Why being an artist DOESN'T mean you have to do it full time
Career-wise, Sally Ward balances her roles as a civil servant and as a portrait artist, and finds fulfilment, enjoyment and challenges in each.
She was a prolific artist as a youngster, and was allowed by her secondary school to go to the local sixth-form college to take life-drawing classes at the age of 14.
She was very interested in her other studies and went on to study music at Cambridge University, before working as an advisor for the Treasury, where she still works, albeit in a different capacity.
During the university and early work years her paintbrushes remained untouched, but when she did begin painting portraits again – first in watercolours then in her beloved oil paints – this side of her flourished, and commissions began to flood in.
Sally has cut down her hours at the Treasury, has been exhibited by the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, been a finalist on Sky’s Portrait Artist of the Year competition and begun writing a column for The Artist. How does she balance it all?
'Hopefully, I might be able to dispel a few myths that in order to be an artist you have to be doing it full time.’
Clubhouse: @clairewaitebrown and Creativity Found Connect club
Music: Day Trips by Ketsa Undercover / Ketsa Creative Commons License Free Music Archive - Ketsa - Day Trips
Artworks: Emily Portnoi emilyportnoi.co.uk
Photo: Ella Pallet
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For this episode, I'm speaking with civil servant and portrait artist Sally Ward, about policy advising oil painting, and why you shouldn't enter two art competitions at the same time. Hi, Sally, how are you? I'm very well. Thank you, Claire. Brilliant. Can you start by telling me what the creative activity you have returned to is? I have returned to painting. So I am an artist now. But it's not what I've always done. So I've done different things in my career. Fabulous. Right, let's go right back to the beginning, then I know that you were ahead of the game in your art education at secondary school. Can you tell me how you came to complete your GCSE and A level art studies early? And where you think your artistic talents and enthusiasm came from? Yeah. Oh, my gosh, that is a big a big question. So going back, in terms of my sort of taking exams early, I was very, very lucky that when I went to secondary school, they were very forward thinking. And I was very prolific in terms of my art by that point. So when I was around, sort of 1112, and I painted and drew all the time. And the teachers there, they, they spotted a talent. And I was very keen and driven, really. I'm not sure whether it would happen these days. But I was very lucky that the teachers there felt that I could do my GCSE when I was 12. And I was up for that really sort of liked the idea of that challenge. So that's what I did. And that that all went very well. And then I went on to sort of take my other art exams early. And when I started doing my a level, which was around the age of 14, the school, amazingly, decided to send me off to the local Sixth Form College every Thursday, during the following two years to life draw, essentially, which is amazing. So I joined all the sixth formers when I was 14, and it was a it was a formative experience. It's something that I know, very, you know, very few people, or children of that age would ever get the opportunity to do and it was an amazing opportunity. And I was lucky to have some excellent teachers through those couple of years who were artists themselves. And I think that's was incredibly inspiring to suddenly be taught by people who were practising artists themselves, and we're sort of steeped steeped in that world. That was an amazing experience. And then I think sort of going back to, you know, where it all came from. I mean, my parents neither of them are artists my dad had in later life also became a designer. So there is a sort of artistic gene in there. Somewhere my my mom is very good at art, but didn't didn't pursue it. She's an art, sort of appreciator and enthusiasts. And probably one of my earliest memories about sort of looking at other people's art, I remember we had a sort of a calendar at home. And it was probably when I was about eight or nine. And it was one of the cassez famous blue nudes. And I remember my mom's sort of saying, that is just beautiful. I just love that. And we would look at it. And I agreed, I just thought it was the most beautiful thing. And so I think there was constantly an appreciation of Arts with my mom. And then when I was a bit older, we started going to art exhibitions together. And, you know, I remember some really sort of iconic going to some really iconic exhibitions when I look back at it now. So it's a massive Lucien Freud exhibition in the early 90s. That blew my mind. I was very young at the time, but very interested in sort of new to the figure, and portraiture, and probably at that, that sort of early point. And other and other exhibitions, like monks the freeze of life, which was another really my comic che back in, I think it's the 90s. So I think all in all, I had very supportive parents who appreciated art, and gave me opportunities and an amazing school. He were were able to stretch me in a way that I wanted to be stretched at that point in my life, is it's very fortuitous. Do you think you were quite a mature? Young lady? How was it to be 14 and in a Sixth Form College? To me, that's quite a big difference. Not in in actual years. But in growing up years? How did you find that social aspect of it? Yeah, it was, it was a good experience, it was a very strange thing, it felt incredibly comfortable. I was just very into the art that the people there, you know, welcome me. You know, I remember them being quite protective of