Creative Lives — Painter and artist Caroline Dowsett on making moves in Manchester and finding her distinct colourful style
It’s safe to say that Caroline Dowsett’s work is bold in colours as much as it is in form. The Manchester-based artist fuses a range of colour palettes to create energetic pieces that stand out in any given environment. Caroline’s journey began at Manchester School of Art back in 2013, where she was enrolled as a graphic design student for a year. She made the decision to drop out during her second year when the possibilities of independent working grew too strong to ignore. She began taking part in print fairs around Manchester and London before investing in a studio space at Islington Mill in Salford. Unbeknown to Caroline, everything was to fall into place once she moved in. The commissions started to come in more regularly and the rest was history. Caroline openly talks to us about the late nights and difficulties she faced in the early years.
Freelance Artist and Painter
NTS, UNIQLO, Camden Brewery, Virgin, Fred Aldous, Gorilla, Trof, Spinningfields, Instruct
Graphic Design, Manchester School of Art (2013–2014)
Caroline, photography by Elle Brotherhood
How would you describe what you do?
I’m an abstract artist working with a lot of colour, shapes and words. I spend my days painting for a range of different clients, alongside developing my own personal work. My work can vary from a large canvas piece for a company, to a commissioned poster for someone’s home, to working on a piece I’d like to develop for my online shop.
What does a typical working day look like and where does it happen?
It usually starts at around 6 or 7am, depending on how much work I have on. I enjoy the quietness of the morning, I find I come up with most of my ideas then. I welcome the day with a ten minute meditation session, then possibly followed by some yoga (on youtube). This brings structure to my day – which I’m very thankful for. I began working from my home studio during the summer of 2019. Before that, I was sharing a studio with ten other creatives at The Engine House at Islington Mill in Salford. I was there for four years, it was incredible! Due to some health issues which effects my joints and energy, I decided it was best to move into my home studio. I make sure I’m at my desk by 9:30, where I start the day answering emails, doing all that kind of admin which normally takes an hour or so. Once that’s all cleared up I have a clear mind ready to paint, either for a client or myself. I normally go for a quick walk around the park to stretch my legs and to see other humans. After lunch I crack on until about 6pm. If I have a big brief I can sometimes be found working till 11pm.
How collaborative is your role?
Collaboration comes into play a lot with my work, which is an aspect I really love, as it makes room for so many ideas and possibilities. I think it’s really important to collaborate, even if it’s a client bringing a brief to me and saying “just go for it!” I always ask for their ideas and take on things, as it’s interesting to see what they think we can do together. Or whether it’s a fun side project with a friend, collaboration is key for people – not just for artists. It allows us to see how others think and teaches us new skills.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
The most enjoyable part of my job is that I get to paint for a living, which is still wild to me! It’s something that is so enjoyable. I love meeting fellow creatives through my work too, I’ve got to know so many incredible and inspiring people. The least enjoyable aspect is that it does take over sometimes – I’ve gotten a bit better at keeping myself in check on when I am working and when I am just relaxing and having fun. It’s hard to balance the two, as I get so much enjoyment out of working and painting, that I could easily do it all hours of the day – but you do need breaks and a refresh.
‘Ponder’ acrylic on canvas 2019
‘Breeze’ and ‘Flow’ painting on cotton, 2020
“The most enjoyable part of my job is that I get to paint for a living, which is still wild to me!”
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
I’d say when UNIQLO and NTS came together to celebrate the new store opening in Manchester. They did a profile on me and showcased my work in the store for the first two months. They allowed me to create whatever I wanted, which showed a lot of trust in my work.
What skills would you say are essential to your job?
Motivation! I find this easy as I enjoy it so much, which is a really lucky place to be. Having trust in your practice is another one, plus keeping an eye on time and just being open to ideas and briefs.
‘Float’ banner 2019
What do you like about working in Manchester?
I love it! Yes, I am from Manchester originally, so I could be accused of being biased, but it’s such a warm and welcoming place. The art community is really special, there’s so many incredibly talented people across all genres, leading creative lives. It’s encouraging to be around. There’s always great shows going on, whether it’s an exhibition or gig. I love popping into the independent shops to see locally made ceramics, textiles and zines, or going to an independent cafe and eating some next level food. It’s an inspirational place – and people are really making moves up North!
Are you currently working on any personal projects?
I’m always working on personal projects alongside commercial commissions. My drive to work on my personal work is something I have brought with me from before I was being paid for my work. I do this as I always have so many ideas cropping up and I run a shop on my website that I like to keep updated. Sometimes with briefs, you can send off the final piece and never see it again, but with my shop, most people send me photos of the pieces in their new homes which I love to see. I’m currently working on a new body of work for textiles and large scale mural ideas as we have quite a few legal walls here in Manchester, plus a new collection of work for a solo exhibition coming up in September. I make sure to carve out time in my week for my personal practice.
‘Emerge’ t-shirt for Everpress
‘Plant’ t-shirt for Everpress
What tools do you use most in your work?
