Devon Smith, hailing from Wellington, New Zealand is a fine artist and illustrator, who draws and paints the most delicately beautiful and enchanting work I’ve seen in a while. It was a real pleasure to be in touch with her to learn more about her and her work.
Hi Devon, how are you? Could you tell us a little about yourself?
I am a little cold right now, it started raining on my way home so my socks got a little damp. I am a girl (despite my name) and I am 24 years old. I live in the capital city of New Zealand and paint and draw a lot.
What are you currently working on?
At the moment I’m working on a series of paintings about hypochondria. So far I’ve painted spider veins, rabies, gingivitis, and various fungal infections. Basically things I worry about getting. It’s all a bit gross, but surprisingly cathartic.
Has art always had a place in your life?
Always always. I was lucky enough growing up to have parents that pretty much let me make as much mess in the pursuit of creativity as I wanted. Before I started school nearly every day I would pack a backpack full of drawing supplies and go on little expeditions to draw in the trees and on the beach by my house.
How did you first get started in art, is it something that you’ve always been interested in and excelled at?
I’ve always been interested, but certainly never excelled. Art was actually my worst subject throughout high school, and at best I was a mediocre student at Art School. I think most importantly I’ve always enjoyed drawing, and this beat out against discouraging low marks in school.
How long have you been creating art, embracing your creativity, and working towards developing your current style and output?
Again, always. I think I started developing my current style towards the end of my teen years. I kept pushing myself to draw in an original style, but it took relaxing about it somewhat for anything to actually come out. It certainly changed a lot throughout my time at Art School, and I like to think it is always changing at least a little bit.
Your work regularly focuses on girls, and I once read you describe your work as: ‘I create imaginary worlds full of dreamy girls and their animal familiars.’
What is it about these female subjects that leads you to illustrate them over and over again?
It is hard to say exactly why I paint and draw what I do. I never sit down with plans in mind, I very rarely use reference images (and if so, it’s usually after I’ve roughed out a drawing), I just start drawing and see what comes out. I think because I am female I place a little bit of myself in all the characters I illustrate. That’s not to say they look anything like me, but I guess they are the sort of girls I aspire to be. They are always strong ladies leading interesting lives, and are a bit of an escape if I am feeling low about something or obsessing over my own character flaws.
What stages, from start-to-finish does a piece of your work go through, and over what time frame?
It usually starts with a little scribble or sketch. I keep a little notebook tucked in my back pocket at work and draw in this throughout the day. It might start with a face I like, or be a thumbnail of a whole painting, but it’s where things begin. This then travels to my studio where I’ll start drawing it out with an HB pencil on nice watercolour paper. Sometimes I’ll rough things out on scrap paper first, to save my good paper from the inevitable over-erasing that goes on. Then I outline figures and important things with an H pencil, then spray that with workable fixative so it doesn’t smudge when I get it wet. Then a layer of red mechanical pencil details, then blue. Next is paint, and I just build that up, usually over a few days until I’m happy with it.
It’s hard to say exactly how long things take, as I’ll generally get the bulk of a painting done in one day, but will keep returning to it for the next few weeks to refine things.
I hear that you’ve recently moved into a new studio – what’s most important to you when deciding on a space in which you can be creative?
I’m lucky enough to be able to work pretty much anywhere, In this case the space just turned up and I jumped at the chance to take it. It has lots of huge windows, so the natural light is great, it’s really central so good for coffee breaks and art supply runs. Light and coffee are very important in a studio space.
Aesthetically, what sort of things have you filled your studio with in order for it to be as inspiring/homely/workable/engaging as possible?
I think books were the first thing I moved in. On top of being full of art or references or entertaining comics, I love the look of stacks of books. I’ve covered most of the available wall space with other people’s lovely artwork, and photos of pretty birds and kitschy landscapes.
I’m also sharing with two very nice girls who are very inspiring and keep the space fun.
What has your personal experience of Art exhibitions, Commissions/Collaborations, and Art & craft fairs been like? Do you regularly contribute to all? Do you see your work fitting into all?
I exhibit relatively regularly, and most of my work is produced with galleries in mind. I do sometimes do commissions, usually more illustration related than fine art, but I’ve been lucky enough not to have been asked to do anything too restricting so far. Craft fairs are a bit of a funny one.. I’ve done a couple in the past, and although they were pretty fun, and a good way to show work to a different audience, I don’t think it’s a great fit for me. I suppose I am more artist than crafter. It would be nice to have a good crafting skill, like knitting or sewing, but I think I’ll just stick with drawing for now.
