As an aspiring artist, how do you go from selling your work on Etsy, to seeing your creations in public spaces and exhibited alongside some of the capital’s most iconic landmarks? We speak to UK seller Michelle Heron, creator of the Paddington Bear Book Bench and Tower of London bus sculpture (above) to discover her story and find out how you can take your work to the next level…
My name is Michelle Heron, I was born and raised in Norwich but now live and work in London. Since finishing a Fine Art degree I’ve exhibited and sold work in local shows, art fairs, online galleries, independent shops and cafes, as well as on Etsy, of course! I paint in my little flat with my cat and a radio for company, shoehorning it inbetween a full time job in a school.
My work has always been influenced by my surroundings and my first small piece of success came aged 17 when I created a painting of the suburban house I grew up in which was shortlisted for the Young Artists’ Britain Award and where I got to meet HRH Prince Charles.
My current body of work documents the fading timeworn shop fronts in London, recording the unique retail graphics and using a mixture of textures to embody the materials that make up the city. I seem to be drawn to melancholic places that are either abandoned or about to disappear.
The Paddington Bear Book Bench came about through Wild In Art, who I became familiar with after a friend did a couple of projects with them. They usually do sculptures of animals or giant eggs but the Books About Town project appealed to me as it was based on books and it was pretty unusual. We had to submit designs that related to literature which featured London in some way. I HAD to do Paddington Bear!
After submitting three different ideas my Paddington Bear design was chosen, but initially there were issues with copyright which took a while to sort and ended up with me painting the whole thing within a week! Most artists who took part had at least a month! I was based in an empty shop unit within a shopping centre with a finished bench painted by Ralph Steadman (of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas fame) sitting next to me!
It was daunting as I’d never painted anything that big before and the curve of the sculpture meant I had to make some modifications to my design, not to mention the thought of how many people were going to see it… I used acrylic paints as they’re what I’m used to, and then had to apply two coats of varnish before being shipped to his new home by the River Thames for the summer.
The first time I went to see it on public view I saw lots of people taking photos of it and sitting next to Paddington, smiling at my work! It filled me with such pride and joy seeing the pleasure it gave everyone and hearing their lovely comments. I had to sit there a while to soak it all up!
After the trail finished all the benches went to auction to raise money for the National Literacy trust. My bench raised the fourth highest amount – an incredible £8,800! I felt proud but also a little sad as I’d become quite protective of Paddington (although the new owners have promised I can visit anytime)! There might be a chance that it will go on display in Paddington Station which would be incredible.
On the back of the trail I have been invited to help a local primary school paint their own mini book bench. Even though I’m used to working with children I’ve never worked with them as a professional artist before and feel pretty excited about it.
I think the experience of this project has given me more self-belief, something that a lot of artists struggle with. I’ve always felt a little uncomfortable with giving myself the title ‘Artist’ but now I don’t give it a second thought as I see the joy my painting has brought to many people and I feel really lucky to be able to do that.
The Tower Bridge mini bus (top image) came from another opportunity with Wild in Art and also Transport for London. This time the design process was a lot harder as there were four A3 sized designs to submit. I was really surprised mine was chosen as I hadn’t had much time to work on it and didn’t think I’d drawn it that well.
This time I painted it in an empty railway arch with a few other artists for company. I had much longer this time and wasn’t working over the summer, but it took ages as the Tower Bridge has a lot of detail and I had chosen to paint it in my usual painstakingly realistic style. There were times when all I could see was grey! It was a lot of fun working there though and I made some new artist friends who were very supportive of one another and brought back that feeling I miss of being back at art school.
My bus was launched in Trafalgar Square and I still pinch myself when I think that a piece of my work has been on display there! It’s now sitting by the River Thames with a view of the real Tower Bridge in the background, such a great location. After the trail has finished all of the buses will be auctioned off to raise money for three charities: Kids Company, Transaid and London Transport Museum.
My advice to other artists looking for similar exposure? Keep yourself open to new experiences and opportunities and try to engage with other artists as you never know what tips they might share with you. I think it’s good to pass on knowledge and be kind.
I used to think that there was some formula for ‘making it’ as an artist and would research what others had done to get where they were. But now I see (sorry if this sounds trite) that you have to find your own path and put the hours in to making work.
I have also come to learn that utilising social media and being on different platforms helps although you have to be careful not to spread yourself too thin, but you need to let people know you’re out there. That’s why I love Etsy, it’s allowed me to reach a global audience that I don’t think I’d be able to do on my own.
It’s also helped that I’ve found a way of making a living from print editions of my work. I had a few false starts on Etsy and I gained invaluable advice from another artist, Leah Giberson, who sells really well. I followed her advice to scan my paintings and print them high quality as Giclee prints. It’s enabled me to sell my work at more affordable price points without under-selling myself. Not to mention how it motivates me to keep making work knowing that people like it enough to buy.
I have been commissioned to paint another mini bus for a trail that’s going to be in Croydon. It’s going to be of the Flower Fairies as the creator, Cicely Mary Barker was from Croydon and I also have fond memories of the Flower Fairies. I can remember having the wall paper in my room as a kid! I’m looking forward to painting it as it will be a nice change from painting buildings…
I also have a private commission to paint and really want to get back to painting shop fronts and be more prolific with it. I have a few I’ve been urging to paint since they closed down. I find living in London so inspiring as there is an endless source of material for me here, in fact I’m struggling to paint them fast enough before they all disappear! I’d love to travel the country searching for more lost shops and to devote my life to painting them. I’m hoping to work less hours in my day job soon to help push my art even further.
Inspired by Michelle’s story? Have any further questions for her? Where’s the ultimate place for your work to be displayed? Comment below or tweet us @EtsyUK!