Featured artist: Nancy Nightingale

A studio visit with Edinburgh-based artist Nancy Nightingale

Back in March, I had the pleasure of photographing artist Nancy Nightingale in her studio.

There's a bit of back-story to this: we met when I volunteered at Jupiter Artland in 2020. It was the height of the pandemic, and I'd only recently moved to Edinburgh. Nancy was working at Jupiter Artland at the time, and we got chatting about work, art and other things. Going back a bit further, when I was living and working in Cambridge, I ran a blog series featuring local artists I'd met and photographed in their studios and/or homes and workplaces. I've wanted to continue this series for a long time, but moving to Edinburgh and COVID put it on hold. This year, I thought I would make an effort to rekindle the project, featuring Edinburgh-based artists.

I've followed Nancy's work on Instagram over the past few years and thought this would be a great time to catch up and feature her in this series. She has worked with painting, drawing, photography, film and book-making through her studies and personal artistic practice. More recently, she has focused on creating abstract monochromatic drawings made with wax crayons on paper and wooden surfaces, drawn from scenes she encounters in daily life and the play of light and shadow in everyday spaces.

Nancy has worked on several exhibitions including a joint exhibition at the Saorsa Art Gallery in Stockbridge (Edinburgh) and member shows with Visual Arts Scotland. For the past 2 years, she has worked from a studio at Mutual Co-op in an industrial building shared with other artists and local businesses. She studied at the Royal Drawing School (London) and Edinburgh College of Art, and now lives and works in Edinburgh.

I thought the best way to learn more about Nancy's practice and creative background would be to hear it from the artist herself. After I had taken these photographs, I sent Nancy some questions via email, and her responses were far more interesting and revealing than anything I could write myself. So without any further introduction from me, here is what she had to say...

Josh Murfitt: You studied at Edinburgh College of Art, graduating in 2018. When did you first become interested in art-making, and what led you to studying art at University?

Nancy Nightingale: I know it’s a bit of a cliché answer, but I have been making art since I was a child. Both of my parents are creative by nature, having grown up with my mum drawing landscapes in soft pastels and my dad having a passion for creating technical drawings of birds. I remember the sound of his pencil case tin opening up in preparation for a new drawing, which now hearing the sound of my own pencil tins gives me a warm feeling of home. 

At primary school we had an art competition where students were invited to draw on a paving stone - I don’t remember the details but I remember getting a lot of love for my landscape drawing and that feeling stayed with me. At secondary school I had the best fine art teachers who really cared about supporting their students and inspired us to be the best we could be, introducing us to new techniques and pushing us to go out of our comfort zones. Whilst at school I joined a youth forum at the National Portrait Gallery and attended short courses at various London art schools such as LARA [London Atelier of Representational Art] which helped me build confidence in both the technical side of creating but also speaking to others about art and artistic ideas. To meet other like minded creatives at that age was extremely encouraging and inspiring. I think these experiences confirmed my intentions to study art at a higher level.

I was lucky enough to go on to study a foundation course at the Royal Drawing School (a course which now doesn’t exist and was only offered for a total of around 7 years) where my love for drawing really deepened. Here, I learnt all the fundamentals of how to be an artist - how to look, see and truly notice things day to day; drawing from life, keeping a sketchbook, learning about artists and art history, practical things like building and stretching our own canvases, printmaking and bookbinding just to mention a few. It was a pretty grueling course which asked a lot from the students, but what you put into the course, you got out. I really don’t think I’d be where I am today without having had that year to fully focus on my practice as intensely as I did. 

All of these experiences finally led me to study Painting at Edinburgh College of Art where I met a seriously talented community of artists. I learnt a lot about my own practice and how to contextualize my work in a range of spaces. I organised many exhibitions with friends and enjoyed the complexities of curating each show as a group. My final year was paramount in discovering my artistic language, the textured drawing technique that you see reflected in my drawings here today.

JM: You mention having been diagnosed with Irlen Syndrome at 16, which affects your visual perception. Do you think this condition has informed or shaped the way you make drawings, and if so, how?

NN: It was only in hindsight that I made the connection between the two. Irlen Syndrome has and still continues to play a big role in how I perceive the world and therefore how that information then translates into my drawings. I have always found it difficult to express what I want to say solely through words so creating art is a useful outlet to get a message across.

Irlen syndrome is experienced in many different ways - it is essentially a sensitivity to light. When black words are printed on white or lightly coloured paper, the two are so highly contrasted that it makes it difficult to see the words. In my own experience with reading a big block of text, the text appears to flash and I begin to see lines in between printed lines, both horizontally and vertically. Whilst running my eyes along the text to read, these symptoms distract the eye and it therefore ends up feeling impossible to take in any information. Sometimes I get to the bottom of the page in a book thinking I’ve read it, only to realise I didn’t take in a single word and I have to start over again. 

