Limitless Q&A with Isobel Stenhouse

From her beginnings in engineering to working in animation as an artist, before diverging into production and finally heading back into the world of art via concept work in games, Isobel Stenhouse’s journey as a creative has been a winding path that has led her through a variety of industries. But the one thing that has always lingered in the back of her mind has been her love for art. 

We sat down to speak to Isobel about the changes throughout her career, what inspires her and how she has grown as an artist. 


How long have you been creating art for? 

Honestly, since I was in primary school aged 5! I already remember loving art at school and I remember that my primary teacher actually called me ‘Isabel the artist’ so that’s stuck with me! And it seems to be something I’m still striving for and probably will be all my life to fulfil that name, but I deviated off the path when I studied engineering and became an engineer. 

I didn’t really do a great deal of art during that time and then when I was on one of my engineering jobs, they actually gave me funds to do evening classes so I did A-Level art and that was what sent me back on the path. 

I then made a change from engineering into animation and actually, I found it really hard to feel confident as an artist and so when I started to take on board production, which it did feel at the time like quite a natural move. I think in some way I went back in a circle towards my engineering days where I was doing project management. I think it was almost like a copout of not going for my dream. It was early 2020, just before the pandemic kicked off, that I thought to myself, ‘What am I doing, I’m in my forties now. It’s now or never, let’s give this another chance.’ And I really feel that putting a stake in the ground and saying ‘I’m gonna do it again’ kicked off the journey into concept art.

It was always concept art that I really wanted to do, but I lacked the confidence. Simon’s Cat actually gave me a role as art director and I loved it! 

What gave you the confidence to go for it?

I would say that I didn’t really so much get a boost in confidence as [more that I stood by] my intention to go for it anyway, and then somebody gave me a break and the support that I needed. I had let someone know that I really wanted to get back into the art world again and coincidentally, that person became a production designer on a game, and he decided to give me a chance. I struggle with my confidence every day but also I’m just not gonna let that chance go now. I think that’s the difference is, it’s like I’m going to do it in spite of how confident I feel and I think a lot of artists – that’s how they do go about their day-to-day job. I think it’s something that a lot of people in the art fields struggled with. Also what gave me the spark was to see young people starting in the industry who weren’t necessarily fantastic at this point, but they were going for it anyway and also watching how they developed over time and how brilliant they got when they actually just put their mind to it. I think that was actually really inspiring.

How did Covid affect your art journey, whether it was going into this new job or just your creation outside of work?

I would say lockdown had a quite positive impact on my art journey because I like to socialise and I live on my own. And actually, you know, I just had to face up to the isolation of it and just accept that this is how it was. I made the decision that I can either wallow and watch a lot of television or I can actually use this time where I haven’t got that feeling of missing out that I might have at other times, and I can actually use this time to be productive – that’s honestly what I did and I turned my attention to online courses. 

I took the concept art course at Escape Studios, then broke my elbow three weeks in in 2020! I had to start again this year, which was cool but to supplement that last year I did lots of little online courses. And some of them were only like £8 or £9 and you got so much content for that price. It was excellent and I learned a lot during that time.

Would you say digital is your preferred medium and why if so? 

I prefer digital art because of the ability to Ctrl+Z! The ability to undo is just amazing but I also love the idea that you can build up the lighting in so many different stages so I feel like when you’re painting and using a traditional medium, it’s more definite. Digital art just gives me such an opportunity to play. 

I mean if I were drawing in a traditional medium, I love to do life drawing with charcoal and I feel really alive when I’m doing that. I also love to stand at the easel and I love the fluidity of it, as it’s completely different to digital art. I really really enjoy that but that is something that is fast and loose. When I’m working on a more complete piece, I love building all the different stages and layers. 

I have found the flexibility in the iPad incredibly encouraging. It’s got me drawing far more than I would if I had to be sat down at a desk. It means that when I’m just sitting relaxed that I may just think ‘I’m just going to draw now’. And to that level that I want to draw at. It’s not the same as doodling on the sketchbook either, I can sit and do quite detailed things. 

To be honest with you getting an iPad totally impacted me for the better. It was a turning point for me in terms of how much art I produced. I’ve just not looked back – that was actually part of the turning point as I wasn’t actually drawing very much before that. 

Was that before or after you made the decision to go for it? 