me, actually, some of the sort of 18 year olds. So I felt very comfortable in that environment, the art teachers there were just great. So I sort of slipped into that world very easily. And it felt very, very comfortable. And, you know, looking back, maybe, maybe it wasn't the most normal childhood thing to be looking at Picasso's needs when I was eight. But you know, I think because that was the sort of context, it felt completely normal and right to be in a life drawing class at age. Yeah. Yeah. Presumably, after that, though, you still had to stay in school, and do your other A levels and what have you. So did you get to continue art? Were you planning on going to through the usual path of Foundation Studies? And what have you? Yeah, I did think about it. I mean, so I think by the time I'd got to 16, where I have my a level or under my belt, and at that point, I started my other levels, you know, the normal timeframe. And I studied English and psychology and music. And I found these three subjects, you know, pretty full on to be honest. And I think after a while, it became clear that I needed a bit a bit more time to fake us on them. Really, it was at that point that maybe a bit sadly, that art started to take a bit of a backseat. And I just got incredibly interested in the sort of more academic subjects and that that side of things that became my focus, and I think, you know, by the time I was thinking about universities and what to do next, I did, I did think about art college, but I think I'd always sort of past the point where I suddenly there were these lots of other exciting, interesting subjects to look at. And I was I just became very involved with all of that. And so, in the end, I applied to study music instead. You must have been very good at that because you were accepted to Cambridge University to study music was that hard work? I would imagine being in that establishment is a lot of hard work. Yeah, it was. It was hard work. It was Don't be hard work to get there to get that offer, without sort of banging on about it too much, I went to a great school and a great sick form both state schools. And there weren't many people from my sort of cohort who ended up going to Oxford or Cambridge. So it certainly wasn't anything that either my parents had thought of, or I had thought of, until, until I got to the point where I was thinking about where to apply. And so I kind of did it rather, unknowingly, really, I just, I really liked the course. I liked this sort of academic nature of the course, I went to visit and I thought it was obviously a lovely place. And something really sparked in me, and I worked incredibly hard. When I got there. When I finally started at Cambridge, it was quite a shock, because suddenly I was with lots of people who had been steeped in the music, education world for many, many years, people who've gone to sort of specialists, music colleges, or music schools, I think I felt suddenly that, you know, I might have thought that I was quite good at music. But actually, after that, I started to reassess. But that is a good thing. So it gave me a it gave me a bit of a sort of shock. But it was a wonderful, wonderful experience. And I survived and well done you. Did you know what you wanted to do next? What that was going to lead to in the in the big wide world? No, I didn't know I'm afraid I wasn't. I wasn't somebody who had a clear plan at any point about what I wanted to do. I think because I was interested in lots of things. That has probably always been quite a challenge to know what to know what to focus on. I think you know, at first I I was quite tempted to go down an academic route. My degree at Cambridge was was three years studying music and and then I decided to stay on and do an MPhil at Cambridge as well in musicology, where I specialised in Sebelius, sort of Nordic time, parents, which is another wild another life. But I think by the end of that I again, I've had almost exhausted myself with with that sort of intense study. And the thing that I felt very strongly at that point was that I really wanted to do something back in the real world, and something that had sort of meaning in the real world to me. And so, in a strange sort of twist again, I applied to the civil service and payment policy advisor, working for central government department, and I still work there today. How does one become a policy advisor? What is a policy advisor? Ricky Well, it's a really fascinating job. It's No, it's great. Well, I mean, it's essentially, my job was very much advising, you know, providing advice for ministers on all sorts of current issues, I've worked across a whole breadth of economic issues, public spending issues, which has been incredibly fascinating. You know, it's something that I feel incredibly privileged to have done, because I've seen, you know, lots of administrations come and go. And it is a very interesting role. When I sort of reduced my hours to sort of accommodate children and then later art, I now work in much more of a sort of training, capacity and sort of professionalism capacity, which is very enjoyable. Yeah, I'm assuming that that kind of role takes up a lot of your brain space, as well as time and energy and you've mentioned family briefly there as well. So this point then may be paintbrushes and musical instruments aren't don't get a look in? No, definitely not. It was very all consuming my job. You know, I was working full time sometimes on high profile issues that naturally are incredibly fast paced. So no art didn't feature really at all. There were there were a few little times that it did come back. I went on a two week course Slade School of Art. I got in my late 20s. So that's probably 10 years after I'd really stopped and wound down doing art in any sort of regular capacity. And it was a