The drawings I make today reflect this experience I have when faced with a large section of text with a heightened sensitivity to light. I construct drawings by building blocks of repetitive and heavy linear marks which contrast with the paper they sit on. This mimics the flashing effect that I see when reading and softer marks mirror the ghostly image that lingers after looking away from a subject. 

(If you’ve ever been to a Bridget Riley exhibition, her optical artworks are also a good representation of what it feels like to look as a block of text as someone with Irlen syndrome!)

Not only has my Irlen syndrome shaped the way I approach and create my drawings, but it also guides me towards the content of my artwork. It guides me to notice shadowy scenes that appear in my daily surroundings - moments in time sprinkled with sunlight that display an array of shadows and patterns caused by the sunlight and its highly contrasting shadows.

JM: Since graduating from art college, you have been involved in several exhibitions. Have there been any challenges in maintaining your practice after graduation, and has anything been particularly helpful in doing so?

NN: I’d say that a lot of what I think is required to maintain a thriving art practice is time. It’s necessary to dedicate time not only for making but for thinking, seeing, and absorbing information, often emphasizing these foundational elements over the act of creating itself.

During my time at university, there was an abundance of time available - it’s that classic realisation of only appreciating the gift you had once it’s gone. Time allows for thoughts and ideas to flourish, making it possible to enter a state of flow. However, with the demands of a full-on work schedule, finding this time becomes increasingly challenging. I’ve found that it’s essential to create a schedule and stick to it, making sure I get out to the studio whenever I can. 

I often only have one full day set aside each week that is dedicated to art and it often involves a lot of admin. By the time all of these bits get ticked off I quite often don’t have the time to make work or I haven’t been able to reset my mind into a creative thinking mode. I’d say this has been the most challenging aspect of maintaining an art practice post-university.

However there are some useful strategies I’ve found which have helped me to manage. For me, it’s really important to set aside one day a week to completely switch off from everything - spend time in nature and get out of your usual environment. On this day I try not to go on my phone more than necessary but instead really take in my surroundings. If I'm still feeling uninspired I like to take myself to an exhibition to see artworks in the flesh, this always helps. 

I am lucky enough to have a studio in a shared space at Mutual Studios where I am surrounded by other creatives. Not only do they inspire me as they are all incredibly talented, but it is a very supportive environment which offers opportunities for collaborating and setting goals such as hosting our own exhibitions and open studios. Just by setting a date in the future for a possible exhibition or setting small goals is such a great way to inspire motivation with an end goal in sight.

JM: On the subject of your studio: has this space enabled you to work in different ways, or even changed your approach at all? And do you also work in other spaces and environments, or do you always bring ideas back to the studio?

NN: Having a dedicated studio space definitely allows for my mind to reset and focus. It enables me to think in a different way and I’m more ambitious when it comes to creating new work and bigger pieces. For example, I’ve recently started a new series of work on wooden panel pieces which I’m building myself from scratch. What intrigued me once I began experimenting with raw wood as a new surface was that it not only gave the drawings a sturdier base, the wood grain itself interacted with the textured marks I was making. The drawings took on a sculptural quality, which completely shifted how I approached and interpreted my work. I don’t believe this new way of working would have come to fruition without the luxury of space (both physically and mentally!).

I have had the wonderful opportunity to connect with a new community of artists through my studio at Mutual and feel so lucky to have this opportunity to grow. Not only are the group here supportive and encouraging of one another, but I feel like I’ve also built a community of friends that I look forward to spending time with in a creative environment.

The way I most like to work is by collecting imagery when I’m outside of the studio. I take photographs of passing sunlight and moments in time that catch my eye which I then review all together once back in the studio. My drawings are quite often process-led which allows for a controlled restriction of information by removing detail, abstracting each space that would usually be regarded as ordinary or routine. I like to have a mix of both hazy memories and visual representation when recreating images as drawings in my studio with wax crayons. This way I can abstract the original space and offer a new space that is ambiguous yet captures the mood without explicit definition.

JM: Are there any other upcoming events you'd like to tell people about?

NN: Some exciting upcoming projects:

- Open Studio at the end of April - Mutual Studios will be opening its doors for one weekend Sat 27th - Sun 28th April, 11am 5pm, book free tickets here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/mutual-open-studios-tickets-865653933217?aff=oddtdtcreator

- Glasgow mural project - I will be taking part in Art Pistol’s Projects, creating a mural in the streets of Glasgow’s West End https://artpistolprojects.com/

- Hopefully a residency is coming soon…!

Thank you so much, Nancy, for participating in this feature! You can find out more about her work online at nancynightingale.com.

For those interested in technical things, I photographed this series on Kentmere 400 black-and-white 120 film with a Yashica Mat 124G twin-lens reflex camera. My past features were all photographed with a digital camera, but I thought B&W film would really suit Nancy's work. I chose film also because it has such a beautiful way of rendering light and shadow.

Be sure to follow Nancy on Instagram if you'd like to stay up-to-date with her work and projects! And watch this space for more artist features, hopefully, in the months to come.

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