Hampshire artist Kim Whitby
PUBLISHED: 16:38 10 April 2017 | UPDATED: 16:38 10 April 2017
Those teenage years can be difficult, particularly for the parents. What do you do, for instance, when they just ignore you? When it happened to Kim Whitby, she entered an art competition and hasn't looked back since
You know the way adolescents’ behaviour can at times be a little – just a moment while I summon a dash of diplomacy – challenging? There, I don’t think that was too critical. These years are, after all, a time of evolving attitudes when rules are challenged, principles argued and authority questioned. But the knock on effect of such unpredictability? Let’s just say parent-offspring communication expectations aren’t natural bedfellows.
Yet positive outcomes are possible. Take Kim Whitby’s case, for instance, where a frisson of domestic discord prompted her to enter Sky Arts Landscape Artist of the Year in which her compositions led to a place in the final with award winning artist and judge Tai Shan Schierenberg declaring, “What Kim can do with ink is extraordinary.”
“It was when one of my teenagers ignored me in a particular way that I thought I’d give the competition a try,” she smiles. “The first 50 to apply get a wildcard and I was successful.”
At the family’s Lee on Solent naval married quarters her work space is as fluid as our conversation. Where else would you keep sketchbooks but the dining room? Why not have teaching paperwork covering the coffee table? “I am probably ready for a studio,” laughs Kim. “If I’m working I’m also probably cooking a roast dinner. In summer I work in the garage, kitchen or dining room.”
A relaxed manner, constant during the competition, infuses our interview. She converses as though we’re longstanding friends and remains unfazed by publicity. Such calmness, however, is no barrier to determination and ambition.
“Exposure was the only thing I had in mind when entering the Sky competition, a shop window so more people than I could hope to meet personally could see my work.”
An earlier, successful experience of competitive en plein painting proved to be valuable groundwork. “I entered Pintar Rapido, an outdoor painting competition in London where I had a lovely day. I worked next to a lime tree in Wellington Gardens then sat in a café and wrote 20 flyers about the paintings I’d done and posted them through letterboxes around where I’d been drawing. The following day my picture sold (paying for costs involved), I won first prize and received another commission for the same view.
“When I first went to the Landscape Artist heat in Stowe I knew I needed to be in a medium in which I could produce something successful quickly. I’ve worked outdoors a lot and know what I can do in a set time limit.”
Kim travelled to the venue the night before, bedding down in a campervan ready for the 7.30am start. Filming took four hours and she cannily set up near a cameraman, “Because photographers are always in the right spot. The biggest enemy outside is a massive canvas as the wind can take it away. You also need to be dressed appropriately – not heels or white jeans!”
Her successful ink drawing at Stowe Landscape Gardens led to a semi final place on Margate’s Harbour Arm where Kim first encountered her fellow competitors.
“It’s not like Bake Off where people are together all the time. Until the semi final no one had met each other or had any idea how the others worked. They kept us in two groups. Everyone was so nice, very positive. When I did my first degree in Winchester I’d go home to West Wales in the summer to paint at the harbourside for tourists, so I was used to being watched and chatting while I worked.”
Her style secured a place in the final in which her fellow competitors were a painter with distinctive brush strokes and a stencil artist. “As soon as the judges took that decision in the semi final, you could see it was going to be a very different competition rather than competing on a level playing field,” Kim recalls. “The three finalists were completely diverse. To think of conventional landscape mediums is to overlook what is happening in contemporary artwork. I feel confident in black and white and hadn’t expected to continue but perhaps they are more open minded about what’s out there.”
The final, at the 17th century Petworth House, was one of the closest in the competition and reaching that stage nailed Kim’s ambition of national exposure.
As I admire numerous ink drawings, it is easy to forget that colour is an option many artists favour. Yet the shading and shadows, depth and detail of her work effortlessly capture three dimensional subjects. Indeed, choosing O Level engineering drawing instead of art clearly nurtured an understanding of technical perspectives, along with an appreciation of structure which prompts Kim to employ, “a trick called linear perspective,” placing large items at the front of a picture and smaller ones behind to project a sense of depth. Her husband’s connections have also helped hone this skill. When he was stationed in Portsmouth Kim had access to an old naval airfield which had been significant in the evolution of naval flying.
“The buildings aren’t conventionally attractive but have an intriguing decay. My first exhibition was about looking through a fence around the airfield. That pushed me to look at another unique environment: I went on board HMS Victory early one morning before visitors arrived. I drew while watching staff dust the cabin and guns then evolved my final Masters exhibition around that.
“When doing a Masters, my drawings changed. Historically I would have always drawn a line and filled in the area; now I start with large marks and lines are the last things I put on. There is so much to learn, you will never reach a level you’re happy because you are constantly moving forward, your focus shifting. You have to get into a frame of mind where you’re enjoying that journey.”
Part of that progress includes an ambition to enter the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition and plans for this Year’s Hampshire Open Studios. Meanwhile she has been commissioned by Hampshire Cultural Trust to help mark the bicentenary of the death of one of Britain’s most significant authors.
“As a Jane Austen fan I am appreciative of this unique opportunity for which I’m permitted to work with the collection and house which is so closely connected to her, Chawton.”
Kim is keen to become a full time artist, a goal which surely isn’t far away. Her cheery personality is backed by a steely resolve. I’m encouraged to meet someone with such belief in their talent and her announcement to, “keep up momentum, keep pushing,” is reflected in the time she invests in her art.
Meanwhile the 47-year-old champions social media – “I’m at the School of Twitter, inspired by others” – and, despite a soft spot for heritage sites, equally enjoys sitting in Costa and drawing people.
So keep a lookout for Kim Whitby. She may no longer be on our TV screens but, as one of Hampshire’s most gifted artists, her reputation is set to spread across the county and beyond.