life painting course again, and it was a wonderful experience. It was, it was absolutely fantastic. Being back with other creative people, other artists was a really energising experience and a very short experience, but actually, the, the sort of experience of that, I think percolated away in my brain for another sort of 510 years before it all popped out in the form of oil painting. And there wasn't time ready for for March. But the odd the odd chink of art, just to just to sort of keep that thread going. Yeah. But now it's a it's a very big part of your life. So how has that change come about? Yeah. I mean, that's right. It is a huge part. It's the is the main part, I would say. Now, certainly, if my my working life, how did it come about? Well, this is a long and drawn out tale. Well, when I when I had children, even though obviously, I was extremely busy looking after a baby at home, I was at home for a year of maternity leave. And I think it was just having a bit more time at home. And I started to just dabble a bit more. And I think, you know, the memory of the course I'd done was still running around in my head. And I thought, well, you know, I do, I do miss doing that. So I did start to dabble. And I did a few little paintings. And I put some of them on Facebook just for my friends to have a look. And they were all very nice as you know, friends would be. And my husband who is, you know, my biggest supporter, I have to say, he was encouraging me, come on, you got to do more of this, because you're really talented. And I was like, oh, yeah, but I haven't got any time, etc. All of that. But I think you know, getting a bit of feedback from people on my artwork on on social media reads beasted me. So I sort of started doing it a little bit more often. And as I said, I I think I sort of signed up to some life drawing classes. And that was, again, wonderful experience felt totally at home, I realised I really missed drawing and painting. And then I happen to do a little portrait of my son and put that on Facebook. And one of my friends got in touch and said, Oh, you know, I love that. I'd love you to do a commission of my daughter. And that was the first commission that I got. And that was very exciting. You know, somebody's paying me to do something that I absolutely loved. Yeah. And that was, I guess, the beginning of it. And really, since that point, which was about nine years ago, and it was a watercolour. Since that point, I've never been without a commission on the go. So it sort of snowballed. And by this point, I had gone back to work, but I was working three days a week. But obviously, my second son came along, and I think I just had one day where he was in nursery, and I wasn't at work. And so that was what it was the one day that I could focus on painting. So that's what what I did. And then when the youngest child went to school, suddenly it freed up the school day. And at that point I've been doing commissions for for a number of years. But something in me thought I could just keep going and doing these watercolour portraits endlessly. But I really want to sort of push myself at this point. And I really want to get back to how I felt as a teenager, when I was really exploring who I was as an artist, and I wanted to develop my own work and see see where that would take me. So I was very, very fortunate, because my employer was happy to sort of let me reduce my working day to two days. And, you know, family wise, my husband, you know, there's obviously a pay cut doing that. So taking a bit of a risk. I was very lucky to be able to do that fully appreciate that, that not everyone is in that position. And so suddenly I had three days a week where I could ain't in the school hours. And that is where sort of things started to change for me. And I thought, right. I love watercolours. But it's not where I feel, artistically. That's not where I feel quite at home. And so I got my oil paints out. And I hadn't painted with oils since I was a student. But it felt right, like a sense of cliche to say it felt like coming home. And I was interested in portraits. And the first portraits I, I did actually were were both selected for prestigious competitions. At that point, I think everything started to just come together, which was lovely, because these paintings were very different from the ones I've been dabbling with. And they were an expression of me as an artist. And so to have those paintings recognised, was a really amazing moment. Almost, you've had two rebirths there, and two points at which to be brave, in order to show your work. I talk a lot with my guests about that point of showing the work. And as you've already said, with that, with the oil paints, you're starting to do stuff that is more personal, and therefore, possibly, you need even more courage to show it but you did show it how did that feel? Because I'm assuming that what that work was more personal to you. So perhaps had more meaning? Is that how you felt? Definitely definitely, I remember feeling very nervous. I think particularly sometimes when you're in a slightly sort of commercial situation where you've got Commission's that are popular, or selling, and completely understandable to then think, well, I'm gonna keep doing that same thing, because that is what people what people want, you know, what the people commissioning me want. And say there was a sort of commercial nervousness about it, not that I was in any way making a lot of money if they will, quite small scale. But there was a nervousness that, you know, the people who really liked my previous work, what were they going to think, oh, suddenly, this is transformed in, in style. But it was, it was just a very strong instinctive pool, to be myself as an artist and to to paint as as I wanted to paint. That was an incredibly