Artist in focus: Nina Mae Fowler

Join Nina Mae Fowler in her studio as she works on a new commission and reveals the complex processes behind her highly detailed drawings.

Nina Mae Fowler describes her path to becoming an artist and offers advice to people setting out on their own artistic journey. She also talks about the ups and downs of being a creative person. As she looks through her old sketchbooks, she explains how visiting galleries in London while growing up motivated her to draw.

Nina Mae Fowler talks about her Luminary Drawing series in which she created portraits of film directors as they watched films that were important to them. As she starts work on her new portrait, she demonstrates the tools and techniques she uses to create portraits and explains how she helps her sitters lose their self-consciousness.


  • I think if an idea is really good and really worth making, it will keep coming back to you and it won’t go away until you’ve made it.

    My name’s Nina Mae Fowler and I’m an artist. I am a drawer. I make my work with charcoal, pencil and I also make sculpture and it took me quite a long time to be able to describe myself as an artist with confidence, because I always somehow felt like it wasn’t a ‘proper job’.

    I grew up in London and had access to all the galleries and museums, but the National Portrait Gallery was always my favourite. I started to get that feeling, that this is what I would like to do, and these are the walls that I would like to hang on. And I would leave the museum sort of desperate to go and get on with some drawing. And there were particular paintings that have stayed with me since, a painting of Darcey Bussell by Allen Jones, which I can remember so vividly because it wasn’t a traditional sort of head and shoulders of her. The colour is so vivid and vibrant, and she’s almost just done in line. And I thought, ok so you can make a portrait of someone, but it doesn’t have to be in a traditional way.

    I get through hundreds of these charcoal sticks if I’m working on really big things. I use the powder that comes off the drawing. I sweep it up off the floor. I have hundreds of different rubbers and then I use the Conté pencils, which come in all different softness.

    I used to just gather photos that I found interesting and ideas I’d jot down and quotes... it’s always important to write things down because otherwise you forget. I always feel inspired looking back through the work that I was making when I was so much younger, I realise that I am still investigating the same themes. Light and dark, erm, cinematic portraiture, the feelings that we get from watching film.

    The Luminary Drawings was a commission for the National Portrait Gallery, where the sitters chose a film that they love, and they’ve sat and watched the film. By telling them that their film choice would remain between the two of us, I think it created a trust between us, and they weren’t under any pressure to choose any particular film that they thought they should choose. Because they were film directors, I really felt a pressure of directing them. So, I created this little portable cinema, which was basically a director’s chair, which I thought they’d all be comfortable in, a screen that pulled up and a projector.

    Using the film and the screen to light them and their response to the light, was so immediate that it worked really well. This idea that I had, was to capture them watching a film of great importance to them, because I felt that even if I only had half an hour with them, they would get lost in that film and they would lose a sense of self-consciousness, which often comes when you're being photographed.

    I’ve taken lots and lots and lots of photos, hundreds of photos of them throughout the duration of the film. And also, I had a sketchbook because I drew a little bit as well, just to get a feel for their faces from life. It meant that I could really see parts of their personality that I don't think would have been revealed had it been a sort of straightforward photoshoot. And then I’d come away with a huge amount of material, which I then edit. Sometimes it’s a collage, so it'll be the glint in the eye from one photo, the position of the hand in another photo.

    People often ask, “Why make a drawing that looks like a photograph? Why not just take a photograph?” And my answer is always that the drawing is so far from the photograph. And when Sally Potter saw her drawing for the first time, she said she saw more of herself in the drawing, than she had ever seen of herself in a photograph.

    This drawing is a private commission, but following the same idea as the Luminary Drawings, so the sitter has been captured watching a film of her choice and I’m going to start by making a tracing from the photo and that just acts as an anchor for the drawing, so I know roughly where everything goes. And this is when the tracing becomes really interesting because the lines get thicker and rougher.

    I think one of the important things to remember, if you want to study art is, it’s got to be very, very self-motivated. It’s very easy when you’re self-employed to procrastinate and get distracted and look at your phone and look at Instagram and just stare out the window instead of getting on sometimes. I tend to work in sort of three-hour focused chunks, but after three hours I find myself getting distracted, or the work is starting to suffer. So, I will go outside, have a bit of fresh air. It’s funny, when I come back in from a break, I’ll see everything that’s wrong with the drawing as well.

    If you want to pursue an artistic journey, you have to grow a thick skin. And I think along the way you’re going to experience times when you feel like what you’re putting out there is not good enough, I think you’re going to experience times when you feel like no one’s as good as you, but these are the ups and downs of being a creative person.

    I absolutely love what I do. I love drawing and that won’t ever change. So as long as you are excited about what you’re making and what you’re drawing, then you can’t go wrong.

Learning objectives

  1. Gather inspiration from the life, work and creative practices of a contemporary artist.
  1. Explore the creative practices and techniques of a portrait artist.

Watch and discuss

  1. What different materials and techniques does Nina Mae Fowler use to create her artworks?
  1. Nina Mae Fowler is sometimes asked “Why not just take a photograph rather than drawing?” What was your reaction to her response to this question? How would you respond to this question?
  1. Nina Mae Fowler talks about the importance of taking breaks. Have you picked up any tips you can bring into your own practice? How do you find your focus?