That was before yeah, so I bought the iPad in 2018. I did work as an artist in animation for around 10 years before I went into Production. 

I then got the art direction role at Simon’s Cat which gave me the opportunity to design and make backgrounds as well. But then that’s when I went into production for about five years.

It’s been lingering with me all throughout my career that there was something else that I had to do but I was honestly afraid, and I’m sorry that it took me this long, but on on the other hand, I guess maybe I’m a different artist now than I would have been back then and and I had to go through those things to get to this point. 

Do you see that kind of growth reflected in the art that you’ve produced compared to let’s say 10-15 years ago then? 

I think so. I think one of the things I lacked confidence in was just feeling like I didn’t have anything to say or show. And I think now I have sort of realised that whatever you feel you want to express and show is fine, so I think that there is that sort of growth. 

I think artistically I have definitely grown. Part of where I am now is also because of my day job as well, because I’m creating a new concept everyday in my job now so every day I’m starting something fresh usually. 

I feel like I’m developing all the time. I actually think what also helped was the online growth of training. Just to be able to be stuck on something, search for it and found someone teaching it online has been absolutely super. I think the resources available to you do have an impact.

At the same time. I’ve noticed a traditional kind of feel to your art despite it being digital, so how did you hone your techniques here? 

I think there’s just something a bit old-fashioned in my style, just because it’s the style that I was brought up with. And I’ve always been someone who’s drawing, you know more like a drafts person. I think with a younger generation brought up with a different style, it would be quite natural for them to break out into different styles and I haven’t done that for a couple of reasons. 

One is that, as I’ve said, the subtlety of lighting is something that I love, and so I think that comes across maybe more in a traditional style. The other thing is that the projects I’ve worked on almost entirely throughout my career, maybe aside from Simon’s Cat, has been usually realistic animations. 

The first animation I worked on was The Illusionist which was, in terms of animation, very realistic. I was working on layouts and as animation assistant on that one. So whether it’s that I’ve aligned myself to the job or the job has aligned itself to me, one way or another that’s what my career has mainly been focused on: realistic and a more traditional feel. I want to keep that traditional feel but with more up-to-date techniques so that I can learn more about 3D and game engines and things like that. 

Do you have a favourite piece?

I find it quite hard to say that I have a favourite piece because I think again, most people who are making art are quite self-critical. I might think ‘Oh that was my favourite’ but I still wish I could change it! One that I really enjoyed a lot was the skull that I made. I was just doing a study of a skull and then I thought ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting for there to be little elements within this skull that were a bit more surreal?’. The latest piece that I have done for the exhibition actually is probably my favourite in terms of a storytelling piece. It pulls in the elements of storytelling, setting and lighting together. It’s been a long time in the making to get a piece down that feels like that and I want to use that as a springboard for all my future images. 

What advice would you give to someone who currently doesn’t do art full-time but wants to look into doing that in the future, maybe even as a career change similar to what you’ve done?

I would suggest finding the level of art that you would like to go for and the type and the medium. Have that as a benchmark and find out how it’s done. Whatever technique it is you want to use, you will find the training online. Invest in good online training and, even if you’re broke and struggling financially, there are many things that are on YouTube as long as you can get your hands on the internet. 

There are also brilliant courses. Schoolism is one where, in the springtime, you can get £100 off and you get a year of classes for about £180. You can get classes through Domestica for about £8 for 16 hours of tuition – that’s a lot of tuition actually! There are art directors from games on there, background designers, character designers, artists from the animation industry – all of that sort of thing. 

What I would say to anybody who feels like they’re miles away from their goal: I’ve worked with some really great juniors, but to watch where they were when they started and compared to where they are now, the journey has been fantastic and I just love to see that progress. Sitting down and just focusing on techniques will get you there. There are some people that are very naturally gifted and there’s no doubt about it. That’s just life and other people have to work a little bit harder, but you can definitely learn art through studying. Also, nothing will teach you art more than just doing it and this is what is great about being back in a job where I’m actually drawing every day. 

You can see Isobel’s newest piece as part of the Limitless V-Exhibition virtual interactive gallery. Join us for free at the launch evening on 23rd September. We’ll release the link to the gallery after the launch evening, so make sure you keep an eye on our social media platforms.  

Posted by Peri Friend

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