Emma Colbert is Wild at Art

With her work starting to see international recognition, the Portrush-based painter hopes to progress even further from her signature pet portraits

Working in the creative industries is and always has been, a challenging business, with success often hard-won and only after years of perseverance. It’s something Belfast-born pastel artist, Emma Colbert, knows only too well, having honed her craft over the past number of years.

Currently based in Portrush, she recently won the Artists & Illustrators’ Reader's Choice Award in London for her magnificent red deer painting, 'The Family Tree'. With her prize £500 to spend on supplies from Cass Art, the city's leading retailer, she’s quite naturally delighted to have come out on top, but knows that it’s the result of a lot of hard graft.

That and perhaps also the support of almost 5,000 Facebook followers on her official Emma Colbert Art page. Yes, with such an impressive social following, Colbert admits her online supporters were surely instrumental in her win and that the platform has been a boost to her career on the whole.

'It really says a lot about the guys following me on Facebook,' she says. 'When you have a group of people on there who regularly like and comment on your work, they’re more likely to show you support [when you need it].'

Indeed, social media has proven to be a space where Colbert can successfully showcase her work and build a name for herself. It’s certainly one way in which she’s managed to establish herself in her chosen sector, while she also has a physical presence at Victoria Square shopping centre in Belfast most weekends.

Having graduated as an illustrator in 2008, Colbert concedes that her work wasn’t always at the level that it is now, and that she struggled at first to carve out a career.

'Just getting your name out there when you first start is difficult,' she says. 'I’d hate to be at that stage again. The first gallery I got myself into closed because of the recession. I then made the decision not to get a traditional job, but thought – I’m just going to be broke for a few years and that will motivate me and make me devote my time to making it work.'

Doing just this, Colbert focused on painting every day when there was no paid work to do, improving her art, practising constantly, and strengthening her portfolio.

Emma Colbert 2

'I’ve painted so many family and friends’ dogs,' she says. 'This is what I first created my Facebook page from. Pet portraits are my bread and butter. I really enjoy them and that’s an area which is still very fashionable in art.

'I used to paint wildlife with blurry backgrounds and my landscape work is me trying to get better at painting a range of things, to make my paintings more interesting.'

Unlike most artists, Colbert paints in soft pastels, which are somewhere in between chalk and oil. 'It’s the purest form of painting,' she says. 'Cave paintings are the earliest form of pastel painting. It was around long before oil painting. It’s so immediate, which I love, so you’re not mixing colours. You have the palette in front of you and can just pick it up and use it straightaway.'

Working photo-realistically, Colbert first photographs her subjects, amassing a series of shots and then generally photoshopping these to create the perfect picture to work from. She then uses this as the inspiration for her painting.

'I’ll maybe use a pose from one photo, but will then perhaps change the setting or background,' she says. 'The Family Tree' was made up of about seven or eight photos. It took months to create the composition for that, so it took a lot of time.'

Commissioned by a north coast man just over a year ago, 'The Family Tree' had a simple but rather unique brief – a family portrait… but with red deer.

'My client had the idea of the deer representing his family,' says Colbert. 'He wanted his father, himself and his three teenagers in it. That started me off painting red deer, which I hadn’t done before. I went to Gosford Park to photograph them and then thought about painting them under the branches of an oak tree.' 

Emma Colbert The Family Tree

The end result is a stunning portrait which obviously caught the attention of Artists & Illustrators’ readers. Colbert is keen to continue honing her art however, and hopes to weave more meaning into her work, rather than simply ‘painting pretty pictures’. A keen animal rights advocate, she says she would ultimately like her paintings to have more depth, although without forcing her views onto people. 

'I feel a responsibility as an artist to express those opinions,' she says. 'But I’m not the sort of person who forces it on others, so it would have to be very subtle. I haven’t found a way to combine saying those things and creating a beautiful image yet.'

In the meantime, her next plan is to record some YouTube videos to share tips of the trade, after requests from fellow artists to post real-time webinars they can learn from. She’s also setting off on an expedition with her other half – painting along the way, of course.

'In April I’m going to do a tour of Europe with my boyfriend, starting in the Netherlands and working our way south. Being out of a building is what inspires my work. I paint nature, so it makes sense to live in it.'

As for her advice for young artists trying to break into the industry, or thinking of pursuing art as a career, Colbert is clear on a couple of things. You shouldn’t be motivated by money, and you should develop a thick skin.

'Most people don’t realise that if you’re going into the creative industries, you need a lot of self-motivation. They don’t realise how difficult it is to make a success in any of the creative industries. I think art needs a spotlight and that young artists need more encouragement. I get a different reaction now than what I did at the start, but that’s because I’m established now.

'Also – I’m a person who’s not really motivated by money. I enjoy being able to earn a living from my art now, but it certainly wasn’t my motivation to get into this type of work.'

Follow Emma's travels and stay updated with her latest work on Facebook, or find out more about commissioning a piece by her at www.emmacolbertart.com.