I once read you state that, “I think it is good to draw for no other reason than just enjoying it”. Do you regularly feel external pressures that require you to draw for other reasons than enjoyment alone – do you find that this alters and affects how you draw?
Sometimes when I’m drawing I get in to the mindset that I have to do things a certain way, in order for things to appeal to certain people or whatever, but I really hate when this happens and try to avoid it. I never want to just draw things that will sell, even if it’s a bit self-indulgent, if I’m not making things for myself they don’t ever come out well. They will always lack something.. the ‘soul’ I guess. You can tell if I’ve forced myself to draw something, it will look uncomfortable.
How do you manage your time in order to devote as much time as you’d like to your art?
I wish I spent more time on my art.. I currently have a job as well, to pay the rent and that sort of boring stuff, and this fills up a lot of my week. I think this makes me appreciate the time I do have, so I am always really motivated to get to the studio and work on art. Having a studio away from home also helps focus my time on art better, there are few distractions so once I’m there I can work hard..
What’s your relationship to confidence, with regards to making and sharing your art?
I suffer long bouts of low self confidence about my art. A lot of work ends up in the rubbish and is never seen by anyone.
What is the art (and craft?) scene like in your native New Zealand? Are there any New Zealand artists, events, galleries, projects, magazines (etc) that particularly excite you right now?
The craft scene is still pretty new (comparatively) , but it’s really taken off and there are lots of wonderful people involved with it. The contemporary art scene is also pretty big, there are plenty of great galleries in all the major cities here. My favourite right now is the Robert Heald gallery in Wellington. It just a great plain space in the centre of town that always has really new and exciting work up. I would love to show there one day soon. There are too many great artists to list.. I recently bought a painting by Becky Dreistadt, just before she left NewZealand, and also have some great cushions by Evie Kemp who is a really cool textile designer/illustrator.
I’m presuming that (like most artists) you make art because you like doing it, and you’re good at it – what do you do on the days when the art doesn’t come easily to you – how do you fight off creative blocks, and/or are there any rituals or routines that get you into work mode?
Enjoying quiet times, reading nice books and trying new things help me restart if I’m having a rough patch. I’m lucky to have never had a serious creative block, even if I hate everything I’m doing I will still be producing work. I never like returning to a blank page, so if I’m on a good drawing roll I will always leave something half finished to come back to. I got this idea from Roald Dahl, who says to always stop writing when you are going well (I think he was quoting Hemingway about this), and I think it works just as well for drawing as writing.
I once read you give advice to your younger self, saying: ‘Don’t waste your time at art school doing stuff you already do’
How important to you is trying out new things, experimenting, and learning more about the art that you make?
Experimenting keeps things fresh, stops me from becoming repetitive and getting bored. I’m always trying to learn new techniques, even if they have nothing to do with my specific art practice. I just started working on some little clay models, which has been a great break from a particularly bad stretch of low art confidence.
You work, primarily, in gouache, pencil and water colour, (with some evidence of Gocco too). What is it about these techniques and mediums that most suits you? Do you love the process of working in these mediums?
I find gouache and watercolour to be the best way to colour my drawings.. I really am more of a draw-er than a painter, so this way I can be drawing and painting at the same time. I also prefer the slow build up you get with layers of watercolour washes and gouache.. it’s better for me to be forced to slow down and take time over little details.
There’s something about/in your work that I think speaks volumes about your subjects’ emotional connections to the dark complexities of the world around them (and thus our own). This is sometimes communicated through imagery such as bats, arrows, skulls, ghosts, and the summoning of fears and imagined terrors.
Do you see your work, and the fragmented memories and nostalgias it contains, as coming from a ‘dark’ place, or for you is there dreamy, childlike, ethereal hope and optimism in the work?
I think it is a bit of both – even if a work is depicting something dark the act of painting it is usally about getting something out of my system. This is how I best deal with negative memories and feelings so these works are probably the more hopeful and optimistic ones.
What’s your favorite art project that you’ve worked on so far?
I am working on a little comic zine at the moment and am really enjoying it. It’s really different from anything else i’ve ever done, and i’m excited to have a little handmade book at the end of it.
What gives you the incentive/confidence/push to continue making your art?
I have no clue! It’s purely internal, I don’t know how I would function if I had to stop drawing. I would probably stop being me. Of course people buying my art helps, because then I can buy more paper and nice pens.