This is an interview with Heidi Willis. You can learn more about our blog posts here.
Heidi Willis is an entirely self-taught natural history, wildlife, and botanical artist. Born and based in Australia, her works can be found in significant public and private collections around the world, including permanent collections of the 'Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation' PA, USA, and the 'Shirley Sherwood Collection' UK. She has been a finalist in many international exhibitions and her works have been featured in various publications and magazines. As a free-lance artist, she illustrates for clients such as Australian Geographic, Australian Government or West Hotel/Hilton Group. And she even runs online painting courses for over 8000 students in about 116 countries. We were lucky to learn how her story begun…
My path to art
I don’t know when my painting career began, but I have strong recollections of seeing the first Australian Geographic calendar hanging in the store window when I was young and being captivated by it. Later, I saw Celia Rosser on television and experienced the same sort of emotion… Imagine being able to do that, I’d thought to myself, never dreaming that just a few years later I would be exhibiting beside her work, chatting with her about painting, and working with Australian Geographic myself.
I am an entirely self-taught artist in the extreme sense of it. I have never read or owned an art book, taken courses or classes, I know little of other artists work, history or practices. I simply started painting and took myself on a very independent, if not an isolated path of learning my craft through experimentation, problem solving and persistence to the point I am at today. I find it keeps me quite unique and pure in my style, sticking to my own truth and inspirations as much as possible.
I’ve been painting full time since my late teens and although I’ve done many other things over the years (property development, building, working in cybersecurity, owning a ceramic tile business, raising my children), art has always been the priority and run parallel to the rest of my world. It wasn’t always easy but I persisted and I achieved a lot of wonderful things! I am stubborn but what I have found is that art was even more stubborn. It wasn’t until 7 years ago that I finally and wholly surrendered to my path being an artist, accepting that it wasn’t simply what I do, it is in fact what I am. From that point, I literally gave up all else in my life and now work pretty much nonstop without any doubts now about where my focus needs to be placed.
Motifs and inspiration
I am a Natural History artist, specializing in botanical and ornithology – plants and birds. I’ve never worked with anything else as this is what I am drawn to in my own experience. I love the complexity, diversity, compositions, textures, the fabulous relationships of colour and subject, the interplay of light in nature, the constant fascination and discovery of the work, the science, the experiences you have in doing fieldwork, the beauty of the art form itself, the relevance it has in art and science, the immense technical challenges doing this craft well brings, the people that it draws to your life, just the utter beauty of our natural world as my focus. It enthralls and sustains me and I never tire of it. I choose subjects that capture me in some way. It can be any part or combination of the aspects just mentioned. Although it was always my core it has only solidified in time, and my path continues to become more and more specific as I delve further into this vast and rich world of being a natural history artist.
Creating and mediums
My favourite medium is watercolour. I also work in graphite, ink, and acrylics, but of course, this is what I am most known for. It is a medium that is greatly romantic, bold and delicate, complex and simple all at once. It is enormously demanding on your skill as a craftsman, always insisting on respect. It’s a wonderful medium, simple and economical to work with, and there is little it won’t do! Watercolour requires a very clear plan ahead of time as it’s difficult to change, so the final objective is always clear in my mind and I know when it has been met. If you follow my teaching and processes, there is a process you work by that simply leaves you nowhere else to place your brush… at that point, you’d call it done. But it can take time. My paintings take many days, weeks and often even months to create. It is labour-intensive work on every level. My large works, up to 3x5 foot in size, take an estimated 1500-2000 hours to complete, so definitely intensive marathons to undertake.
Art and my community
Art is a huge influencer, a wordless, emotion-based dialogue that has a way of connecting a message from the depth of its creator to the depth of its viewer in a profound, diverse and remarkably personal level. Through their expression, artists inspire thought, emotion, and communication. We are able to present new perspectives, promote independent thought, educate and shift people, which is a very powerful tool. The world around us is immensely visual. We are influenced every moment in so many ways by what we see. Our consumer confidence is enhanced with great imagery and deterred with the opposite. We buy goods with beautiful packaging, we fill our homes with art and art products that uplift us. We use art in more ways than most of us have perhaps considered. I am a part of both sides of this, both as an influencer and as the influenced, which is wonderful.
My work brings a remarkable network of amazing people to my world, making so much of what I do possible at all. Artists, art lovers, plant lovers, animal carers, wildlife lovers, conservation groups, curators, gardeners, travelers, writers, naturalists, hikers, scientists, clients and followers of my work, my students and the many amazing creative teams I work with along the way. It’s a remarkable network of enthusiastic, inspired, uplifting and incredibly knowledgeable people I enjoy, and it is very much a part of the richness art brings to your life outside of the physical work.
Difficulties and challenges
For me, there have been many personal difficulties along the way of my professional life, many of which I have managed to overcome for the most part now, but a great amount of sacrifice has been made to continue doing what I do. At this stage, or level of the work, there is little else in my life but my work, and it seems almost necessary to maintain the imbalance to sustain the workload. Of course, the aggressive pursuit of a life and dream requires a lot of oneself, constant dedication, and a lot is left behind on the way forward.
To a beginner artist I would say that your work (of any dedication) being such a priority in your life often causes imbalance. Of course, having one imbalance causes other imbalances to occur, but it’s just what it takes to excel in my experience. Managing the mental, emotional, physical and financial demands of continuing my work is challenging on many levels. You must have almost constant self-discipline on every level of your life to maintain its pursuit, often working enormous hours for very little income in return. In truth, it is not an easy career, or a financially wise one to follow in almost every case. It really must be one of your greatest loves, essential to your existence to pursue. Then, as it has been for me, there is no option. If there is no option, then you may as well kickass at it!
Ambitions and dreams for the future
Outside of ‘keep creating beautiful art’, my main ambition seems so simple it's crazy… to own an actual studio space to work in again, since I gave up my old one some time ago. Really though, I have achieved a great deal with my work already. I am in a place with my work many aspire to be in and I am really humbled by that. I work with amazing clients, private and commercial, all around the world. My work is celebrated widely, highly sought after and is found in wonderful public and private collections globally. I have graced the front covers and pages of many publications with my art and been a part of all the ‘world according to me’s’ most prestigious international competitive exhibitions for my genre. I travel to amazing places to teach, write and do research for my major works (which I continue to build on) with the freedom of a bird and the love of so many incredible people who support me in my pursuits, it's remarkable. My world is my own, my career is my own, my life is my own, my time is my own and that is wonderful, I think. So I do feel very blessed on so many levels already. From here I will continue building on what I have already established, in particular, my ‘White Room Collection’ of natural history major works from around the world, and the written journals to accompany the collection as the main goal, but I am ready and excited to see what lies ahead that’s for sure.