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Interview with pastel artist Emma Colbert

9 December 2014

Emma Colbert is a young artist living in Belfast, N. Ireland, who works almost exclusively in pastel doing portraits of animals and people.

How did you know that you were an artist? 

As long as I can remember I have been drawing. My older sister was studying 'A' level art when I was very young, so my interest was sparked at a very early. It was literally what I spent all my time doing when I was a child. So I don't think there was a time when I knew I was an artist, it was always there.

How did you discover pastels?

Again probably due to my sister, who was keen on using them. She introduced them to me and gave me tips on how to use them when I was seven or eight. I liked them right from the start.

Why do you work in pastel?

It's so immediate. When you have all those pastels out in front of you, it feels like you've got all those colours pre-mixed, ready to pick up and go. It's just so tactile, hands on. It's vibrant, quick. I like oil painting too, but I am so much slower at oil painting, mixing the colours. With pastels you can get straight on with the art, there's no barrier between you and creating the art. It's just there.

What is it that you enjoy about portraiture?

From a very young age animals were always what I chose to draw and paint, and people. I think I have a fascination with faces, human or animal. I like capturing character. It took me a long time to grow any interest in landscape or something where perhaps there is no particular focus in the painting. What always drew me in was a face, someone gazing back at you.

What is different about doing a portrait of an animal from a person?

The main difference I feel between animal and people portraits is the texture I'm trying to create. I work fur very differently from how I build up skin tones. I blend a bit more in people portraits and use thin films of colour lightly blended together to create skin tones with depth. With animal portraits it's all about the direction of the fur and building it up with small marks. I find pastel is the perfect medium for both these effects. Other than that though, I place the same importance on capturing personality in either people or animals. When painting anything alive I aim to notice the subtle things in a face which make them instantly recognisable. Not just their features but their expression or the way they hold themselves.

What is your connection to animals?

I grew up in a family surrounded by animals, a cat and up to five dogs and I always helped out in animal sanctuaries. My mother and I share a great passion for animals. I understand your dog helped chose the winner of our Facebook competition, how did that work? Well I chose the winner out of the hat, but my dog Brocci, did all the posing for photographs. Instead of having to show my face all the time, she is such a good model, and gets all the 'ooohs' and 'aaahs'!

Do you think art can change the world in any way?

I think it always has done. Back in time, through history, the thing that tells us about ourselves is art. It has always existed, and I don't see that changing. There is always a need to create, and to engage with what others create, it brings us together. It so important, even in a world of new technology and lots of distractions, it still has as much impact and power. It brings people together because of the discussions you can have about art. My boyfriend and I enjoy viewing art together, because you get someone else's viewpoint. Maybe there is something in the painting that you missed. Also people connect in the act of making art together.

Can you describe the creative process in putting the animal set of pastels together?

Well at the time I was working on a large portrait of three different coloured dogs. I had all the colours out on the desk in front of me and went from there. Then I looked through all my previous folders, of wildlife, pets, horses, everything I had. As I went through the images I tried to test the colours I had in front of me and kept asking myself if could complete the portrait from those colours. I did the 18 set first, it was very hard to keep it to 18. 18 would be fine for someone starting out, but it's quite limited really. It was much easier to bring it up to 36. I am very happy with the 36 set.

How many colours would you generally use in doing a portrait?

It can be surprisingly few. It depends on the colour of the animal. If it's a white animal I use a lot more colours than any other colour of animal. There will be a lot more subtle shades, and sometimes you get a rainbow of colours reflected on the white. For a black animal, I may only use black and a few other shades, blues, and highlight colours. 


In the 36 set the middle row is surprising! I wanted to have a row of vibrance. When you look closely at my work, it's not really browns, or dull colours. Quite often it dashes of very bright colours next to each other. But from a distance it gives the impression of brown, or black with sunshine hitting it. The vibrant colours can tone each other down. My main influence is the Impressionists, or more exactly the Pointillists. If they wanted to create a colour they put different spots of colour next to each other, and your eye would do the mixing. I don't do much blending. I blend the backgrounds, which makes the subject stand out. But for the animal I find loose marks placed next to each other gives not only the effect of the fur, but of the colour as well. I wouldn't use anything else for that. Pastel is just perfect for fur.

What would your top tips be to those that wished to draw animals?

1. The most important thing is drawing practice. Lots of repetition. I draw everything before I paint it.

2. Getting a nice palette of colours. A big enough range to get started and good quality.

3. Try different surfaces. I love velour. But there is a whole world of different materials to draw on out there. It's a personal thing, so you have to explore.

4. Spend time looking at animals. I have spent many years gazing into the eyes of animals. I have a love for them. I feel a connection with them, noticing the subtle differences in their faces. They are all unique. Looking not only at the eyes, but the eyebrows, the whole bone structure around that area, and how they express themselves. Even the tilt of an eyebrow can change their entire expression and it's noticing that.

How do you feel when you have finished a portrait that you are very pleased with?

The best feeling comes from how the client feels, if its a portrait especially. If I have really got it right, the client is overwhelmed. For example if a pet has passed away and I have been able to create something so that they can really remember them. It usually means so much to people. That's why I love doing portraits the most. Anyone who paints portraits will know, you never get quite the same reaction to selling to landscape as you do with a face that means so much to a person. It's so personal.

Where can we see/ commission your work?

Visit Emma's website or Facebook, or email

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