Painter Sophie Wake was suffering from physical illness and creative block when she discovered a new way of working that transformed her life

Great British Life: Sophie WakeSophie Wake (Image: Sophie Wake)

“I had to go back to factory settings,” says Brighton painter Sophie Wake, describing her decision to end her 20-year career in illustration. “It felt that I was working from the end of my arm and my hand, but not from my heart.”

After graduating from Brighton University in graphic design and illustration, Sophie worked for prestigious clients including the Radio Times, the Telegraph and The English Garden. But in 2012, with a young son and amid the pressure of constant deadlines, she found her body rebelling – hardly able to walk due to chronic fatigue. What’s more, her creativity felt stymied. It was a conversation with a friend – another mum at school – that inspired an artistic renaissance. “She said she was going to do Runuary, meaning she would run every day of January. I thought, well I can’t run – I was still really tired – but I can draw.” So that’s what Sophie did, posting the results on Facebook. “Every day I started getting more and more likes,” she remembers.

In the depths of her illness, Sophie started meditation, which proved similarly revelatory. “I realised I could draw from my inner experience and from the heart. I got my little boy a canvas and watched him paint it really quickly. I thought ‘That’s what you do! You just do it, it’s so easy!’ I’d put too much in the way: too much fear about success, too much fear about what others thought I should be doing. I didn’t really need to think about any of that, I just needed to express what was going on inside.”

Sophie has now been painting for three years and has enjoyed considerable success locally, winning Best Newcomer in the Artists’ Open Houses festival the first year she participated. Last year she scooped Best Open House for her solo show. And despite her nascent career and the obstacles of the pandemic, she’s found the past few months hugely positive professionally. “I appreciate this has been a difficult time, and it was difficult for me at first too. Then I found out about the Artists’ Support Pledge, which is on Instagram and was set up by an artist called Matthew Burrows. People offer paintings for sale for £200 or less, and once you’ve made £1,000 you pledge to buy another artist’s work for £200. I sold more than 70 pieces so it’s been an amazing time for me. Sometimes I was putting a painting on and within literally three minutes I’d sold it. It’s great because not only are you supporting other artists but you’re encouraging people to buy original paintings at reasonable prices. Some pieces I sold were £100, and they were going off all over the world – sometimes I was going to the Post Office with as many as 14 original pieces. That’s something that’s changed for me - I’ve seen the real thrill and excitement of selling original art.”

Previous visitors to Sophie’s open house may remember her haunting evocations of animal figures, watchful eyes gazing out at the viewer. It’s an approach epitomised in Herd, which Grayson Perry chose for his Yellow Room to mark the 250th anniversary of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 2018. Sophie says that the animals’ gaze is expressing tenderness, and posing the question “Who is looking?” We all, after all, want to feel seen. “I am really interested in self-enquiry,” says Sophie, adding that her work today is a fundamental part of her meditation practice. “I listen in to my somatic experience and then paint it.” It is easy to see that one of the themes she has been exploring recently has its roots in her own history. Depicting statues, often missing limbs or otherwise physically truncated, standing in heavenly gardens she shows them frozen. Fountains nearby represent the free flow of ideas, agonisingly out of reach.

Clearly, these days Sophie herself has no such problem – she’s more prolific in her painting than ever and is eagerly anticipating this year’s Artists’ Open Houses after being chosen as this year’s brochure artist. “I want to create a whole environment, so there’s lots of scent in the air, roaring fires, lots of candles and mesmeric, pulsing music. I like to create an atmosphere for the whole sensorium and treat people to a lovely experience.

“Last year I found it really exhilarating because of the response to my work. I’ve had people in tears or wanting to philosophise. One woman said she’d been asking the universe for help, and she’d found my work very helpful. That’s why I do it really, and if I can speak to just one person, that’s great.”

Good to know Sophie will exhibit as part of the AOH Autumn/Winter festival (rescheduled from May), which will run on weekends 21 November-13 December. The four-week festival will incorporate best aspects of both the May and Christmas festivals, offering Christmas shopping opportunities as well as great art for buyers and collectors.

For more information on participating artists: For more information on Sophie’s work: