The Whimsical Menagerie of Artist Emma Gray

I’m excited to introduce everyone to artist Emma Gray from Brighton, UK! I hope you love her whimsical work as much as I do, please make sure to show her Redbubble and her Folksy shop some love ♡! You can also follow Emma on Instagram (@em_menagerie) to keep up with her latest inspirations.

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your journey with art? What inspires you as a human and artist? 

I live by the sea in Brighton in the UK and I sell my original paintings on wood and greetings cards in my Folksy shop, Menagerie. Most of my work is animal themed and I’m especially a fan of dogs. I often draw rescue dogs looking for their forever homes, and I take commissions for animal portraits. I also have a shop on Redbubble that sells prints and goodies like cushion covers, mugs and stickers (I’ve never grown out of my love for stickers!).

I grew up around various animals including a donkey, ducks, dogs and tortoises, all of whom I loved and found fascinating. One of my earliest memories was trying to make a dog out of clay I’d found in the garden, so the animal theme started young. I have a favourite photo of me as a toddler in a smock with more paint on me than there was on the paper and I also used to include unsolicited illustrations to accompany school homework!

I studied art history in Edinburgh whilst going to lifedrawing evening classes and selling paintings and mixed media work through shops and cafes. I’d received a subscription of ‘The Great Artists’ magazine as a young teen and art history was a passion, but, I sometimes felt like I was missing out on the creative journeys my friends studying Fine Art were making.

After university, I did a foundation course in art therapy and enjoyed how freeing it was to play and experiment using basic materials – big sheets of cheap paper we could tape together on the floor and crawl across as we made bold, imperfect marks with thick brushes, crayons and charcoal. It felt reminiscent of the joyful, present engagement with art that I had had as a child.

I continued to make for myself and for friends and family, working in various media including mosaic, printmaking and paper sculpture. But low mood had affected my confidence to sell to people I didn’t know and to remain motivated creatively. For several years I focused more on writing, and became involved with the local spoken-word short story scene.

A bout of depression in my thirties led me to a therapeutic art group, where, on the first day I painted pebbles. I managed to anchor myself more calmly in the moment with the activity and left with a intricately painted matryoshka pebble in my pocket. It seemed like a solid prompt to try to return to regular making no matter how I was feeling.

What began as a therapeutic pastime resulted in a growing collection of little painted animal pebbles. Inspired by Victorian cameos, I attached some to pins and ribbons to make brooches and these became my first listings in Menagerie. Wanting more space for detail, I later moved on to paint on wood. I enjoyed its warmth and texture and how the scalloped lasercut shapes I used provided their own frame.

Some milestones since I set up Menagerie have been some lovely galleries selling my cards and paintings, a piece being featured in Frankie magazine and exhibiting in the Artists Open House festival and Lewes Artists and Makers fair.

What past or current projects have been your favorite and why? 

A favourite painting of mine is ‘Gratitude’. It features a crow with wings outstretched, surrounded by precious objects and was inspired by real life stories of crows who have gifted objects to people. I think we are living in an era that is particularly worrying politically. Bonds across species move me as examples of communication and empathy despite differences. I decided to go vegan two years ago and I think this has intensified my awareness of the sentience, instincts and intelligence of animals.

‘Gratitude’ began with an old mahogony frame that I found on the street. I cut a wooden panel to fit it and the shape leant itself well to the composition of the crow. The painting was also larger than the surfaces I’d been working on – it felt like I was stretching my own wings and taking up space. ‘Gratitude’ was the first image I added to my Redbubble shop – perhaps with hopes for a flying start.

Another of my favourite pieces that’s also available on Redbubble is ‘Swim Dog’. Earlier this year I set myself a daily art project with the theme of ‘strange creatures’. An unexpected outcome was a rediscovered love of drawing. ‘Swim Dog’ was inspired by a beautiful whippet called Yoji on Instagram. In one photo of him, he has his ears back and I imagined him in a bathing hat and old-fashioned swimsuit. The drawing includes three of my favourite things – sea-swimming, dogs and bad weather!

How has your experience been selling on Folksy and Redbubble? Any advice for new artists looking to start their own business?  

I joined Folksy in 2012 and was drawn to it as a British company that’s also not so enormous that I might feel like a tiny fish in a big sea. The Folksy team have been great with championing my work on social media and including pieces in their Folksy Favourites and Gift Guides. I was also delighted to be a Featured Maker last year.

