Nicola Galloway is an artist and educator who creates figurative paintings within a landscape setting. The paintings are often ethnic in appearance with the suggestion of a tropical or desert background.
Each piece is built up using a series of painted layers and a combination of shellac varnish with dark oil paints or acrylics. Nicola then outlines the figures, faces or forms that appear to her through this process, by adding colour and detail to help the characters to “emerge” further.
Although the overriding theme is essentially people on a journey, Nicola is keen to let chance dictate the outcome, and she often makes up a story as she goes along. As viewers we are interrupting a specific moment of that journey, one where the characters appear in a state of static limbo, isolated in their own personal world.
Carrie: When did you first realize the arts were an important part of your life?
From lots of little incidents mainly when I was very young. At nursery school I painted an image of an owl, but was frustrated as there were only 2 colours: red and green. I didn’t know together they made brown! It was put high up on a wall display in my final week at nursery. I felt very proud and thought that this was something I could do well and might be important in some way.
Later on classmates in elementary school would praise me on my art work, and I thought I must be good at this! In primary 3 (7 years) an elementary teacher asked me if I was going to be an artist one day. I thought that maybe this was a possibility for the future, although I wasn’t too sure exactly what an artist was (no one in my family was artistic).
In high school my art teacher (James Harrigan a Scottish landscape artist) spoke to me as if going to art school was a forgone conclusion and I assumed my future involved art in some way. With his encouragement I entered competitions and won prizes.
Carrie: How would you describe your art?
My work is figurative within a landscape setting and it’s often described as ethnic in appearance.
The backgrounds are usually semi-abstract looking, sometimes with buildings or palms, often with a river or islands in the distance. The people within the composition are meant to be on a physical journey of sorts, but often appear contemplative, frozen in the moment.
They look lost in their thoughts giving the impression that they are isolated within their own personal world despite being in a group. We the viewers we are interrupting/seeing them at a specific moment of that journey. There are lots of layers and each layer is part of my intuitive process that tells a story in my work. I let the work also decide what it wants to be.
Carrie: What does your workspace look like? (Tell us also about your story of getting on a waiting list for the studio space you have).
My studio is mostly ordered with older works set out around the space to help me see how I achieved certain facial expressions/colours or textural techniques and details.
I work on one canvas at a time and next to the one I’m working on is a series of images on the wall for inspiration. At the moment it’s some Caravaggio images from a current exhibition at the RSA in Edinburgh which coincides with the Edinburgh Festival.
I also have some humourous quotes or images pinned up on other walls for when I have my moments of self-doubt or things just aren’t working on a painting. My favourite one at the moment is a new one of Nessie with the caption underneath which reads – “the main thing is that I believe in myself”.
I also keep a large mirror in my studio. When I was in school, teachers suggested that you look at your art in the mirror when something was wrong with your painting but you couldn’t figure out what exactly was wrong. Looking at it through the mirror often helps you spot those errors.
I only recently got my own studio space in the city. I applied to WASP STUDIOS (workshop & artist’s Studio Provision Scotland) the year after I arrived home from abroad (2012). I knew about this organisation because I had rented from them previously in Aberdeen in 2005, but I had to wait 4 years on the Edinburgh waiting list.
In the meantime, I used the spare room in my rental property which was a nightmare. It was too isolating, I really missed being around other artists. I also felt hemmed in which was important because part of my process is to stand far away to view the work.
I was emailed about up and coming studios to rent at the WASPS studio where I am now, and was finally successful on my third attempt (it all depended where you were on the waiting list.) I was told it usually takes 2 years to get a space. It took 4. I know someone else in our space, an American (also named Carrie!) who waited 8 years to get hers!
Carrie: Can you describe the evolution of your artistic style? (Have you always made art with this unique vision or what was your turning point into recognizing this style was your authentic “you”?)
When I was in art college I met another student using shellac varnish in her abstract paintings. I was intrigued and asked to use some and try it in my work. This experiment and curiosity led me down a path that has led to my unique work, which is heavily intuitive.
While I was in art college I was expected to fully draw out all of my artworks before I painted them and I didn’t enjoy it. I’d create the drawing and then get bored. So using the shellac and having a lot of layers let me make decisions as I create the work, which is often informed by the dripping and interaction of shellac with different layers of color as well. After I place it, I often see faces peeking out or other images and I then bring those out with my paint.
I began to experiment with the theme of people on a journey. This led to my interest in Greek and Roman mythology: Elysium the afterlife/limbo and the idea of a congregation of different characters within a setting.
I thought of travelling caravans of people on spice routes within Egypt or the moors of Spain.
I imagined carnivals/festivals where people are dressed up but things are not what they appear…masks being worn that are physical and internal, etc.
Medieval clothing is an influence too. This led to my work having an ethic sometimes African appearance; I realised at this point no one else around me at college was painting like this, and I felt like I had developed my own unique individual style.
All of this came from that moment of discovering shellac and incorporating it into my more figural work.
Carrie: How does your life experience and emotional state feed into your art?
My work is all about my emotional state. I play a wide variety of music to fit in with my mood or to remind me of a memory. I can’t paint without music it’s an integral part it just won’t work, it helps me to get into my zone. Led Zeppelin was always my go to band – I liked the ethereal quality of their work.
It’s also a place for me to express emotions and ideas that I don’t always want to talk about or even admit to having. For example, I am really drawn to masks and costumes in carnivals as well as medieval times. I use these in my work. And sometimes I want to portray specific people in my life.
As for life experiences some characters I base on people I know but obviously disguised so that only I would know that it’s them. Years ago I was dating someone who’s mother did not like me. So I decided to put her in a painting.
Interestingly enough, that artwork won an award and my boyfriend came with me to the exhibit to see the work. He really liked it! And I felt a sense of relief: he didn’t see his mother in that work! Phew. 😉
Carrie: How do you know when an artwork is finished?
This one is a hard one and I’m not always good at it. It’s usually the last stage of any work is the detail on the clothing. Once I’m at this stage I know I’m just about there. I might re-shape an object in the background or add gold details to areas. So I guess it’s when the large areas are complete and I’m working on little areas here and there.
In general, I usually stop when I know another mark will start to hurt the artwork.
Carrie: What strategies do you use to help yourself when you feel “stuck?”
If it’s going really bad I take time out or away from the work. If I feel a painting’s not going well but is salvageable I’ll look through photos of my old paintings that were successful to remind myself I can do this! I’ll also look at scraps of cut outs of a variety of images to help get ideas going.
I don’t like leaving the studio feeling like this, because it stays in my head and niggles at me until I figure it out. But sometimes you just need a walk in the fresh air or to watch a favourite film/TV show to feel better/escape from it and then go back the next day renewed.
Carrie: Your work is going to be in an upcoming show. Tell us about it!
My work was in a show recently but it wasn’t exactly what we imagined. We knew it was going to be in a factory setting with antiques, but it was a bit more bric a brac than antiques and thus, the price range of our artwork and the other things for sale was a big off. We ended up packing up early but there were several good things that came from it.
First, we bonded a bit as a community of artists in our studio. We can work alone and not really meet up much and this gave us a chance to share and talk about our work. We also discussed creating a collaborative group space where we do a group show together. And lastly, we are in discussion to use an empty studio space in our building as an exhibition space.
I learned some new things too. The last time I exhibited was 12 years ago and at the time galleries in Edinburgh took a 40% commission. Today it’s now 50%. I also talked pricing with a peer and he made me realize I’d underpriced my work, which could have made galleries less interested in the work!
Carrie: What is one creative resource you can’t live without?
I’m a traditional painter but I have to say the internet has become more and more useful. For the faces I paint it’s so nice to pop online and use something like Pinterest to find resources to help my work.
Of course, I couldn’t create anything I do without my shellac, either!
Carrie: Who/what inspires you?
My art teacher James Harrigan who is a landscape Scottish artist inspires me, especially how he was able to be creative and make it as an artist during his teaching years. He instilled my passion for Art.
Artists like Daumier/Goya and Masaccio have influenced my artwork. Periods in history, medieval clothes, the 17th & 18th Century fashions & mythology all inspire me.
Peter Doig is what made me come back to my art in these past few years. I saw an exhibit of his work in Edinburgh and his work completely inspired me. I need work by artists that inspire by around me to help me keep going and work through my own art. He is one of the only contemporary artists inspiring me right now.
I love the mood and tropical settings and use of colour of his paintings they’re like the areas of a jungle Gauguin would have painted – like an extension of a Gauguin painting. I love Doig’s thin layers and drip effects.
Carrie: How do you define Creativity?
If I don’t create, I feel like I’m missing part of me. That’s creativity. It’s listening to your gut instinct and a need to express yourself. Creativity is an urge or compulsion to create, to make something.
Be Creatively Courageous: What is your biggest takeaway from Nikki’s interview? Tell me about it in the comments below.
Join the Artist Strong Community
Meet wonderful, like-minded creatives and unleash your inner artist. Access free online workshops, share in behind the scenes stories from practicing creatives, and uncover strategies to enhance your artist practice.
(All of these bonuses and activities are part of what you receive when you join Artist Strong's newsletter.)
We honor your privacy - read more here.