It is said that life begins at 40, and for illustrator Sarah Ellis, this could not be more true, says Matt Kidd.
For Sarah Ellis, almost 20 years after finishing an illustration degree, a wedding six years ago would change her life forever. And it wasn’t even hers.
“My gamekeeper friend’s wedding was fast approaching, and after much deliberation over gift ideas I decided that the best option was to paint his gundog with a brace of pheasants, using a photo I had taken earlier that year,” Sarah explained. “Having hardly painted since I finished university in 1995, I was pleased with the final result and the gift was well received by the newlyweds. But I had no idea that that painting would ever lead me to where I am now.”
A short while later, Sarah’s recently married friend had the painting in the back of his truck on the way to the framers when he bumped into the headkeeper who caught a glimpse of it through the window. He instantly fell in love with it, and proposed that they add it to all of their shoots gamecards. Sarag relished the opportunity and due to its popularity gave her great confidence in her ability once again.
Throughout her school years, drawing and painting was the only thing that Sarah was truly passionate about. But it was a few years later, at 21, she decided to take the plunge, pull together a portfolio, and apply to study natural history illustration at Blackpool and Fylde College of Art and Design. “I had no academic qualifications bar an A in art and design; my Dad also used to tease me by saying that I had more Us than a moorland ram,” she laughs. “I even got caught cheating in my final RE exam! So I was doubtful I’d make the grade, but they accepted my application on the strength of my work alone and I started the following summer.
“Our tutor was a professional macaw parrot illustrator, whose work was truly outstanding. Although he didn’t have an apparent teaching style at all – he would simply sit at the front of the class, and paint his own work to sell – it was the most incredible way to learn,” she admits. “We would all find excuses to get closer to where he sat, fascinated by the way he chose what to include in his painting, how he filled his brush with colour and applied it so delicately onto the paper. I aspired to be able to paint as good as him.”
Sure enough, as she got older, progressed through the course, her work matured and improved. The colours became richer and the detail more accurate as she edged closer to matching the prowess of her tutor.
During the degree Sarah had the opportunity to study different forms of illustration. “One area I really wanted to get into was medical illustration. The colour pallet of the organs is so diverse and unlike anything else – blood can range from scarlet-red to almost black tones,” she explains. But getting into the illustration industry was no easy task, and by her mid 20s – with a husband and two small children – she could no longer spend as much time at the easel, and arrow-point watercolour brushes soon became thick and clumsy ones.
It was 15 years later, after a 10-year stint in rural France working for her father’s Timeshare-style schemes and time living in Wiltshire where her husband was employed to look after cattle, limousines and a million pound sculpture collection that the embers of Sarah’s ambition were re-stoked.
Soon after her 40th birthday – a year after the wedding gift – the inspiration to have another shot at a career in illustration came in the form of a phone call from her gamekeeper friend who had a new idea, born from a visit to a local auction and thought it might be right up Sarah’s street.
“When he described the painting to me I started imagining deer and trophy pieces almost straightaway. Brimming with confidence I decided to have a go,” she said. He very kindly provided the material – a heap of technical books and a number of bleached, unmounted heads. Sarah’s first project was the illustration of a perfect roebuck trophy. Remembering what she’d learnt in her degree, she began developing ideas on Photoshop and sent her favourite draft back to him for feedback.
Little did she know that her friend forwarded it off to Tony Dalby-Welsh, head of the International Council for Game and Wildlife Conservation (CIC). Not able to see any flaws, he too forwarded it to other board members to ask their opinions – all of whom took a shine to the work and gave very few corrective suggestions. With a stream of positive feedback, Sarah got to work. Stretching her watercolour paper in the bath, mounting it onto the easel board and restocking her supply of very expensive, ultra-fine paintbrushes.
A few weeks later, the first piece was completed. The detail was immaculate, the annotations looked clean and crisp and the composition was truly beautiful – and all of it was done by hand. “When a copy of the print was sent back to the board members, the feedback was astonishing. Everyone was so supportive and have been ever since,” said Sarah.
Now, five years later, Sarah has completed nine illustrations in this style – including all of the six deer species found in the UK as well as a mouflon, a wild boar, and a chamois – and is currently working on a 10th, plus a number of smaller commissions including insects such as the mayfly. Being such an ultra-fine craft, where each individual hair has to be painted, the tip of a brush becomes blunt relatively quickly and she will go through roughly three paintbrushes per commission, each of which takes about three weeks to complete.
As the purpose of Sarah’s work is to bridge the aesthetic qualities with the technical, perhaps the most challenging aspect is making sure diagrams are correctly annotated – especially as Sarah does not come from a stalking background. That said, she is truly passionate about the countryside, cooks and eats game whenever possible and has hosted a number of shoot lunches. She even has her first guided stalking date in the diary. “Many experts from the CIC are so willing to help,” She added.
“People have been so supportive of my work,” she says. “And I receive requests for commissions of so many weird and wonderful species on a daily basis, some of which I have never even seen before. It has opened up a world for me that I never really knew existed and I couldn’t love it more. I really am living the dream.”