strong feeling. I have only recently joined Instagram, I think I had pasted a few of my watercolour portraits, which, you know, don't get me wrong. I absolutely loved doing them. I'm still proud of them. But I remember holding off a long time posting my new work, because it was so different. And I thought it would confuse people. Obviously, the Commission's I've been doing have been other people dictated by what, what they wanted. And I think the very, very strong elements in my work is that my work is, as I'm sure is with most artists, that is a very personal, emotionally intimate thing, painting portraits, particularly self portraiture, but also, I focused, you know, in those early paintings on portraits of my close family, self portraits, and they're incredibly personal, and they chart I'm actually getting quite emotional talking about it. But yeah, they have a lot of meaning for me. And I think putting that out there is an incredibly exposing experience because all of a sudden, there's nothing to hide behind. This is me as an artist, and I'm showing you my innermost sort of feelings through through paint. And it's a very strange but exciting and scary experience. Thank you that's, that's lovely and to hear that not only in your words, but in your voice that definitely comes across. Creativity. found.co.uk is the place to go to find workshops, courses, supplies, kits and books to help you get creative. So if you're looking for your own creativity found experience, go have a browse just See what's on offer so far. And if you can help adults to find their new creative passion, please get in touch on social media, or through the contact details on the website. So let's move on to how you enter two competitions at the same time. Yes, demonstrating my complete lack of mouse, in this new world of cinema, portray competitions. So the very first oil portrait that I did was, as me as an artist, I entered. I entered it into two competitions, thoroughly expecting to get to nose, I really had no expectation whatsoever. So I entered it into the sky portrait artist of the year competition where you have to submit self portraits. And I also submitted it to the Royal Society of portrait painters, which is a really prestigious competition. Looking back, I think, cool I, I sort of aim to begin with, I didn't start with something slightly easier, but and then to my shock, I was accepted into both those competitions on the basis of that first oil portrait, which I honestly couldn't believe that was in 2019, I think. And as I was saying, I was totally new to all this sort of competition stuff, and made the first cardinal sin or big mistake, which is that I couldn't be in both competitions at the same time, because the painting needed to be available. So unfortunately, well, unfortunately, it was very, it was a bittersweet situation, I had to decline the place on Sky portrait Artists of the Year in 2019. Because my painting was already wrapped up in the metal galleries in London, ready to be exhibited with the Royal Society of portrait painters. And so I learned from that. New artists take note, yeah, bittersweet. But the upshot was that it led to my portrait being exhibited at the male galleries alongside some of the best portrait artists in the country. And, you know, beyond it's an international competition. And you know, there are 1000s of entries and say, to get a place on that wall, just blew my mind. It was a it was an incredible surprise and shock. It was a massive turning point for me, where I just, you know, having worked in isolation, but through all those years of doing those commissions, but also, in that early time of developing my own approach to portraiture, to have that sort of first external recognition and validation was amazing. And it's a big one as well. It's a big Yeah. I don't I don't think I realised properly, probably, until probably years later. How big that was, for me at the time is an incredible, an incredible thing to get that kind of recognition. Yeah, I can imagine. I can only imagine. Sally had to decline her well earned place in skies, portrait Artists of the Year competition in 2019. But in 2020, she entered again, and to her utter surprise, made it all the way to the final. I talked with Sally about her time on the show in the next episode of the podcast. So for now, let's get back to our chat. What does life look like now, you've said you, you do still work in the day job, so to speak, and you have the family and you've made a name for yourself in the art that you want to do? How is that balanced in your life now? Well, it's incredibly busy. I think that's how I would sum it up. I mean, I do work pretty much all the time. And obviously spend time with the children as well. So life life is is very full, but it's very good. As I said, I work two days a week as a civil servant, which I really enjoy the difference that that brings, and the the mental sort of challenges there. You know, having a set of colleagues is nice, and then I have a sort of more solitary Life at the other end of the week, which is just full to the brim, really, the challenge is, is actually to paint. I know that sounds odd. But that's the constant challenge is to make sure that I am actually, you know, not swept up with lots of other related activities, but that I am painting. So when I get focused and working on a project or a commission, so that's, you know, fantastic and I love, I love doing that. I do lots of other things I've been writing this year for a national arts magazine called the artist, which has been really enjoyable and perhaps has brought together, you know, I used to like writing very much when I was going down the sort of academic route. And it's brought that together with thinking about my art process, and you know, how I paint. So that's been