To anyone starting the adventure of their own online shop, I’d encourage you to expect and embrace the learning curve. It’s likely that along the way you will adjust your prices, modify your packaging, better identify your market and allow your creations to evolve. However, your customers shouldn’t be guinea pigs for products that are still in a stage of trial and error.

Unless you already have a big network, it can take time to get noticed and achieve sales, so it’s important not to be discouraged. Folksy has a lively forum where you can chat with other makers and share your work and tips. This can be a good way to feel part of a community and to up your profile. I’m quite introverted and not a natural self-promoter or networker, so selling under the supportive umbrella of Folksy has been helpful.

I would also say that it can help to put your art-selling eggs in a few baskets (I’m planning to start adding works to my neglected Etsy shop soon). I often hear of makers who, for example, have low or no sales at an art fair and lose confidence in their work when there were likely to be many factors unrelated to what they were selling that might have been at play.

Creativity can come with the gift of a greater sensitivity, but this quality can mean that a resilience needs to be developed when stepping into a selling and marketing role. Honestly, I don’t feel I’ve mastered this resilience myself, but I like the words in Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘If’ that describe the lifeskill of being able to ‘meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same.’ Praise and perceived success can be motivating, criticism and perceived failure can be discouraging. Both can be fleeting and subjective. So, it’s important to try to hold on to that deeper sense of what drives you to create, and to sustain that passion and journey with regular practice.

I started selling under Redbubble this year and I feel glad and grateful to have just reached 250 sales there. I appreciate having this space for my more diverse work from portraits of comedy heroes to the unicorn-esque ‘Magic Ladyhorse’. The latter, inspired by a gemstone-loving creature from Philippine folklore, is my bestseller and one of my works that’s been featured on Redbubble’s homepage. The featured works have led to many more sales and this has been a good lesson in the value of exposure.

With Folksy, I get the chance to package up original artwork, include little extras like a greetings card and write a personal thank you to my customer. I miss not having this with Redbubble, but I do value the ease of merchandise being produced and shipped by someone else. When I make a sale on Redbubble, the buyer remains anonymous so the process can feel quite impersonal. However, I still enjoy imagining the ‘Someone in Sweden’ wearing their Lord Magpie T-shirt or who the ‘Someone in the UK’ might be who bought the Party Igor greetings cards (and who, apparently, shares my love of the absurd!).

Can you tell me a little bit about the creative process that goes into your painted animal pieces?

My oval paintings on wood are usually inspired by a photo of an animal. I think we are all hardwired in anthropomorphism to a degree from children’s book characters, and particular photos inspire imaginings of names, personalities and outfits. I’m not a fan of real animals wearing unpractical, restrictive clothing, but I hope my paintings are fanciful enough not to be promoting this!

I use lasercut wood that I buy from a Welsh company called Daisymoon Designs, whose profits help support their own menagerie of rescued animals. I tend to draw designs straight on to tracing paper that I can then transfer to the wood to get the composition right first time. I also sometimes use Derwent Inktense pencils to broadly lay down colour first, especially if I want a painting to have stronger hues. I use acrylic paints, small brushes and a paper palette so I can tear off a fresh new sheet for each piece. Sometimes I’ll add extra detail in pencil and fine pen.

Painting the eyes first helps bring a character to life for me. I’m especially drawn to grumpy looking animals in party hats, but I have a tendency to involuntarily mimic the expressions of who I’m painting. My face needs timeout after particularly morose subjects!

Most of my animal characters have names – they seem to name themselves. Sometimes I imagine larger back stories as I’m working, especially for a piece that has more of a folklore feel. Whilst working on my painting ‘Home’ featuring a white stag holding a nest in his antlers, a short story emerged that then informed details of the image. The story can be found in my Instagram feed.

What are you currently listening to? 

I work in silence or listening to anything that feels like gentle, undemanding company. For me, BBC Radio 4 has this quality, as does Cerys Matthew’s weekly show on BBC Radio 6. I appreciate Cerys’ curious and celebratory delight for people, music and poetry and most of the music she plays (and often introduces me to) would be welcome on my own playlist. I also enjoy podcasts and a favourite is ‘The Mental Illness Happy Hour’ presented by comedian Paul Gilmartin. I’ve found this show full of insight, courageous disclosure and just the right amount of humour. What am I listening to right now? Squawking, squabbling seagulls roosting on the roof opposite. This is the soundtrack for most people in Brighton!

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