Chasing dreams is something that motivates a lot of people. We try to save up and work as hard as we possibly can until we can achieve our goals. As important as that is, we are often reminded that what matters the most is the people next to us. Meet Vicki Sullivan, an artist based in Australia. In the interview below, the artist talks about her passion for realism and her long road to success. She also shares with us a tragic event that reminded her of the true importance of life.
Please tell me about yourself and your artist journey?
I grew up in Sorrento, Victoria; a lovely Australian seaside town named after the beautiful town of Sorrento in Italy. Even as a child I was always most drawn to the realist paintings I saw, and I really wanted to learn to paint like that. Being able to paint something so well seemed like magic.
When I was sixteen, I studied Art full time at Frankston Technical College (now Monash), which was a wonderful basis for learning about lots of different art mediums. I went on to University, but painting realism was discouraged and not taught because it was deemed unfashionable – so I took up ceramics instead.
In 1980, my husband and I moved to Northern New South Wales in the sub-tropical rainforest. Later, as a single mother, I wound up building a house there; at the end of a secluded valley, twenty miles from the nearest town. I had no running water or electricity at first. I taught myself plumbing and managed to hammer up wall boards and put in second hand Australian Red Cedar windows and doors which I had collected. I was often flooded in for days and sometimes weeks when the creek rose up. It was a high rainfall area, so I always had to be prepared.
Eventually, I discovered batik, and I became a textile artist, painting on silk and making clothing and silk paintings, though I still longed to learn how to paint Realism. It took me many years to find private teachers who could teach me the knowledge I longed for, and by the time I did I had growing children and painted while they were at school.
In 2009, when my children had flown the nest, I heard about the Angel Academy of Art where they taught the methods of the old masters, which were not taught here in Australia. I set my goal to go and study there.
I was extremely impressed by the high quality of the work which the students were producing, and I knew this was where I needed to go to fulfill my longing to be able to create high-quality work. I saved up for several years with one thing in mind and finally in 2014 I flew to Florence Italy to study at the Angel Academy of Art with Maestro Michael John Angel.
Learning the methods of the Old Masters which are still taught in Italy today was the most fantastic experience. Drawing long pose academic drawings of the model in three-hour sessions for 27 hours helped my observational drawing and painting skills. The course also covered anatomy, composition, materials, art history and many other useful subjects. Skill is highly valued at the Angel Academy of Art.
In 2015 I was invited to go back to Italy and teach a painting workshop which was a wonderful opportunity. I happily agreed and forged more close connections with my Italian friends near Sienna. It is incredible that when you step towards your dreams, amazing opportunities open up before you, that you could never have imagined. I believe that good luck is when preparation meets opportunity. I have learned that even if it takes years, it is always important to follow your passion.
Working towards our dreams can take time, so it’s also important to enjoy the journey along the way. Each small step is one step closer on the journey to becoming a better artist, so it is important to keep working and also to celebrate every little step forward.
I now have a large studio which allows me to work on several paintings on a revolving basis. I sometimes paint still life studies of the produce and flowers from our abundant garden, but mainly I work on the figurative painting.
I endeavor to make my portraits seem almost as real as if the subject could walk straight out of the painting and into the room. I like to create a narrative in the painting by using objects or clothing relating to something in the person’s life which tells a story or adds detail about them adding a story to the piece. The moment when the subject begins to evolve out of the canvas is a very moving moment for me.
One of the best things I enjoy about my work as a portrait artist, which is a privilege and a pleasure, is meeting the people who cross my path in this creative life. I feel so lucky to do the work I do.
What was the saddest moment in your life?
In 2013 My husband Michael, a Vietnam Veteran, fell down our stairs and had massive head injuries. He had bleeding on the brain and a huge crack in his skull. He was rushed to Hospital in Melbourne, and they found he was only 3mm from severing his spine. He was in the hospital for many weeks and was incoherent for the first few weeks. It was frightening. I stayed by his side as I was so worried that he would rip off the neck brace in his incoherent state.
While this was all going on, I was notified by a very prestigious Gallery in Sydney that one of my paintings had been selected as a finalist in a National Portrait Prize. I was pleased about that, but at the same time even though I had been striving to get into the show for ages, it suddenly meant nothing compared with what I was facing with Michael because at that stage nobody knew how much brain damage was permanent.
We are so lucky that he healed with time and as the swelling reduced I slowly got my husband back minus his sense of taste and smell. In these moments of crisis, it becomes obvious that the people we love are the most important element of our lives.
What was the happiest moment in your life?
After years of saving every cent to study at the Angel Academy of Art in Italy, one of my happiest moments was when I woke up in a 600-year-old building and somewhere I could hear a mystery person playing concert piano. Then the Bells of Santa Croce church began to peal, and I felt as if I was in a dream, it was all so beautiful. I still love the Bells in Florence, and I wish we had bells like that in Australia. Living in Florence and Studying at the Angel Academy of Art was a major highlight for me, I learned so much, and I loved being surrounded by a culture which values Art so highly, and has done so for hundreds of years.
What are you most afraid of right now?
I am worried about the warming of the planet, I think we humans need to take care of our planet, and the extreme weather temperatures we are now experiencing really concern me. Australia is prone to devastating bush fires and drought, so a warming planet is something I’m very concerned about. We as humans need to all take responsibility to leave our planet in good condition for future generations.
If you could give one piece of advice to a large group of aspiring artists, what would it be?
I would say “Find a good teacher, whose work you admire. Draw as much as you can. Life is short so work at what you love and follow your passion. Always keep learning, don’t compare yourself to others, and be willing to put in the many hours to improve your skills.”
What do portrait artists see in people that others don’t?
As portrait artists we spend many hours observing our subjects, looking at nuances of expression and plays of light upon the face. We notice gestures and shapes, warm and cool skin tone, all sorts of things that help us capture something of the essence of our subject… at least that is the aim. The eyes are most important as they really are the windows to the soul
I find the most challenging thing to get right is the mouth especially if the model talks, the mouth is such a flexible feature the slightest movement can create a whole new expression. One of the best portrait painters who ever lived, John Singer Sargent said: “A portrait is a painting with something wrong with the mouth.”
I love the moment when the person I am painting begins to emerge from the canvas. It can be quite magical.
Vicki Sullivan’s painting “Bliss” (below) was hand selected for the Women Painting Women, Men Painting Men exhibition at the RJD Gallery in Bridgehampton. The exhibition will be open to the public on October 6th.
For more information please visit Vicki’s website.