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Erin Armstrong, a young Canadian artist, fuses bold color and fascinating Picasso-esque cubism into surreal and captivating analog-digital mastery. Her fresh contemporary portraiture boasts a fine palette of fresh, bright color and plays keenly with warping perspectives.
Armstrong is “intrigued by the human imagination as it is expressed visually.” Her evocative and rich craft combines the strange and surreal into a gorgeously familiar and awakening portal, where large eyes with simplified expressions and lines greet us kindly and profoundly. A real sense of high fashion philosophy emerges through the texture and confident brush strokes.
Read on to hear more about Armstrong’s dedicated journey to success, working through hard times, and embodying perseverance and the value of never giving up.
Tell us a little bit about your life. Was art always present?
I grew up in a really creative home; everyone in my family is artistic in some way. My mom’s a painter, sister’s a film director/editor, my dad’s into photography. I was surrounded by eccentric, creative people and art all my life and was encouraged greatly to pursue it.
What is your artistic background, when and how did you start? How did you end up with the style you currently work in?
I took a less traditional route to get where I am now as I didn’t go to school for art and am self-taught. When I got accepted to university for Fine Art, I fully intended to go until a high school guidance counselor told me “there’s no future in fine art”. I was young and scared I’d end up the starving artist cliche. So, I went and got my BA in History.
After graduating in 2012, I was feeling unhappy and decided I needed to at least attempt what I truly wanted to do, which was art. I applied to a local art fair in Toronto and was accepted last minute. I was so oblivious to what I was getting myself into but felt compelled to show my work at least once before succumbing to a 9-to-5 life.
Thousands of people came to the fair that weekend and to my astonishment, I sold out all 10 paintings by the second night. The Monday morning I was contacted by a gallery in New York saying they’d seen my booth and wanted me to come to NYC in a few weeks with some paintings to exhibit. I was on a flight the following week.
Soon after, I set up a studio and began painting every day. I made an Instagram account for my art and started posting my work on there; slowly people started to notice and eventually a few more galleries contacted me. I was invited to exhibit in Australia and Scotland that year and was so baffled at what was happening to my life.
After about 3 years of working hard, painting every day and showing in group shows, I signed with my first big gallery in Canada on my 24th birthday and it sort of snowballed from there.
My style evolved over time and I learn new things every day just from trial and error. I ended up doing a continuing studies program at an arts university in Toronto eventually, but something about it felt restrictive and not that creative. Some days I regret not getting a formal art education, but mostly I feel it made my style what it is to just evolve and learn in my own way.
How do you usually work?
I’m usually working on a series where there’s a clear theme that ties the works together as a whole, but I always try to give each painting their own individual narrative and authenticity.
I’ll do an underpainting of colors and washes to build the canvas up first and add layers of texture and depth. Once it’s dried, I photograph the canvas and drop it into Photoshop to play around with my ideas using the digital painting tools to see how they fit within the spontaneity of the marks made in the underpainting. I sort of view it as the 2019 version of sketching it out on paper first (which I still also do), but this is a faster, more precise way to try out shapes, colors, textures without messing up the canvas.
Once I feel good about the general placement of my figures, colors, and shapes I use the Photoshop rendering sort of like a rough map to the canvas. Then I start cutting into the canvas and masking things off with paint to create the final image.
What are the sources of your inspiration and ideas?
I’m intrigued by the human imagination as it is expressed visually. I’m particularly intrigued by the ways in which the mind can conjure and create worlds by piecing together memory, experience, and the ability of the mind’s eye to render a non-reality. I draw on the genre of portraiture as a foundation for these explorations but choose to depict not a person or sitter, but an atmosphere or sensation expressed inside the formal qualities of human shapes.
How did you find your first commercial clients?
My first commercial client was a boutique hotel in Toronto. The curator had come to one of my first group shows in Toronto and had written my name down on a post-it note and tossed it in her office. A year later, she emailed me and told me about the post-it. She said she was following my career and was waiting for the right project for my work. She then asked if I wanted to do a 100 ft (30 m) mural for the hotel.
It enforced in my mind that you never know who has you on their radar and might reach out — even if it takes them a year! It was a good reminder to never give up.
What is the main message behind what you do?
For now, I’m just trying my best to capture what it feels like to be alive today.
Where do you hope your artistic journey takes you? What are your goals?
I hope to keep doing artist residencies because they allow me to travel and work while meeting interesting people, which are things that are important to me and feed into my art practice.
My goals, for now, are to keep improving and grow my painting, exhibit in new countries, and find someone to let me do a massive installation one day.
Could you give any tips or tricks for young emerging artists?
At one of the first group shows I was ever in, the curator said to me “It’ll take 3 years until you’ll start to really get noticed“. She explained that people need to see you’re serious about what you’re doing, that you’re putting in the work, time, and effort, that your painting is evolving.
Back then it seemed like an eternity to me, I wanted immediate gratification, I wanted shows and galleries and interesting projects. But 3 years flashed by and when I got there I looked back and realized my work wasn’t ready back then for all the things I wanted. I needed those 3 years to evolve and get better, to make connections, and make mistakes, to see a lot of art and decide what I liked and didn’t and what I wanted to say with mine. Almost 3 years to the day is when I signed with my first big gallery.
The point is, be patient, make a lot of work, then get your work out there, apply to residencies, apply to open calls, meet people, and one day your 3 years will be up.