Raw talent: interview with GB triathlete and artist Vanessa Raw

We talk to GB triathlete and talented artist Vanessa Raw, who gets inspiration from both of her passions.

After a BA in Fine Art, Raw’s career as a triathlete blossomed, and it’s the unifying theme of inspiration in both worlds that has led her to begin her next body of work. Working with Winsor & Newton Artists’ Oil Colour, she is painting portraits of inspirational individuals that she respects and admires, including David Walliams, Jude Law, Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Olympian David Millar.

Rob Brydon, Stephen Fry and Sir Ben Kingsley have all been involved, with others including Annie Lennox and Dame Judi Dench confirmed to take part. Raw intends to show the individual in their true, magnificent, raw self – in the flesh, with no façade. She wants to represent them as they are, rather than as what they are well known for. “I will let their ‘soul’ shine through the paint, so that they seem to transcend earthly constraints; a metaphor for how the individual pushes the ‘human limits’ day to day,” she says. “Each will be shown in a subtle, artistic manner and painted in complete agreement with the individual and what comes naturally to them.”

Raw has recently painted a series of 5×6 foot projects of inspiring individuals which formed the initial idea for her forthcoming project. They are painted on raw course flax in Winsor & Newton Artists’ Oil Colour, to enforce the notion of the individual painted as themselves without the façade of their known talent. Each one is painted in layers of washes and glazes to mimic the layers of their personalities.

Paul Robinson, artist outreach manager at Winsor & Newton, interviewed Raw to find out more about her work.

How did you become an artist?

I’ve always painted, since I was about six or seven. I then got to the stage when I thought: “I am good at this, I could become an artist.”

Did you receive any formal training?

I did a foundation course at Newcastle College and then was unsure whether to pursue fine art or fashion as a BA, but decided to follow fine art. I had heard that the teaching was good at Loughborough University, which it was, and this is where I obtained a BA in fine art. I want to go on to do an MA but unfortunately cannot commit the time at present.

How would you describe your style?

I would say that I am an expressionist, as I am not overly concerned with realism. I want to convey my emotion in every stroke. I see my landscapes as a self-portrait and like to work with the physicality of the paint.

When it comes to materials, how do you choose?

It depends very much on what I am doing, whether it be a quick sketch or a full painting. For a final painting I usually go for oils. They have a great physicality that I love to manipulate and a real earthy feel.

What colours are in your palette and what mediums do you use?

Looking at this I realised that I have used a restrictive palette, especially for my portraits. I tend to stick with Prussian blue, titanium white, raw sienna and cadmium red. I did go through a stage of using lots of different colours, but realised that for my style it became too confusing and messy for the viewer.

As I live in the same space as my studio, I thin my oils with Sansodor to avoid the fumes of other solvents, such as white spirit. I also use refined linseed oil for detailing and occasionally use dammar varnish.


Have you always used oils?

I used acrylics up to GCSE level and started to use oils when I was at AS level. Once I had started with oils I never looked back.

Who are your artistic influences?

I would say my artistic influences for portraiture are Lucian Freud, Jenny Saville, Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt and Marlene Dumas. For landscapes I love Turner and van Gogh.



Who are your sporting influences?

I don’t have any specific athletes who influence me; I am inspired by anyone who overcomes adversity or defies the odds to succeed. Someone who has come through injury to compete… the underdog. The triathlete Alistair Brownlee is amazing as he always fights through injury and pain to give it his all.

How do you balance your time between training and painting?

My painting has to fit around my training. I have a training schedule that I need to stick to. I was swimming at 0520 this morning and once I have finished that I do some painting. Then I go out on the bike late morning and then more painting followed by more training.

It’s clear that your sporting life influences your art, but do ever think that your practice as an artist influences your performance as a triathlete?

I’m very different to other triathletes who tend to go to bed or do things like slump on the sofa and watch TV between training; I am always painting between training. With both the triathlon and painting, to do well you need to get into the moment and relax. If you are not in the spirit of it but in the ego you are not at your best.

When someone is viewing a painting they feel a connection with the artist. I believe that we are all connected and it is this belief that inspires me in my sporting life and my artistic life.

I want to be remembered as the artist who did triathlon as opposed to the triathlete who painted.

Vanessa Raw