My name is Nicoline Mann and I’m from Nanaimo, British Columbia, Canada. I have always been deeply inspired by nature and animals. I loved drawing as a kid and even considered going to art school as a young adult, but my mom advised me that art was a hobby not a career. I didn’t trust that I could make a living as an artist or that I was good enough anyway, so I abandoned it entirely for a couple of decades in favour of “real” jobs.
Until one day in February 2017 I felt so exhausted I couldn’t get out of bed, and I remained there for 2 weeks. As I slowly tried getting back to my old life, I realized it was impossible. I later discovered that I had ME/CFS (myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome). During this time, and desperate to not fall into depression, I had the urge to draw again so I drew a Basset Hound that I felt compelled to add colour to. I found my daughters old watercolour pans from elementary school and I painted the Basset blue! The next day I did the same thing with a German Shepherd in bright pinks and a black Sharpie. I had never used watercolour before but found playing with it instantly lifted my mood and made me feel hopeful again.
I posted my playful dogs on Facebook and was surprised by the happy responses of my friends and family. I started receiving pet commissions that inadvertently and unexpectedly started my art business! Because I really had no idea what I was doing, I got very tense with the commissions. Even though I charged very low prices, I felt an obligation to do an incredible job and I found I wasn’t able to capture the lightheartedness and playfulness I felt when doing it just for me. Within a few short months of my fledgling pet portrait business I developed severe tendonitis in my right arm and was unable to hold anything in my hand for several months. I painted and drew with my left hand at this time, but I kept those to myself! Having art taken away from me so quickly, made me realize how much I loved it and needed it in my life.
As my arm healed I explored doing illustrative style of portraits and committed to a self-imposed 100 days of dogs series on Instagram. A few days into my challenge people started asking if their dog could be in the 100. It was such an incredible experience that developed my social network while also developing my skills! Each portrait was the size of a trading card (2″x3″). At first I cut Arches paper to size, but decided to purchase precut sizes available from Strathmore and they were perfect! I used 140 lbs coldpress precut Strathmore 400 Series trading cards and sketched the dogs directly onto the paper.
It takes erasing well and is a durable paper for this purpose. I then used a size 3 micron pen to outline some of the dog, then did light washes of watercolour overtop. Finally I added the name of the dog, the number out of 100 for that card and the dogs information (provided by the owner) onto the back of the cards. At the end of the project I offered the dog portraits to the owners for $35 and approximately 60 of them sold. They were shipped all over the world including, the UK, the Philippines, Australia, Hawaii, Canada and the USA. It was a slightly exhausting experience, but it gave me purpose and connection with others which was incredibly enriching and rewarding.
Since then I have taken a slower approach to my art and business. I continue to be realistic with my art, but because I still struggle with tendinitis I realize that my arm does not appreciate a tight style of art. Due to my physical limitations, I have begun seeking out teachers who offer a looser style of painting. I have been learning from Louise De Masi and most recently signed up for Jean Haines online school. I feel my sweetspot may be somewhere in the middle between their two beautiful styles, but only time will tell!
My approach to painting an animal is always the same. I ask for several photos of the pet in various poses and favourite images from the owner. I study the animal for a long time, looking at its features, eye colour, how its hair lays or curls and any unique or interesting features I want to highlight. I also ask the owners to tell me about their pet so that I can get a feel for it’s personality and soul. I sketch it out on sketch paper first and then transfer my drawing to my watercolour paper using a lightbox, window or transfer paper.
I used to try and capture every detail of the animal, but am now concentrating on only a few details while keeping the rest of the animal more implied. I then pick out the colours I will use. Most animals can be painted with a very limited palette. I always use French Ultramarine, Permanent Alizarin Crimson, Lemon Yellow, and Burnt Sienna. Sometimes I also use van dyke brown, sepia, raw sienna and burnt umber. I like to work wet-in-wet for most of the animal and then wet on dry for the details. I pay particular attention to the eyes because if they aren’t right, nothing is right.
My favourite paints to use are Daniel Smith and M. Graham. M. Graham is wonderful for people who have physical issues with their painting arm and hand. They use honey as a binder, so the paint remains soft and is very easy to reconstitute. Sometimes just getting paint ready to use or mixing it can be too much for someone with arthritis, carpal tunnel or tendonitis. I highly recommend a honey-based professional paint like M. Graham for someone who has these issues.
My favourite papers for commissions are cold press 300lbs Legion Stonehenge or Arches in bright white. I have found the 140 lbs Arches buckles too much for my style and I don’t have the energy to stretch paper or make it flat afterwards. I like to use Strathmore 500 Series 140lb paper in cold press and hot press for studies. It doesn’t buckle as much as Arches at the same weight, is bright white, comes precut in popular sizes, stays fairly flat even with a lot of water and is very affordable! My favourite brushes to use are Silver Black Velvet in size 10 and size 6, I also use smaller brushes by Rosemary & Co. for the detail work.
My work continues to evolve as I grow and develop as an artist. I used to think that art was talent someone was born with, but easily see now that it is a skill that can be developed and honed with practice. I’ve also come to see how incredibly therapeutic it is to have an art practice while also being shown the places where I can grow. In the beginning I felt like I needed to prove that I was a good artist in order to be taken seriously.
I felt like everything I created needed to look incredible or I shouldn’t share it. This was my perfectionism speaking and we still have words with each other, but she’s learning to trust and realize that perfection is the feeling one has while creating and not just the outcome. Art has made me see the world through a new lens, nothing looks as it used to. I notice so much more than I ever did before and have become an amateur botanist and birder along the way because of it.
Through art my love of nature and animals has only deepened. The gifts art continues to give, in the people I meet, the wisdom gained, the skills learned, the new ways of seeing, they all continue to astound and delight me. It is a gift and honour to be an artist and I am incredibly proud and humbled to call myself one.
Thanks again for this opportunity Charlie, it has been a delight revisiting the origins of my art journey!Recommended5 recommendationsPublished in