My West London Life

Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year Christabel Blackburn


This year's Sky Portrait Artist of the year Christabel Blackburn spills the beans about painting Nile Rogers' portrait and what she loves about west London...

Do you live in west London?

Yes, I live near Barnes in South West London.

What is your favourite thing about the area?

I love how relatively quiet and leafy it is. Both my family and my husband’s family live in Dorset so it’s great for getting out at the weekend. It’s also so easy for me to jump on the train and go to galleries, my favourite thing about living in London.

What are your favourite places in west London to while away a day?

I love the Design Museum on High St Kensington, it has interesting exhibitions and it’s great for kids which suits me! My husband and I often go to that area on the Fulham Road which for some reason we call ‘the beach’. We start with a drink in the Drayton Arms and then go for dinner at Tendido Cero.

I think we’re very lucky in west London to have the Royal Court Theatre where you can see some of the best new plays and of course the Saatchi Gallery around the corner. But mainly I hang out in Richmond and Barnes, I used to live in Battersea which I adored but where I live now is much better for children. I love anywhere in London on the river.

You recently won the Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the year award, how does that feel?

It’s just been an incredible and pretty crazy experience! I feel so lucky to have been able to meet and paint the people I did, especially Nile Rogers whose home I got to visit in Connecticut. It’s really taught me to believe in myself as an artist, something I was very bad at before.

What was painting Nile Rodgers like? Did he sit well?

Nile is a legend, which scared me initially, but luckily I got on well with him from the start so spending time at his home and having him sit for a painting wasn’t too daunting and was actually really enjoyable. He mostly sat still, apart from when he was regaling stories of his life, which was perfect from an artist’s point of view; it’s important the sitter can talk so you can absorb their character. He had so much to give; it was the dream commission for me.

It wasn’t without its challenges though. I was seven months pregnant and the whole trip took less than 48 hours so it was very tiring. On my return, I met my husband at the airport to fly straight to Morocco for our scheduled holiday which had been moved. I felt so jet-set, it was very un-me!

How does portrait painting differ from other forms of painting?

I’m a bit of an introvert so I like to sit on the sidelines and observe, rather than take part. Without sounding creepy, I’m big on people watching! For me, people are the most fascinating thing to paint. It’s harder in many ways because you not only have to paint what’s in front of you but you also have to tell the story of that person’s character. Commissioned portraits are the hardest because your client also has to like it! It’s a collaboration, but that makes it all the more interesting.

Your work is renowned for paring down unnecessary details in order to really let your subject shine through, how has your technique evolved over the years?

I am fairly chaotic, so I have come to my style of painting through a cathartic journey of getting rid of any unnecessary information. It’s therapeutic for me to paint clear backgrounds, and to keep the colours fresh and clean. I was classically trained but never all that good at painting in the old master style.

What would your advice be to someone who wants to get into art but doesn’t know where to start?

Now is a great time to get lessons online. Artists who would never normally share their methods are posting videos on Instagram and YouTube for budding artists, @isolationartschool is a good place to find these. It’s amazing how creative people are being during this time and how industrious a national quarantine makes us.

If you weren’t a painter what would be your alternate-reality dream job?

I swear I’m not just saying this because of what’s going on in the world at the moment, but I’ve always wanted to be a doctor. I’m fascinated by how the human body works and would love to be able to help people.

You can find out more about Christabel and see her work, including her Nile Rogers portrait, over at:

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