The painter opens up about her creative process – see her at work in a new film by Hill & AubreyGucci x Unskilled Worker
You’ve seen her work – expressionistic paintings featuring characters who stare out at you with big, deep eyes. British artist Helen Downie, best known by her moniker Unskilled Worker, has only been painting for a few years, but in that time has established herself as one of fashion’s favourite artists – especially when it comes to Gucci’s Alessandro Michele.
It began when she was asked by Nick Knight’s SHOWstudio to illustrate runway collections for AW15 menswear – including Michele’s debut (very last minute) show for the Italian house in January 2015. “The first collection was mind-blowing, I just found it so emotionally charged,” Downie shares. “And Gucci saw the painting and gave it to Alessandro as a welcome present.” From then, she was invited to the first women’s show held in February (“it was so theatrical and just beautiful. It was very emotional)” and to display work in Shanghai in an exhibition Gucci was putting on that October.
Now, the two have teamed up to work on a capsule collection – available today, the 40-piece range sees Unskilled Worker’s imagery spill across bags, dresses, scarves and more. The cast of characters (like a mother and her daughters and a girl with her dogs) are directly inspired by the models and muses of the show – Downie describes the process as a kind of “creative conversation”. “I watch the shows and then I paint my idea. Continuing the fantasy, really. Bringing Alessandro’s ideas into my world.”
To mark the collection’s release, they commissioned Dazed Media Studio to create a film featuring Downie and shot by photographic duo Hill & Aubrey. We were there on set – here’s what she had to say about creating work, not giving up, and fashion as self-expression.
SHE BECAME AN ARTIST BY JUST DOING IT
“If you’re painting almost every day you become an artist, I guess. And at first it was slow process and I was very unhappy, the first painting that I did I just ripped up. And I knew that I had so much work to do to get anywhere near what I wanted to express. So it was a moment I guess where I committed to painting every day. But without any end results, you know, without thinking anything about where it would take me or how it would be, or even what I wanted to paint I wasn’t clear of. It was just the doing it. And the name Unskilled Worker was so apt, because I had no skills… I still really identify with that word because i’m just making the most of what I have on that day. And some days I feel more skilled than others.”
SHE DOESN’T GIVE UP ON PAINTINGS
“Sometimes if I’ve got really frustrated with a painting but I can see there’s something there I’ll take it upstairs and run it under the bath and scrub the first layer off. Kind of destroy it to build it back up. I very rarely give up on a painting. I don’t like to give up on a painting because the character’s there and it’s as if I’m letting them down. I’ve already got an emotional attachment to them. So I very reluctantly think “this isn’t working” but it might be after a long long time of really trying and doing anything. But I’ve found that the most interesting things happen when you’re very brave… (if a painting is) at the point where it’s nice but it hasn’t got that (special) thing then it can be just bravery to run a brush around the eye and make it messy. Bravery always pays off, I think.”
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE EYES
“The eyes are the focus for me, of the painting. I start with the eyes and they’re made in lots and lots of layers of pen and chalk and scratches. To me they’re not oversized, I know that people think they’re big eyes but to me they’re normal. I suppose because I’m painting from an emotional point of view, I’m not painting reality, it’s more of an emotional reaction to how humans look, and the eyes hold the essence, in humans and animals too. Animal eyes aren’t so different from human eyes. Which is fascinating, I think. So the animals in my paintings have a human quality about them. And very often in my paintings they’re the ones that hold the wisdom.”
“Sometimes I don’t feel I have much control, it’s almost as if they’re painting themselves, which is nice. I like that” – Unskilled Worker
THE PAINTINGS IN THE CAPSULE WERE ALL INSPIRED BY THE SHOWS
“The paintings that are featured in this collection, many of them – all of them – the characters were made from going to the shows. So it’s almost like they’ve come full circle to be made into those beautiful prints on incredible fabric. Many of the paintings existed, they were paintings done after going to the collections, going to the shows. They have different characters, they’re quite varied. Put A Ring On It, I think has been used on a bag and I think a dress. It was very much a London painting of a group of girls, you know when girls get ready to go out together... And Ready For The Palais, the same kind of thing, set in about 1982, very often I’ll see something in Alessandro’s work and it will take me back to being 15 or 16, it can just be a very small reference, it can just be the hair or a piece of writing on a pocket, and suddenly I’ll have a flashback and that’s what I will make the painting around.”
SHE ISN’T TOLD WHAT TO DO
“For Gucci I’ll work out what looks will sit very well with each other but the characters really develop in the painting, they come alive. And sometimes I don’t feel I have much control, it’s almost as if they’re painting themselves, which is nice. I like that… Creatively, I’m not told what to paint, what looks to paint, what colour to paint in – I’m not told anything, I just go to the shows and then I just paint. Which for me is a dream. I don’t think I could do it any other way because I’m not a commercial artist. I don’t see – for me I have to have this feeling, it can’t be manifested.”
“Fashion is fascinating in the way that people are free to invent themselves, every morning everybody wakes up with a canvas that needs to be dressed” – Unskilled Worker
SHE’S INTERESTED IN FASHION AS SELF-EXPRESSION
“What I’m more interested in is what people do with those clothes and what they do wearing those clothes. Fashion is fascinating in the way that people are free to invent themselves, I mean every morning everybody wakes up with a canvas that needs to be dressed, and we can make choices in how we present ourselves to the world and what we cover up. Sometimes clothes can be used as an armour. That’s the part that really fascinates me... But really it’s an adventure for everybody. You’re free to create who you want to be. And you can change it at any time and become something different. Sometimes just by putting a different pair of shoes on it’ll change the way that you walk, it’ll do something inside, it’ll change your attitude, how you walk through the world. That’s fascinating.”