incredibly enjoyable. So, yeah, life is incredibly busy. And it does make it vulnerable to any sort of external shocks, you know, that are part of life. And it can get quite stressful at times when that happens. Because the balance is very, it is very finely balanced. And I don't have much wiggle room, doing these two very different things, is incredibly fulfilling, actually. And hopefully, I might be able to dispel a few myths that in order to be an artist, you have to be doing it full time, I think lots of artists do you have to work in order to pay the bills. And that doesn't diminish who you are as an artist. And it doesn't mean that you're less committed. Both these jobs or careers, to me, are important, though, hopefully, I can keep that balance going. Yeah, I appreciate that. And I think that's a very helpful thing for you to have said, and for other people, to hear other people who are balancing their creative passion with getting on with life, and everything else that has to support it. It's very rare that even if you're starting a business around your creative passion, you're spending a lot of time not doing the creative thing, which is something that we've talked about a lot with my guests, there's always there's always an imbalance, this, I don't think anybody ever gets the perfect balance. But that is good for listeners to hear as well that nobody gets the perfect balance. Thank you very much for sharing that. But definitely, I don't I don't I definitely don't want anyone to think that I have the perfect balance because, you know, it comes and goes and there are ups and downs with it. And sometimes it doesn't work very well. It's a bit sort of rough with this means really. So do you ever have frustrations in the actual process of painting, for example, doing a commission? And you therefore are working to a brief? Are there ever times where you're like this just isn't working? And at times you get frustrated with the actual painting? Oh, yeah. Painting is a thoroughly torturous activity. Oh, yeah. Well, I get completely frustrated endlessly, but I'm, I think that that's probably what spurs me on. I wouldn't want anyone to think that sort of, you know, sit down to paint and it all sort of flows out of my paint brush, and I happily put it on the wall. And that's it. No, not at all. I struggle with every single painting I do. Some more than others. I do remember that when I did the second self portrait for the sky programme. That was a hideous X. It nearly ended up in the bin many times you may get so involved in this process, you have some sort of elusive vision in your mind about what you're aiming for. And, you know, the frustration of never being able to quite get to that point is I guess what then makes you paint the next. So you never you never reached that that point of? Well, I don't know. I mean, I don't know whether other people do. I'm always there's always something that that niggles or that thwarts me. And how do you know when you finished? How do you know when to stop? Lots of people Ask me this, I think I do know when to stop, there is something about I mean painting to me, it's like a series of problems that need to be resolved. You know, whether that's in terms of the tones, the colours, the balance of light. And I will think about a painting as much as I paint it. And so I can be come, as my husband will testify, really quite moody. When a painting is going wrong, and my brain will work on it, you know, I'll sleep on it, or leave it for for weeks to say that my subconscious will hopefully work out what needs to be resolved in the painting to get it to where I want it to be. And I often find that I sort of will have an idea in my mind that this process is going to take me another six months to do. And then I'll sit down, having had that space from a painting. And I will have a sort of conscious idea of the things that I might want to change, and D. But I do think there is a strange, subconscious thing that comes into play, where you sit down, and you do something to the painting. And suddenly, it has resolved itself to a conclusion. And that's how it often happens. And so I don't really know that it's coming that point of resignation. But I have to have reached that point to then say, right, I'm leaving this alone now. And then it's there. And then it's there. But it's not that that means that it will be rendered to a polished, finish or anything like that it's not usually about that is often about, it's often about the expression, and whether the painting has captured that emotion or that feeling that was within me. And it's very, very hard to describe that process. And I don't really understand it myself. No, I understand what you mean. And I've found it absolutely fascinating. And I could keep grilling you with questions about your process, but I'm not going to, I'm going to say thank you. And I'm going to ask how people can connect with you, as well. So the best way to connect with me is through Instagram, where my instagram handle is at Sally Ward art. And I also have a website, the same sort of name, which is www dot Sally Ward, hyphen art.com. And that's got all my details on and all my paintings as well. And yeah, it'd be great. So people have look brilliant. Thanks again. Thanks so much, Sally. Thank you very much, Claire. It's been a pleasure. Thank you. Thanks so much for listening to creativity found. If your podcast app has the facility, please leave a rating and review to help other people find us on Instagram and Facebook. Follow us at creativity found podcast and on Pinterest look for at creativity found. And finally, don't forget to check out creativity found at CODIT. UK. The website connecting adults who wants to find a creative outlet with the artists and crafters who can help them tap into their creativity.