Into the Woods: a Conversation with Painter Nicola Lucas

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Nicola Lucas Artwork 2

From wild woods to enchanted forests, treescapes have long captured the human imagination. In fairy tale and folklore tradition, the woods are a space where normal rules of polite society go out the window and chaos can reign. Perhaps its this scintillating mix of fear and exhilaration combined with the unpredictability of what could happen if you take a walk in the woods which both delights and intrigues us…

For painter Nicola Lucas, treescapes have enthralled her for upwards of seven years. So much so, that she says she’s known as “the tree lady” amongst some of her friends. And yet, after years of studying and painting trees, she still finds new facets of their mystical and changeable qualities which fascinate her as an artist. 

When I ask where her love of trees began, a memory seems to flash before Nicola’s eyes:

“As a kid, I was always climbing trees. I fell out of loads of trees. I have numerous scars on my knees from falling out of them with my brothers.”

The Birmingham-born artist says that the shapes of trees and the way they seem to morph and transform became a kind of fixation, before she realised that she “needed to do something about it.” A decision which culminated in her first solo exhibition at Jersey Museum’s Linc Gallery in 2013.

Nicola Lucas

Evidently, this didn’t sate Nicola’s appetite for trying to capture the island’s wooded areas, as now, three exhibitions down the line, it’s as though the magic of trees is still something which eludes her slightly.

“It’s the way they change constantly,” she explains, trying to put their mystique into words,

You look at a tree and you think you know it in one season, and you look at it again in another season, but then you can look at it the next day and the light’s changed… or the cloud is behind it – they just never seem to be the same trees to me. 

And I keep thinking: ‘When will I get over this whole tree thing? What will I move onto next?’ But then I’m captivated again, the next week or the next season.

Nicola tells me that other natural forms, such as clouds or the sea, have now started to creep into her striking watercolour landscapes, but it seems that trees still mostly pervade her thoughts and her paintings. 

Having trained as a designer for printed fashion textiles, Nicola explains that she’s influenced by her background of surface pattern design as well as finding inspiration in other sources, such as the Japanese painting technique ‘Sumi-e’.

Focused on the mindfulness of painting, Nicola says the ancient technique teaches you to visualise where your brushstroke will begin and end before even making a mark on the paper. Resulting in a “real flowing movement”, Nicola said although initially she wasn’t sure how the technique would inform her work, it ended up unlocking something very “meditative and instinctive”.

I think I did six [paintings] like that and they were the most joy I’d had painting for years.

Looking at Nicola’s work, one might not expect that she achieves such bold, stark monochromatic renders of the landscape with a material like watercolour. She explains that the material came as “a real surprise” to her as well, and that she had a preconception about it being “a little bit insipid and pretty”.

Nicola Lucas Artwork 5
Moon Tide East 2020

But those certainly aren’t words you would associate with Nicola’s paintings. She tells me that she started using watercolour completely by chance as she was preparing for her second solo exhibition at the Linc Gallery:

I knew I wanted to use colour and I came downstairs and my son had left a really cheap box of watercolours on the table.

Absent-mindedly, Nicola started to paint, and the results were a revelation:

What I love is the way you can build up with watercolour. [You can get] really lovely fine lines with dry brushes and then the accidents that can happen that can never be replicated. I suppose that’s the excitement of it, really. I can never do exactly the same thing.

This instinctive, experimental way of working was crucial when Nicola was creating the body of work for her most recent show, ‘Lines of Desire’ at Private & Public Gallery which took place last summer whilst public health restrictions were more relaxed.

Nicola, who normally paints from her kitchen table, said being able to use the gallery space as a studio whilst it was closed ahead of her exhibition was a real chance to experiment with technique and scale.

Prior to this, Nicola was used to doing a lot of the organisation and admin that comes with putting on an exhibition, but she said that working with Chris Clifford at Private & Public “felt like a real step up.” Describing the experience as “really glamorous”, she explained that the gallery owner and curator “took so much of the pressure off”, allowing Nicola to solely focus on painting. 

As a mother-of-two with a full-time job as Events Curator at Jersey Heritage, uninterrupted time to paint is not something she’s used to. I ask her how she manages to balance her day job with the demands of her family life and her artwork. Her answer is as candid as it is refreshing:

I’ve learned that there’s no such thing as balance and I think it’s kind of a trick that people have played on us… How do I do it? I don’t flipping know! Sometimes I absolutely amaze myself and I think: ‘How the hell did I pull that off?’

Laughing, she adds:

I’d like to meet somebody who is completely balanced… and I’d really like to get some tips!

Just like the way she spreads her painting materials out on her kitchen table as soon as dinner’s finished, Nicola says that she seizes any opportunity she can to do what she needs to at any given time. 

It’s all a juggle and I think the key is to do what you really want to do when it needs to be done – to be focused on whatever it is you need to do and not get distracted by those thoughts in your head.

So, there we have it, there isn’t some secret formula to keep all our responsibilities in check – what a relief!

On the heels of her last show, Nicola is now in the midst of researching for her next. As a keen walker and sea swimmer, Nicola is immersing herself in the local landscape and observing it from different vantage points in preparation for her next body of work. 

Hinting at what we might see from her next, Nicola said that she is researching “iconic Jersey trees”: a project sure to see her ground further down into her forest fascination and branch out in the discovery new techniques and perspectives as she ventures into the woods once again.