She’s colour blind but artist Mary Stuart-Miller creates vibrant paintings in her favourite hues of yellow, orange and purple from her homes in Europe and Brighton


Mary Stuart-Miller isn’t like other artists. ‘I have a cataract, astigmatism, am colour blind and very short sighted, does it show?’ she laughs, surrounded by her vibrant paintings at her house in Kemptown, Brighton.


For someone who, at the age of 53, bundled a few belongings into her VW Beetle and drove to Rome with her 12-year-old daughter to start a new life and run a project feeding homeless people on the streets, she’s clearly not the type of person that would let optical issues hold her back.


Mary’s bright, animated art, which she sometimes ‘paints’ with a credit card, or applies acrylic paint with palette knives straight onto the canvas, belies straitlaced early schooldays that could have suffocated her creativity. Her works include paintings of the seaside skeleton of Brighton’s West Pier, destroyed by fire 20 years ago. It’s instantly recognisable, only now it’s fringed with dramatic sweeps of colour and set against a kaleidoscopic beach of red, purple, yellow and blue pebbles.

Great British Life: Colour-blind Mary feels the hues in her paintingsColour-blind Mary feels the hues in her paintings (Image: supplied)


‘What I paint is what I feel, not what I see,’ she explains. ‘Colour is vitally important to me - it brings the world to life. I can’t bear grey roads and dull trees. I need a life full of contrasts.’


Her latest work combines one of the world’s best-known portraits with an inimitable and imaginative twist. Mary’s interpretation of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is set against a Vincent Van Gogh-inspired background.

Great British Life: Mary's colourful Mona Lisa has 'eyes that follow her around the room'Mary's colourful Mona Lisa has 'eyes that follow her around the room' (Image: supplied)


‘Without initially realising, this neatly brings so much of my life together,’ she muses. ‘It ties up my association with Italy, my fascination with the Renaissance period and art history, my lifelong love of Van Gogh’s works and the amount of time I now spend in Holland.’


Having divided her time between Brighton and Rome for a decade, Mary and her Italian partner of six years were stranded in the Netherlands during Covid. Unable to reach the UK or Italy they stayed in Holland and now have a third base in Zeeland, near the Wadden Sea. Coincidentally, it is close to where Van Gogh grew up.


‘In terms of an artistic challenge, I wanted to see if I could get “my” Mona Lisa to follow me around the room with her eyes and if I could work out the smile. For the background I included elements from five Van Gogh paintings and a nod to Klimt, which references time I spent working in Vienna, as the creases of her gown are gold.


‘She is different from my usual style, which is more impressionist than realist, and for this one I held back on the colour yellow, which I adore. I get through tubes and tubes of it, for anything from buildings to skies, trees or pebbles.’


It is only in recent years that Mary has started selling her art. In 2016, she held an exhibition in Rome called Art from the Heart, showcasing the works of homeless people, local artists and her own works, including a painting of Rome which sold for €800. It was the first work she had ever sold and the proceeds went back into Project Rome, the organisation she founded to help feed the eternal city’s street sleepers. Now six Brighton prints are available through her website ( for £95.


Mary’s artistic flair can be traced back to her childhood, growing up near Woking in Surrey.


‘I can remember writing and illustrating stories for my younger sister when I was four,’ she recalls. ‘I went to Woking Girls Grammar School where life was very strict and we were encouraged to be high academic achievers. When the grammar system was abolished in the 1970s our school closed. My last academic year was spent at Woking Sixth Form College, where I studied English, economics to please my parents, and art, including the history of art and architecture, which I loved. Our new and more flamboyant art teacher urged us to “abstract, abstract” but I didn’t as I was still too absorbed trying to draw and paint true to life to pass exams, but his words stayed with me.’


After what Mary describes as a ‘fairly unstructured’ year of foundation art at Farnham Art College, she left to write advertising features for the Woking News & Mail.


‘I used my art skills to lay out and illustrate advertisements, come up with creative copy, write the articles and sell the adverts,’ she says. ‘It was a good marriage of my abilities and passions.’


It was also the springboard for a 40-year career in marketing, media and public relations which led to Mary specialising in travel and tourism. She was also the single mother of three children, now aged 22, 30 and 33, and chuckles as she describes herself as an early pioneer of working from home.


‘It was almost unheard of,’ she says. ‘Email didn’t exist, the computer and printer took up most of the desk and floor and the fax machine, my lifeline to the world, was akin to a family-sized air fryer.’


Around the same time Mary moved her family to Sussex, first buying the old village school in Billingshurst and later moving to a large house in Barns Green that was used as a base for the Canadian army during the Second World War.

Great British Life: Mary paints what she sees and feels Mary paints what she sees and feels (Image: supplied)


Despite working up to 15 hours a day and looking after a menagerie of up to 50 pets at any one time - dogs, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, goats, pigs and poultry - she still found time to paint a large jungle mural in the children’s bedroom.


Meanwhile, her job took her to many parts of Europe and her love of Italy developed when she worked for the Vienna Tourist Board.


‘Vienna is a balm for the arty heart and my regular visits immersed me in the world of Klimt and the secessionist painters, but it was Rome that completely entranced me,’ she says. ‘Ten years ago I started to visit Rome on a regular basis and I felt more alive there than I had done for years. I adored the scale and sheer mass of the buildings, the statues, sculptures and fountains. That's when I packed up my “Herbie” VW, and feeling like a fugitive, I drove to Rome with my 12-year-old daughter and set up home there.


‘I bought canvases, paintbrushes and paints, attended pottery classes, made a clay bust of the pope, and walked the city. This time I didn’t try to replicate real life in my art. I wasn’t trying to pass an exam with the best grade possible, I was simply doing what I wanted to do and what I really enjoyed. I didn’t worry that the sky isn’t really yellow, or that a building wasn’t orange. I loved the juxtaposition of bright colours and wanted to capture the spirit of the scene and what I felt. I was hugely influenced by my surroundings, my travels, my love of colour and the art that I had seen. I had found my artistic voice.’


At the same time, Mary was moved by the plight of the city’s homeless and set up Project Rome to provide a weekly hot meal to help some of the people. Twenty meals rapidly turned to 600 and Mary was joined by volunteers to create free pop up restaurants and distribute essentials to the homeless. In 2016 she was named an unsung hero by the Guardian newspaper.


Nowadays, she divides her time between Rome, the Netherlands and Brighton.

Great British Life: Mary is obsessed with the colour yellow and gets through 'tubes and tubes' of itMary is obsessed with the colour yellow and gets through 'tubes and tubes' of it (Image: supplied)


‘I work less and paint more,’ she says. ‘I rarely paint outside and my reference sources are photos and memory. I set up in any space wherever I am, as long as there is good, natural light.’


‘I paint whatever I feel compelled to. I am inspired by places and feelings. In Rome I painted the cityscapes tirelessly, in Holland I love the avenues of trees and Brighton’s pier and pebbles have long been in my heart.’

Great British Life: Mary can work anywhere with good, natural lightMary can work anywhere with good, natural light (Image: supplied)

She describes her art as being like a pulse and something she cannot live without. Indeed, the keen-eyed can try to spot the stylised heart that’s hidden in all of her paintings


‘Everything I do is with passion, and most things I do to excess,’ she smiles.