My Work and Myself
I’m Heidi Willis from Sydney, Australia (follow me on Facebook, Instagram, visit my website, and view my online tutorials!). My early life was one that felt very simple and connected to the natural world, where the wonder of my environment was nurtured and explored in many creative ways throughout my childhood. It was always the simple things that captivated me, light, colour, texture, the balance and harmony of nature – and that has never really changed. It is still my perspective and experience of the world, the joy in my life and so much of the substance people sense in my work.
My early wonderings and wanderings were such a part of my personal development, my experience and self, that the evolution of this into my work as a Natural History Artist seems hardly surprising. There was no real beginning to the work that I do, it is simply a case of my outer body becoming articulate enough to speak my inner language in a physical form.
Learning to speak this language with clarity takes time and practice… and a lifetime of constant effort. It must come from your own truth, speak with sincerity and not be compromised. I think that when this is truly harnessed, it becomes a profoundly powerful form of emotional, physical and mental communication.
Natural History is an area of endless fascination, incredible inspiration and significant challenge to explore. Natural History is not only a beautiful genre in itself, the science behind every piece brings meaning, depth and dimension to all the work I create, and the watercolour medium is simply divine to work in. The bar in this field can always be raised higher and I find that so invigorating! To me this work offers every ingredient you could hope to find as an artist and I never tire of its unfolding. The medium… well I’m still discovering new things about that!
Within the Natural History genre, my areas of specialty are Botanical Illustration and Bird Painting. My botanical illustrations are far more rigid in some ways than in my bird paintings, which are far more complex to create in general. Realistic bird painting is intensely challenging work with many considerations beyond illustrating a singular subject.
Considerations of host plants and animals, insects and environments come into play. Habitats and species and relationships of all elements must be researched thoroughly to understand the science relevant to this work. Then there are the artistic considerations of colour, form, compositional elements, size, and of course the rendering to negotiate as well. Moving between the two areas of Botanical Illustration and Bird Painting allows me a surprisingly vast diversity and movement in my work and my skill base. It is precision work, a fantastically intense pursuit of excellence, and a craft that demands the best from you on every level.
Whilst my work maintains a significant focus on the scientific accuracy of my subjects, my paintings illustrate far more than the rigid accuracy the science demands, extending far beyond these boundaries to explore a greater story of time and place. I seek to capture the character, personality and nature of my subjects, the life force and energy that takes you past the science, into a rich emotional exploration of my subjects… it must inspire your heart and spirit, not just your mind to truly work for me.
How I got started
The way I got started was especially organic, starting as simply as picking up a brush. I had a quiet day and a tiny watercolour paint set my Father had given me many years earlier. In fact, it was the only thing I owned from him, and it was so many years ago, I wondered if the paint would even work by now. I have learned a lot since then! But there it was, a simple little pan of coloured paint squares I had absolutely no knowledge about and so I started to poke around with it completely naively as we all do in the beginning. My Father was an artist and watercolourist too, so he knew just what to buy. Watercolour is such a tough medium, but starting on the right foot with artist quality pigments no doubt played a big part in me returning to play with them again, and so I did.
Thinking it would make a sweet little gift for someone, I’d taken my painting down to the framers the following week and I found myself in the company of one of the largest agents in the Sydney area at the time. “You know… I think I could sell that for you,” he had said to me. Still in my teens, I barely paid attention to him, but handed over my painting to see what came of it. A few days later he called to say it had sold, and ‘could he have another?’ In the weeks following I created another and it too sold, and nothing has really changed in that department since then.
You create, refine, create, refine, create, refine and you keep aiming higher and higher with each step. It’s a long, dedicated path of constant focus and effort… years pass by in this beautiful space you are so intensely building, and nothing changes in that process over time except that your work improves and improves, and suddenly you see that the world around you has started to engage in this space with you. It’s a beautiful thing.
In my early 20’s, I was invited to a wonderful high profile exhibition of ‘real’ botanical work in Sydney, and from the moment I laid eyes on the work, I was completely taken, almost changed by it. Like a piece of my life puzzle had been solved, I set to work determined to understand and refine my botanical art as much as I could. And with every doubt one could possibly have, I set the bar as high as I could humanly envisage at the time, to be selected in that same exhibition the following year… and I did just that. In fact, I sold my very first botanical painting into the prestigious Shirley Sherwood Collection before opening along with 15 others that day, and I had completely grown out of the event I had so greatly aspired to before the next one came around.
In the following year, I developed my watercolour work even further across the board of Natural History Illustration, exploring completely new complexities and challenges in bird painting. Over the year, I had work accepted into major public collections such as The Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation (USA) twice over, and I was selected as a finalist for both my botanical illustrations and my bird paintings in the Waterhouse Natural Science Art Prize (South Australian Museum) and the New York equivalent (New York State Museum).
Following these events, I went on to exhibit in China in my late 20’s, opening new doors again. The momentum has continued right up to the current day in the same manner, being a finalist in the NY State Museum’s Natural History exhibition multiple times and a Waterhouse finalist 6 times over now, winning prizes in the last two exhibitions before continuing on to join the National Tour.
Gallery Of My Work
What I do now
Despite having such a fine tuned area of specialty in Fine Arts, I am well known for my diversity within this as well. As a result, I now have a wonderful collection of high profile commercial clients, most notably as the botanical illustrator for Australian Geographic. As a designer, my work has been used in textiles for high end fashion in the USA. I wrote a book as I solo trekked through the Himalayas, illustrating the incredible Rhododendron Forests as I went.
As a watercolour painting tutor my master-classes are usually booked out up to 18months in advance, and now I have released my first (of many to come) ‘Online Realistic Watercolor and Botanical Illustration Tutorials’ to help people develop their own skills in this wonderful medium and genre. I produce one major (or epic) work a year now for major competitive international events to showcase my work, but with permanent representation from Australia’s leading traditional investment art gallery since my late 20’s, the demand for my work increasing and the developments in social media keeping my work in short supply, the need to exhibit outside of this has been non existent for many years.
Of course, I have so many plans still on my mind and hopes, but from humble beginnings you work with what you have. With effort and practice one thing leads to another. You give it your very best, and that’s how progress is made. Its amazing how big things can grow from one seed planted with intention, and how the simplest things can become so sustaining to your life.
Materials I use
I am a watercolourist. I work in transparent watercolour paints on watercolour paper.
It’s usually some simple, beautiful thing I have seen that sparks inspiration for my paintings. Nature of course, some gorgeous delicate light, divine colour, fabulous texture, mesmerising complexities and the intricate relationship between elements captures me in some way, and I am away in my own world once more. The more I visit, the less I like to look up at the world around me, for it is such a beautiful sustaining and positive place to be.
I collect my reference and take plenty of photos as photography serves me as a visual prompt for my subject. It’s all I need to recall my observations to paint. The more I paint, the more I work from instinct and the less my reference has relevance to me. The slow process of layouts, composition and drawing up begins before moving into the painting process.
Working in transparent layers of watercolour pigments, I develop my paintings layer by layer of seamless glazing and rich, pure pigments until it sings. Each painting takes days, weeks or even many months to complete, but I never measure the work by time. My paintings are complex, but my values are simple…I paint to produce my best work and to enjoy the process thoroughly. If your work does not coming from your heart, you will see this in everything you create.