Q&A with Helen Phoenix / by Kellie Miller

Helen Phoenix in her studio

Helen Phoenix in her studio

I’m always interested in artists’ processes and concepts, partly to understand my own working creative practices but also as a way to get to know my artists better. I would like to share with you my conversation with Helen.


What made you decided to be become an artist?

It really wasn’t a considered decision. I drew and painted from a child. There was nothing else I loved so much.

What do you love most about being an artist?

Sometimes the act of painting is so therapeutic and calming, at others absolutely frustrating! Overcoming problems and creating solutions is ultimately so rewarding.

Describe your studio what do you love and dislike about it?

My studio is white; it has a leather sofa that used to be white and a large window overlooking allotments. It is peaceful, which I love, and mostly untidy – I wish I were a tidy person!

What do you like wearing when you are painting?

I’m always most comfortable in my dungarees. I have several pairs that reflect the colours I’ve been using.

What do you dislike about the creative process?

Sometimes it’s getting started. At other times it is knowing when to stop, always a difficult decision.

Your paintings speak of joy - tell us why it is important for you to capture joy in your works.

It’s a wonderful world we live in. I like to portray my observations and emotions in my work. Hopefully this is also felt and seen by those who view my paintings.

You work with a medium called Egg Tempera. Why are you so fascinated by this material?

I have found the depth of colour, the washes and layers, enable me to create both the details I want but also the constant surprise of never quite knowing what is going to happen when a wash dries. I love working with the unexpected.

What is your favourite painting tool?

It’s my old no 1 sable brush.

Describe your working processes.

It’s important for me to be open to new ideas and to explore different practices. I get bored with repetition. I like to leave a work to dry overnight and view it with fresh eyes in the morning. I work in intense hourly sessions if I’m painting in lots of detail and like to loosen up with drawing when I can.

Bird on a Wing

Bird on a Wing

Flight of Fancy

Flight of Fancy

Tell us why garden birds inspire you.

They are all around us. Beautiful little glints of feather and noise. Endlessly fun to watch; I imagine them with little individual personalities. This is where the idea of my ‘Cloud Cuckoo Land’ came from. People transformed into birds.

Are there any other subjects you would like to paint?

I adore life drawing and am fond of still life. It’s important for me to return to observational work, to keep looking and seeing and developing creatively.

You have had some high profile clients; describe the works you created for them or how this came about.

I was lucky enough to have a grant from Goldsmiths which allowed me to explore ‘Cloud Cuckoo Land and to interview and paint some amazing personalities. Jonathan Ross became a Crested Bulbul, an impressively dressed bird. I was commissioned to paint Dawn French by a friend of hers to celebrate her marriage. She was a beautiful little owl holding her wedding rings!

If you could be an apprentice of any artist dead or live who would it be?

Gosh! A difficult question, it’s hard to think of just one. Grayson Perry would be fun.

Where would you like to see yourself in 10 years time?

Painting in the sunshine with some fresh dungarees surrounded by happy cats.