The tools I use are Liquitex's soft body acrylic paint, Sumo ink, a bunch of man made flat edged brushes and a range of papers from cotton rag to Bristol board. Digital wise, I use Illustrator and Photoshop with my tablet and iMac. I always have about three sketchbooks on the go, one large format A2, an A4 and A5. I use mostly the Daler Rowney Graduate Pads or Seawhite ones.
Is there a particular resource that has helped you?
Book wise, I’ve recently just finish Lisa Congdon’s second book Find your Artistic Voice after loving and constantly referring back to her first book Art Inc. Both are full of encouragement, interviews, honesty and advice on how to run a business and get ideas off the ground. I also have this tiny Japanese book of colour palettes which I find really useful for understanding which colours like to coexist and how they can make you feel or set the tone. There’s some great events in Manchester which are a constant source of inspiration – like the Manchester International Festival and Design Mcr. The Abstract series on Netflix is brilliant too and I really enjoy watching the Nicer Tuesday talks on Youtube.
How I Got There
What did you want to be when you were younger?
I remember I said I wanted to be a marine biologist, as I thought it sounded cool and my friend said she wanted to be one, ha! I used to love drawing animals and going to the aquarium as a child. I’ve always been drawing, obviously not in this style, but constantly doodling from whenever I started holding a pencil. My parents kept me occupied when we went out for meals, or on holiday by giving me a pencil and some paper. I’d always be asking my mum for receipts and biros just to doodle. Being an artist wasn’t really something that was on my radar as there wasn't anyone in my family or anyone I knew who was doing it for a living. It just didn’t seem real to me. It was only when I went to university and started taking part in print fairs did I meet people who were making it happen.
‘Keep it Simple’ exhibition at Idle Hands
‘Yes Mate’ hoarding for Hilton House
Did you study at degree level and if so, do you feel like you need a formal education for what you do?
I studied an art foundation, then went on to do graphic design at university. I didn’t actually complete the course – I decided to take a year out after second year and never returned. I had started doing print fairs in first year and wanted to give it a go full-time so I could learn about my style. I felt like my course didn’t give me the space to truly explore – but truthfully looking back I think it was the wrong course for me. I eventually just left and did my own thing. I do feel I needed those few years of formal education mixed with my learnings from my art foundation – as you are introduced to so many practices, artists and ways of working. I don’t think a teacher can tell you what your style is – you just have to go with your gut and express yourself as no one else can do it for you.
I found doing print fairs and art markets really informative for me. I got to meet so many people and see what others were making. It was helpful in those early years as there’s a lot of self-doubt wondering why you haven’t slept and why you’ve spent all your money on getting prints made! Also, working from a place like Islington Mill was invaluable too, there’s around 100 artists there all doing their thing, which was a constant motivator.
“I don’t think a teacher can tell you what your style is – you just have to go with your gut and express yourself, as no one else can do it for you.”
‘SHE PWR’ artwork for Gorilla and Deaf Institute
‘Keep it Simple’ exhibition at Idle Hands Manchester
What’s your biggest challenge along the way?
The biggest challenge along the way has been managing my time! In the past two or three years, I was only getting a few paid commissions plus juggling a side job – so I said yes to practically everything. I wasn’t considering my time, so I ended up working all sort of crazy hours, and pulling a lot of all nighters. I have learnt that I need to be more honest with my time and to remember I am only one gal. With this I produce much better work and feel more fulfilled, instead of just trying to complete five jobs at once with only 24 hours in a day.
“So many times I’d work on something for weeks and I’d be paid well under minimum wage.”
What have been your biggest learnings with making money?
To really understand that I have a skill here that is worth paying for. There’s only one you with your style. For years I was really under paying myself, and that was due to the budgets clients were giving me and not truly giving myself a day rate. So many times I’d work on something for weeks and I’d be paid well under minimum wage. I’d say around two years ago I started to really buck up my ideas and honour my skills and time. Having a store attached to my site is a great little earner too – I’m not saying I get herds of orders every week but they trickle in nicely, allowing me to keep on practicing my own work for pieces I then put up on the shop.
‘Fruit Salad’ acrylic on canvas 2019
How important have you found social media and self-promotion?
Self promotion is super important for a creative in this age, there’s so many incredible artists out there, and you should be proud of what you do! Bigging yourself up can be hard, but if it’s truly aligned with what makes you happy then you gotta be your own cheerleader. Social media is great for this. I do find I can get into a bit of an Instagram hole from time to time, as there’s so many inspiring people on there, I just get sucked in… For me it’s important to keep it up to date with my personal work and projects where possible, allowing me to keep connected to people and keep my practice moving. I have to keep in check how many minutes or hours I’m on it, as I find it can zap my creativity.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give an emerging creative looking to go into the same field as you?
My advice for an emerging artist is to just keep pushing and trying different ideas. Find your true style, visit shows, celebrate your peers and have trust in your practice.