am pretty set on what I want to do. I know my style, I know what works and what I want to create and I fear that a university will spend three years trying to steer me away from that, making me miserable while also piling up a huge student debt.” 

Zoe says she has had a lot of support from her parents who have allowed her to turn a spare room into a studio – provided the paint and the white spirit stays away from the rest of the house. 

It is clear Zoe knows her own mind and has the determination to succeed. So, has she always had this burning desire to become an artist? 

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“I’ve always been creative but when I came to One I didn’t know that I wanted to be a painter. I took photography and games design as well, which are creative and are linked to art and creative design, but two years ago I didn’t have my heart set on being a portrait painter. I was exploring what was out there. 

“The more I worked on my painting skills, the more I enjoyed it and the more I felt that this was for me. I have been told that I have an aptitude for painting, which is great to hear and now I certainly would love to make a career out of painting if I can. I think the Anna Airy award certainly gives me a good start along with my inclusion in the young artists exhibition at the Mall Galleries in London next year.” 

So with interests in photography and digital media what is her preferred media in creating a portrait? “I am absolutely fascinated in oil painting. I just lose myself in it. I love the endless possibilities that oil painting provides – the fact that you can go back in and change things or add some extra detail. It gives you time to step back and think – to try and view your work objectively rather than make spur of the moment decisions which you are then stuck with – although, having said that, instinct is often the best way to go. It stops you over-thinking things. There’s a lot to learn but I do enjoy it.” 

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She says she is well aware that she shouldn’t let her enthusiasm run away with her - at the moment dedicating herself to improving her skills and discovering new ways of doing things. 

“I am spending my time doing portraits, lots of portraits, refining my style, my technique. I have already started getting some commissions which is great because that means I am tackling new subjects – people that I don’t know. If I am painting friends then I know their faces, their personalities very well. It’s more challenging to create a portrait of someone you don’t know, particularly if you are working mainly from reference photographs.” 

Zoe says that school, quite rightly, focuses attention on the creative side of the skill-set but she has found that once you are out in the world of commercial art, the business side of the equation is equally important – particularly when it comes to the unpredictable nature of time management. 

“Lots of my work comes from word of mouth – many friends of friends have approached me to do a portrait. I am also starting to get commissions from my Instagram page as I have started a Instagram account for my work and that has generated some interest.

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“When painting a commission I aim to get things right first time around, but realistically there are times when I need to take a step back, set the canvas aside for a few days and then come back and take a fresh look at it and see how it has developed while I have been away, evaluate it and carry on from there. 

“I don’t tend to scrap things. I much prefer to adapt what I already have done. Throughout the whole process of creating a painting I’m going: ‘This is terrible, I hate it… but I learnt to work through the problems. I have learnt how to fix mistakes, to be self-critical and then to stick with it, to trust the process and eventually I always end up with something that I am happy with – but sometimes it takes a while to get there. 

“I don’t want to be giving people, who have paid for a portrait, something that has been dashed off in a half-hearted fashion. I would never work with a ‘Sorry time’s up – take it away now’ mentality.  

“I’m never particularly worried about the clock ticking when I have been working on something for a while. I’ll only let something go when it’s the best it can possibly be – which may not always be cost-effective. 

“The commercial side of the operation, the business end of things, I find can get a little overwhelming because that is all very new and it can make your head spin.” 

Zoe is hoping that her inclusion in next year’s Rising Stars exhibition will help fill her order books. It was the judging process for the Anna Airy Awards that brought her to the attention of the Royal College of British Artists (RBA). 

Zoe said that her selection by the RBA came about through The Art Society in Ipswich (formerly NADFAS), sponsors of the Anna Airy Exhibition. They invited Anna Airy co-ordinator Jan Watson to tour Suffolk schools and sixth form colleges with a view to nominating the very best work from this year’s leavers. 

Jan chose 30 works to be included on a short-list for consideration alongside similar lists from other areas of the country. Zoe’s award-winning portrait of class life model Georgina was one of nine selected for the London showcase.

So how does she work? Her approach is a mixture of traditional and modern. She draws out her subject first, getting familiar with the subject’s features, the texture of their skin and clothing and how their hair looks, before scaling up the image onto canvas or hardboard and creating the final image in oils – working from plenty of reference photos. 

She finds capturing a likeness relatively easy, but the hard part is capturing the spirit or personality of a sitter having had only minimal contact with them. 

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“My main focus is colour – and using the power of white. I am not aiming for photo-realism. I want to create a painting not a photograph. The more impressionistic a picture is, the more of the subject’s personality comes through. I also think it captures texture better and allows the hair to become a focus. 

“I love the process of painting. I find it liberating. It allows me the freedom to offer my interpretation of what I see – how I perceive the subject. 

“If you take my painting of Georgina, the one that is going to The Mall Galleries and won the Anna Airey award, I tried to capture her personality through the use of the background colours as well as getting a physical resemblance. The painting, as a whole, represents who she is and that’s why a painting works better than a photograph which is just a still image of a moment in time. 

“If you know Georgina. She is always very serene and I thought I could communicate that through colour choices.” 

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Zoe also brings the same level of concentration and thought to her pet portraits which have proved popular with dog owners. She has even turned her hand to capture the soulful gaze of a prized cow. 

Does she find it hard to let a painting go? Is it clear when a painting is finished oir is there a danger of over-working it? 

“Once a painting is finished, I know it’s finished and I am happy to let it go. I’m never tempted to go back in and mess with something once I’m done.” 

For one at the very start of her career Zoe has tremendous confidence and focus. She realises although talent is essential, that alone can never guarantee success. She is learning to combine her love of art with the business skills necessary to turn her natural abilities into a proper career. 

Mind you, it helps if you enjoy what you do, and Zoe Cooper clearly relishes creating work that she and her sitters can be proud of. 

If you want to discover more of Zoe’s art then check out her professional Instagram account @zoecooper.artist or if you want to discuss a commission she can be reached by email on