Wildlife artist Rebecca Mickleburgh confesses to having a bipolar attitude towards art, says Matt Kidd. Indeed, her two styles of painting are so distinctive that it is difficult to believe they come from the same studio in the Scottish Borders.
Raised on one of the UK's oldest chalk downlands between Canterbury and Dover, an area renowned for its flora and fauna, artist Rebecca Mickleburgh (34) has always been passionate about all forms of wildlife. However, it took a near tragedy two years ago to make her realise that life is too short to spend doing a job you don't love. In 2013, she was working as a project manager for a Durham based development company in Edinburgh when her mother was taken severely ill with a ruptured aortic artery which very nearly killed her. With a survival rate of just 23 per cent, the odds weren't great. But, two weeks later, she miraculously pulled through.
“I decided right there and then that I wanted to paint,” explains Rebecca. “I had always loved my art, but I had never had the guts to follow my dreams of becoming an artist. So I began with portraits at first, dogs and horses mainly. It was hard, but I loved it.” At this point, Rebecca, who studied art at A-level, painted with oils in a traditional hyperrealistic style which was very time consuming and didn't make her much money. “So, I began experimenting,” she says. “I don't really know what came over me, but I started to paint in a way that was so fundamentally different to anything I had ever done before.” Instead of using a brush, she painted with a palette knife, using bright, bold colours to give her subjects a unique look and feel. “At first my paintings were very personal to me and I really didn't want to sell them, but in 2014, my partner persuaded me to just go for it,” she adds.
Her first commission came about when a friend moved-in nearby and wanted a painting for a large wall in his house. She offered to paint his highland cow and, when asked what he had in mind, his response was: “I don't care.” The end result was unlike anything Rebecca had ever produced, and her friend loved it. It was a great success. “I haven't looked back since,” she adds.
Indeed, what is particularly unusual about Rebecca is what she only half-jokingly describes as her bipolar tendencies which are perfectly reflected in her two diametrically different art styles; her hyperrealistic wildlife and pet portraits, and her new, unique style which she produces under the pseudonym of ‘Becksy'.
For example, one of her hyperrealistic horse portraits was recently chosen for the front cover of the Hickstead 2015 brochure, a very proud moment for her, and yet the vast majority of her paintings these days are done in her Becksy style.
Her most recent Becksy painting is of a black rhino calf entitled ‘George'. My first impression of the piece was that it must be a one-off commission for a private client, but I couldn't have been further off the mark. “I was painting an elephant at Edinburgh's Dancing Light Gallery where some of my work was being exhibited,” she explains, “and I happened to get into a long debate about woolly mammoths with the head of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland. And to my surprise, he returned a few hours later to ask me if I would be interested in doing some work with them in aid of rhino conservation.”
Fast forward a few months and Rebecca has started a new collection of the five species of rhino – Sumatran, Javan, Indian one-horned, and the African white and black. But still, I couldn't extract the reasoning behind the name George, especially as Edinburgh Zoo's two rhinos are called Bertus and Samir? Rebecca explained: “In early July, having recently finished the piece, my father was taken critically ill with lung cancer and sadly he passed away. In honour of him, his memory, his interest and dedication to wildlife, I named the first rhino after him. Dad's name was George. Instead of doing everything I can for cancer research, I know he'd be happy to know that I'll be doing something to save an endangered species instead.”
But not all of Rebecca's art is exotic in its subject matter. Indeed, her recent gamebird series of paintings would be perfectly at home on a shoot room wall. Starting with a pheasant, it includes a mallard, a redleg partridge and a black grouse, all painted in her unique Becksy style. Using oil on canvas, a paintbrush for the eyes and a pallet knife for the rest, she somehow creates shapes, textures and surfaces with a huge array of colours, bringing out a truly unique interpretation of her chosen subject matter. Indeed, what is remarkable about her work is that each animal is clearly recognisable despite the use of big, bold colours that you would never associate with that particular species.
“People often ask for commissions,” she says, “but they need to be aware that I have no real idea how it is going to turn out. It is a truly creative process that requires me to be completely relaxed and open-minded. I guess that's what I enjoy most, the freedom; like nature, my work has its own way of evolving into something unique.” In contrast to her photographic portraits, it really is as if her Becksy paintings have been created by a completely different artist.
The subjects of the paintings range widely, too, but both styles have one thing in common: a blank background. “I've done a couple of landscapes but I love animals, so that's all I really want to paint. Each animal has so much individual character and beauty only painting them with a blank background can express; I want nothing to detract from the beauty of the subject's existence. Each piece, therefore, is solely about that animal.”
She continues: “On a good day I can produce a piece in eight hours, I just put some music on and go for it. But others can take two weeks, as I will scrape them down and restart several times over. And I can be a terrible procrastinator when I'm not motivated; so I have hundreds of motivational comments plastered around my studio to help. And not forgetting my assistant who is always able to inspire me too. He's waiting in the car.”
Noticing the look of incomprehension on my face, she continued: “I'll introduce you to him.” With that she stood up, beckoned me to follow in her wake, left the interview room and walked outside.
Why it didn't click initially, I'm not sure, but once we reached the car it was obvious, she opened the rear door and out clambered Ralph, the most gentle wirehaired pointer I've ever had the pleasure of meeting.
After playing with her inquisitive hound for a while, Rebecca and I continued with the interview. Capturing many of the creature's expressions like she has, in both of her styles, one might assume that Rebecca must have spent years at art college honing her craft. Not so. Believe it or not, she dropped out of art college after a year.
“I just couldn't comprehend how somebody could call a sardine can on a wall ‘art',” she explains. “We were being made to think in that way and that just isn't me.” Instead, she went on to study Spatial Design at the Chelsea College of Art and Design, which somehow led to a career in project management. But when the recession took hold in the late 2000s, the construction industry was hard-hit and she was made redundant, and then spent the following year working on a farm in Biggar, which reminded her of her roots.
She recalled: “My dad managed arable land on the Temple Farm estate when I grew up. My sister and I would play there for hours with our dogs, Galaxy a GSP, Barney a Pinser and Bramble a Heinz 57! My father taught me to love all forms of nature, from grasses and plants to birds and fish, and he especially loved shooting with his pointers. One day, when I was aged 12, a botanist discovered the early spider orchid and later the Adonis blue butterfly on the chalk plains where he worked.” As much as she enjoyed it in her youth, she realised farming at the time – in her late 20s – was only a temporary fix.
Finding a job during the depths of the recession proved to be a lot more difficult than Rebecca had anticipated and, after 382 job applications and only two interviews, she finally settled for a job in housing development.
Shortly before she was made redundant, she spent a holiday with a close friend on a cattle ranch in Oklahoma. She loved the holiday so much she revisited again in 2013. During one of their day trips, they came across a fantastic equine artist who prompted her to pick up a pad of paper and start sketching. Which she duly did. Unbeknownst to her at the time, a tiny seed had been planted.
Two weeks later, when she returned home to some 700 emails, she knew that something had to change; and then her mum became seriously ill. It was at this point Rebecca decided to leave her job and set up the easel. “It was a tough time,” she says. “But looking back now, it was all part of the journey to becoming an artist and following my dreams. When my mum suddenly got ill, and I honestly didn't think she was going to make it, I knew that I had been betraying my passion by doing a job I really didn't care for. It was time for a change.”
Clearly, it was meant to be. Needless to say, she has found her niche and her infectious enthusiasm reflects that. “I even get to drink G&Ts while I'm at work!” she jokes. Yes, Rebecca really has found her dream job and true vocation in life.