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Painter E Shepard standing at a table working, with various paintings on the walls around them.

Ella Shepard – “MA Painting has been key to how I consider my processes, my themes, my confidence…”

During lockdown, and just before, I was working as an artist-in-residence at Leighton Park in Reading. During my time there, I started to experiment with my work and new themes and processes began to emerge. I spent a lot of time trying to understand my own voice and position in art and painting.


I knew I wanted to do a Master’s at some stage. Coming out of lockdown, having spent time working to discover a new area of my practice, I felt it was the right time to look at courses focused on contemporary painting. I previously studied BA (Hons) Fine Art at Oxford Brookes University, graduating in 2016, and had an amazing experience exploring contemporary fine art, creating conceptual works using media from photography, video installation and performance. I really wanted to find a course that was more focused on painting, exploring it in all its forms.

There aren't that many Master’s courses that focus purely on painting, and I struggled to decide between Glasgow School of Art and Arts University Bournemouth. The Glasgow course was more a general Fine Art programme with painting as a subsection, while the MA Painting course at AUB was brand-new, developed by painters for painters. I spoke openly with Dominic Shepherd – the MA Painting award leader at AUB – about the challenges I was facing and he invited me to visit, look around and talk in more detail about the course. For me, the most important thing was working with tutors who are painters, who live and breathe it. Upon meeting Dominic, I knew he was someone I’d want to learn from and who’d push me to make what I wanted to make. All the tutors had something different to offer, which made the course a layered and insightful experience, propelling me forward through the next steps of creative practice and professional careers.

One of the major projects we devised was a pop-up exhibition at XOXO, which used to be in Bournemouth town centre. This was at the halfway mark of our studies and a great opportunity to take the paintings out of the studio and put them in front of the public. We also went on a trip to visit the studio of Ian McKeever, who generously allowed us to see his new works-in-progress and discuss his practice and career. We also took part in a residency at Eggardon in March, taking us out of the studio into a new environment.

I started exhibiting straight after finishing my undergraduate degree and I’m fortunate to have artist friends and family who’ve supported me on my journey. My Fine Art course took our final exhibition to Free Range in London, and I was lucky enough to be picked up for a few exhibitions off the back of it.

When applying for opportunities at first, the biggest challenge was dealing with rejection. I think this is normal; when you've just left university or made those first steps, you don't have the support of your fellow students and tutors to pull you through in the same way. Now I’m far more aware of the factors that affect being chosen for exhibitions and competitions. You can't let it affect the making of the work; you have to keep going and be proactive when it comes to exhibiting. Searching for open calls and competitions is where it all begins, and to do this, you have to form a body of work that has a clear direction, even if the outcome can surprise you. There are lots of great places to start applying for opportunities online, and in the early stages, it was a case of finding the ones that fit with my work, making sure to read the theme, brief and requirements.

I recently had a solo exhibition at Pen Gallery – The Infinite Now. I drew on personal and collective memories to create works that deeply connected with time, flux and the instability of a moment. During my MA, I started exploring time through collaging and fragmenting memories, and the name of the exhibition came from research into the concept of temporality. Temporality is the layered experience of time, past, present and future; it is an infinite series of nows. So, the paintings were created by both hiding and revealing, building and destroying, in a way to reach an infinite perspective of memory. As I’ve built upon my practice, I’ve continued to explore my own memories and after finishing the course, I worked towards an exhibition of eight new pieces for a solo presentation at Paragon Gallery called Out of Body, which opened in August.

Coming out of lockdown, where I’d made all this new work that was different to what I’d been making previously, I felt quite uncertain about where I was going with it all. I had my own studio and found the making process quite isolating, without anyone to discuss painting with. The MA gave me a safe space to experiment, push my practice and find new self-confidence. The course itself has been key to how I consider my processes, themes in my work and the confidence to trust myself in what I'm doing. I’ve also met some amazing people and it's really helped me settle into Bournemouth surrounded by painters and friends. Having a network of people around me has been crucial to my progress, both personally and professionally. It’s really special that I'm connected to creatives who understand what it is to be a painter.

When you first start the course, try not to hold onto the work you were making before. In the first few modules, try everything. Experiment and be willing to fail. Be open to being surprised and allow yourself to navigate through the course. Connect with your classmates; talk, discuss and embrace the journey. Persevere, as you won't like everything you’re making, but trust that you’re being guided by professionals who have years of experience. It's not always easy, but take risks – it’ll help you grow. Also, make use of the studio. Not all painting courses offer a studio space and when you leave the course, studios can be expensive. I'm not saying you have to be in there every day; the studio is also outside, in your mind and in seeing exhibitions, researching and thinking. But having a commitment to your practice is important.

Something to think about

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