Instagram art star Helen Downie creates fantastical narratives.
Q: You started painting almost six years ago with no formal training and now you are producing portraits for internationally renowned fashion labels. How did it all start?
My life had gone in many different directions but not one in which there was the room to paint. I think I always knew that it would take over my life but the hardest part for me was to find the space to start. So, it happened very quickly; one day I wasn’t painting and the next I was, and I’ve been painting most days since. I had no thought as to what would happen, there wasn’t a sense of wanting to achieve anything beyond just being happy painting.
Helen Downie, 123.7 Miles Away, 2017, Boys are Sensitive, 2019, Oh to be a Boy, 2015, Courtesy of the Artist
Q: You have garnered a huge following on Instagram. How would you describe your relationship to social media now and is it still a private, intimate space for your art?
Instagram has evolved over the six years I’ve been sharing my work. In the early days it was a village community; now there’s worldwide engagement! It’s still an incredible place for discovery and meeting people although it creates a very specific value system which isn’t always compatible with making art. I have to mentally disconnect from the numbers but not from followers who I like interacting with. I still see my account as an intimate space for me to see and share my work and I’ve made a ton of new friends through it. I think it’s important to make the same connections in the physical world.
Q: Big oversized eyes, mystical animals, vibrant decadent colors, and fairytale-like backgrounds are common themes in your works. Where do you get your inspiration from and how do you create these imaginary worlds?
I’m constantly drawn to all types of religious art. It’s not that I’m religious, but I like the devotional aspect and that works its way into my paintings. I begin with a pencil and eraser, the process of sitting and drawing while listening to music seems to trigger my mind into a flow. It feels quite intuitive. I start with a loose image in my mind which can stem from an emotion or a personal memory mixed in with a dream. It’s quite chaotic and can feel like a battle to put on to paper, but once the faces of the characters appear, I feel like I must bring them to life and create a world for them. It’s like playing god.
Helen Downie, Last Night She Dreamt That Somebody Loved Her, 2019, The Green Eyed Toad, 2017, Courtesy of the Artist
Q: Your art has a very strong sense of style and character. How did you arrive at the style of figuration with which you paint?
I didn’t think about painting with a particular style and I still don’t, they are as they are. I’ve learnt not to doubt my first instinct as I’m not always aware of the reason for a decision until the painting is finished. It feels obsessive and those decisions seem to underpin the style of my work. The colour isn’t mapped out before I begin; that just happens over the journey of a painting. I think that one of the reasons my work is so bright is because I work for very long sessions and after a while my eyes don’t see the brightness. When I stop real life can look quite dull!
Q: The figures in your works are mournful, aloof, and eerie yet glamorous and sometimes child-like. Tell us more about them. What do you hope to convey through these figures?
Much of my work has an undercurrent of transience; it’s how I feel, I’m very aware of the moments passing by and the finality of life. I paint in the way I see people; often sad and often disconnected. Hidden family dynamics interest me; the way in which we can be surrounded by people yet feel very alone. I like to look at old family photographs and study expressions. I learn a lot from the way that people position their hands; there’s usually tension there. I’m sure how people see my work is different from person to person; it depends on their reference set. I think most people see past the bright colours and pick up on the underlying darkness.
Helen Downie, All In The Golden Afternoon Slumber, Protection, 2019, Courtesy of the Artist
Q: You said in an interview that you were expelled at age 15 from a convent school for wearing bright pink moccasins and a pink cardigan. Were you always interested in fashion? How do you relate to the people in your paintings and drawings?
Whether we are interested in fashion or not, we all have to get dressed in the morning and the decisions we make have a powerful impact on our day and the way that people react to us. So many secrets are given away in those choices, little codes to be read. Some of my earliest memories are about clothes, my own and other people’s, they’ve always been fascinating to me. Now though I don’t have to make so many decisions anymore; I wear paint splattered clothes most days and I feel very comfortable, probably the most comfortable I’ve ever felt, painting has been a way for me to forget myself and I like that.
Q: Would you say you still identify with your moniker, Unskilled Worker?
I still relate to the moniker of Unskilled Worker and I hope I always do.
Q: What’s next for you?
I’m excited to be collaborating with the wonderful charity ‘Hospital Rooms’ in the UK, where I’ll be working on a painting for a women’s mental health unit. I’ve also been working with one of my favourite bands, so I’m excited to see where that will go!
Helen Downie, The Book of III, 2018, Courtesy of the Artist