Artist interview with Shirley Cresswell

Internationally renowned for painting photo realism in acrylics, Shirley spoke to us about her next exciting challenge - and what upsets her the most as a full-time artist.



What are you drawing the greatest inspiration from at the moment?


I have just enjoyed painting the Cardrona Hotel with lots of detail. It is different from my normal beach and dinghy paintings. There are special little features within the painting...the New Zealand flag, curtains in the windows, an outside light on, blossoms on the trees, the old car outside, snow capped mountains, and so on.


I also have a commission in the next month of two little boys sitting on the edge of a pool. Painting people will be quite a change and I am looking forward to the challenge


Have your paintings changed in subject or style at all since you started?


When I first started, I painted mountains as our holiday home was down in National Park with views of Tongariro, Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe. I also painted our dog, Scruffy. Then I started painting beach pathways and dinghies that we photographed when we were travelling with the family. And now these subject matters that feature water are my speciality. I try to create paintings that you can step into.


Why do you think acrylics and layering work so well for you?


I like that they are easy to clean up and quick drying. It does make it a challenge at times especially working on a large sky to try and get it nice and even. I have learned how to achieve realism through layering just by trial and error.


Was there a moment when you felt like your work was starting to be widely recognised? How did that feel?


The first time a painting sold, I felt guilty that someone had used their hard earned money to purchase one of my paintings.


The moment I felt my work was starting to be recognised was in 2011. I had exhibited for the first time at the NZ Art Show in Wellington in 2010. The next year, I was invited to be in a preview show at The Museum Hotel, which was an honour. Then subsequently the art show a month later where my work almost sold out.


At this particular show, anyone who wishes to purchase a painting has to find a show assistant wearing white gloves to get the painting off the wall and take it to the sales desk. That year numerous paintings of mine had two white glove assistants going to grab the same painting at the same time. It was incredibly exciting!


Where do you do most of your work?


Our formal dining room is my painting studio. It is permanently set up. I have a hanging system on the walls, which is set up like a gallery when I have an open studio.


During a normal week however I have large plastic sheets that have been made to hang off this system from the ceiling to the floor. This stops me splattering the walls with paint. I also have some firmer plastic on the carpet to allow my chair to be moved more easily. My table of paints is always left ready to just pick up my brushes and continue working. I am very disciplined usually painting for eight hours a day.


Is there one piece of work that you have been especially proud of?


In 2019, I painted a large painting called The Mayor's House, Kirikiriroa. It was commissioned by our Hamilton Mayor at that time. The Mayor's son used his drone to take photographs of the river including his house in the shots. I felt honoured and proud to accomplish such a detailed and significant painting.


Are there any other artists that you admire?


I get pleasure like everyone else when I see a painting that I adore. My husband and I have enjoyed purchasing work from other artists for our home. These are usually New Zealand artists that paint differently to me but I am still drawn to realism. Ben Timmins, Jane Crisp, Amber Emm.


Also, many international artists and of course the old masters paintings. I have had the pleasure of visiting some wonderful international art galleries. Of note was Melbourne Art Gallery where I was awed by the large painting, Giambattista tiepolo The banquet of Cleopatra 1743–44


My favourite art gallery is the Musee dOrsay in Paris. To see Renoir, Manet and Monet paintings was a highlight.


Do you think there are any particular challenges facing artists at the moment?


One enormous issue is plagiarism. Now most people have access to the internet and a printer, there are many artists who think it is okay to copy another person's work. I find it extremely upsetting when I see someone complete a painting that is almost identical to mine.


I have heard the saying that an artist should be flattered .....but instead it is very upsetting.


But in the same instance, the Internet, Facebook, online galleries etc have opened up art to the public and it has helped me to develop a huge following for my work.


The other obvious challenge is Covid 19. I have heard that a couple of the galleries I have work in are closing. The New Zealand art world will certainly face some difficulties if there is a downturn in the economy. I suppose we will see in the next year if art is still something that people feel is necessary to purchase if and when money is tight.


Did you find lockdown difficult?


To be honest, my day to day life was very much the same as usual - just with my husband working from home as well. Being an artist is quite isolating anyway and to be successful you need to put in the hours and be disciplined and ordered to get work completed.


Is there anything else that people might not know about you as an artist?


To work full time as an artist and make a living it is important to be good at marketing and have a good business head. Early on, when I first started painting I completed an art business course. That was very helpful. I learned how to market my work, price my work and run my art as a business.


Any closing thoughts?


A word not to use about my work is the word “ hobby." It is my passion and business.

Also, I believe if you want to be successful at something....anything and everything is possible. Believe in yourself, work hard. Have a vision and it will happen.


You can find more about Shirley and her work here.