Sophia Shaw: Watercolour, Nomadic Lifestyle and Connecting to the Land

Sophia Shaw lives a nomadic lifestyle with her partner on the UK waterways. She works from their narrowboat, finding inspiration in the surrounding countryside. Her illustration style is light and playful, and has grown from her experiences of travelling and connecting with different lands and cultures. 

Tell us about you and your work?

My name is Sophia, the face behind Sophia’s Illustration. I am 29, a dreamer and tea-drinker who loves to draw, paint and live quite a nomadic lifestyle. Last winter my partner and I bought our first home together – a 1987 Springer 42ft narrowboat, the perfect life for us right now!

Sophia Shaw.

What are your artistic tools of the trade?

For the past few years I have been working with watercolour, ink and gouache. I use Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator  to prepare my work for print, but never usually for anything more – I have always preferred to work by hand with paint.

How did you discover art and illustration?

My mum was always creative and really inspired me as a child. We used to have lots of crafty days and once I sat for her to draw. I always knew that I would like to be an artist and it was always a strong subject for me at school. In college I studied an amazing full-time arts course and it was my tutor who advised me to apply to study Illustration, which I studied at Swansea University.

Map of Wales © Sophia Shaw

How did you begin map-making and what kind of projects have you worked on?

After I finished university I was so over illustration! I went travelling with my partner to Australia and Asia and ended up being away from home for two and a half years. We had the most amazing time and we learnt a lot. Whilst we were away I always carried a sketchbook around, but I still hadn’t found my ‘style’ of working, which was a constant pressure throughout university. I played around painting large scale murals in Australia and also in Kuala Lumpur. It was amazing to enjoy painting without any pressure. We spent six months working in Fremantle, Western Australia, and lived in the garden of the most amazing house. There was no exterior wall at the back of the house and the kitchen and living rooms were outside. Matthew, the owner, was an eccentric photographer who created recycled sculpture from old metal objects, which were all over the roof and garden. It was Matthew’s house where my style of working was born. The very first ‘map’ I drew was his wonderful house and gardens. Once we returned to the UK we moved back to Swansea and I started painting maps of Wales to reconnect with the land and culture.

What inspires you to create your work?

My paintings are often inspired by things that I see in day-to-day life, such as the shapes in a landscape, or a glimpse of a cat sitting in a field or a beautiful allotment. I am a big day-dreamer and always looking for the perfect composition. I have a sketchbook which I use to jot down little ideas of things that have happened, or things that I see, that I can refer back to when painting.

Do you find that you often use certain motifs, themes or colours in your work?

The colour green definitely features most in my work at the moment. I really love to paint gardens and the countryside. I also like to add in little personal details; if I paint animals I will often add pets of mine who have passed away. I really like the personal touch and the connection that this work has to me, but a stranger wouldn’t know.

Boat Workspace © Sophia Shaw

What is your creative process like?

I feel like I am one of life’s great procrastinators! Give me a sketchbook and I can draw and paint all day every day, but when it comes to painting a final piece I find myself doing anything but starting the painting. I seem to get an ‘artist’s block’ and feel like I don’t know where to start. Often I can overcome this if I have a deadline to work to, so this is usually what I do – I seem to work better under pressure. Once I get started I can work quite quickly. I can never finish a piece in one go, but have to leave it a few days and see it again with fresh eyes.

Tell us more about your workspace, and your life living and working on a boat on the UK waterways?

Living on the boat is awesome, but space is tight. The boat is just 13m in length and 2m in width. I have a desk which takes up half the living space, but can be packed down if we have guests. My partner is very chilled out, and we are both very used to living in small spaces, and so it suits us. Under the bed I have a large A3 scanner/ printer and I have to make my prints in very small quantities. In the summer we installed a solar panel to the roof, so I can charge my laptop easily now. At the moment my partner is working in West London and so we have to float around in one area, but our licence states that we must move a couple of miles every 14 days. In the summer we roamed the countryside and enjoyed our freedom! Life on the boat is wonderful, but there is a lot to learn and a lot of time spent opening and closing locks in the pouring rain!

What are the most challenging parts of working as an artist?

I think that taking knock-backs is the most challenging thing. It is quite hard to separate yourself from the work and not take knock-backs too personally. Also making yourself stay motivated; it can be quite a lonely life working as an independent artist from a home studio! My dream is to one day have my own studio/ gallery space to invite people in for arts workshops.

In The Wild © Sophia Shaw

And what are the best parts?

The best part of working as an artist has to be when somebody chooses to own a piece of my work, it’s a lovely feeling that somebody has made that connection and wants my work in their home!

What advice would you give to someone just starting out?

Be patient! Work hard and always make sure you are enjoying creating your work.

What are you currently working on? And what’s next?

I have just finished painting my Christmas card designs for this year ready for some Christmas markets that I am selling my work at in West London. Next thing I am working on is illustrated map tea towels, I have always loved the kitsch holiday souvenir tea towel designs and I want to create some in my own style, watch this space!

English Country Garden © Sophia Shaw

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All images copyright of Sophia Shaw.

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