When Clara Wilkinson first started out in the art world as a freelance illustrator she created small pictures for items such as labels and invitations, but now much of her work is on a much larger scale, often covering entire walls.

Anyone visiting Brighton’s plant-based restaurant Kusaki, the Down to Earth Coffee café, or Hove’s Capsule Records can’t miss the expansive botanical and abstract murals created by Clara and her business partner Mary West.

As well as being half of Living Wall Murals, designing wall art for businesses and homes, Clara paints expansive and colourful oils and detailed watercolours inspired by the landscapes of the South Downs and her travels to Exmoor and Spain.

Great British Life: Her paintings are vibrant and colourfulHer paintings are vibrant and colourful

Inspired by Nature

‘I moved to Brighton five and half years ago and find it really inspiring,’ says Clara, 48. ‘I had always wanted to be by the sea and near the Downs and the light is wonderful for art. I had friends down here and thought it would be a lovely place for my three boys to grow up. I was able to make the move and so we set up home and this was a new beginning.’

Originally working as an interior designer, Clara’s airy Regency home and studio, a stone’s throw from Hove seafront, has also become a showcase for her work as she’s a regular exhibitor at Brighton’s twice-yearly Artists Open Houses trail.

‘The ceilings are really high and I turned one of the rooms into my studio,’ she says. ‘It would be very difficult to find a studio outside because every time I have looked at one the light is never as good. The artists’ open houses had become part of my brand as you can come in, meet me and see my interiors and see the art in my home and how it all works. People like to envisage a painting with their own eyes and see how it would look on the wall.’

Great British Life: Flowers hold the power for Clara's artFlowers hold the power for Clara's art (Image: Claire Waddell and Antonia Blunt)

In the DNA

Clara, shortlisted for the national Women in Art award 2023, comes from a creative family. Her father Rupert Wilkinson was an eminent professor of American studies and lectured at Sussex University; her mother is a journalist, her sister a photographer and her brother a playwright.

‘I was always arty at school and did GCSE and A Level art,’ she says. ‘Even though we grew up in London we used to go to Somerset a lot as my mum and dad bought a little place there. They’d take us on holiday to Exmoor so I was exposed to a lot of wild nature. I loved it and in my brain I have a catalogue of those images. My first botanical painting was of leaves and foliage and I remember holding it up in class when I was about 14 or 15. At the time I just enjoyed art and didn’t think I was particularly great at it, but when I held up the painting it suddenly looked quite amazing and beautiful and I couldn’t quite believe I’d painted it.’

Clara went on to spend much of her time in the school painting studio and honed her techniques imitating the work of masters.

‘I went through a stage of copying Lucian Freud as I was really interested in his techniques with oil paints and I realise now that I was learning and almost teaching myself through him,’ she adds.

Clara studied at Central St Martins College of Art and London Guildhall and her degree was in interior design.

Great British Life: Flowers and weeds are given the same attention to detailFlowers and weeds are given the same attention to detail (Image: Claire Waddell and Antonia Blunt)

Botanical Beginnings

‘That’s how I stared out my career in London and when I had children I gave that up and started doing freelance illustration and realised that’s what I wanted to head into,’ she says. ‘I began doing botanical inspired illustrations for labels and invitations and that led into some commissions, including people wanting paintings on canvas and it went from there. This was 15 years ago but it was really only when I moved to Brighton that things took off and I started selling a lot more.’

Clara recalls her first commission was for a label for a small olive oil business and the first painting she sold depicted the pretty pink spikes of rosebay willow herb which grows extensively in Somerset and continues to feature in many of her works.

Her second string, Living Wall Murals, came after she was introduced to London-based artist Mary West.

Great British Life: Clara is inspired by Sussex natureClara is inspired by Sussex nature (Image: Claire Waddell and Antonia Blunt)

Living Wall Murals

‘We were put in touch by a mutual friend of ours who is an architect and said we should meet,’ says Clara. ‘We went on what we jokingly called a date and had a good old chat about what we could do. We realised we had a lot in common and thought we’d love to start a business together.’

Launched in 2017, the business focuses on making walls green and creating biophilic interiors that bring the outside inside. Two years ago publishers David and Charles invited Clara and Mary to write a book, Making Murals.

‘The book was something that came out of the blue and they wanted us to write a book about the process of home muralling from beginners to advanced,’ says Clara. ‘It was really lovely to do and the creativity of my own art and the mural business feed each other.’

Clara spends as much time as she can outdoors, walking on the Downs or sitting and sketching ideas for her paintings.

‘If I don’t get out in nature for a while I feel something’s not right,’ she explains. ‘I always take my take my sketchbook and a black pen with me, or a painting pad and my very old box of watercolours, to sketch outside as that is really important to my process. While the three main places that inspire me, the Downs, Exmoor and southern Spain, might seem very different they are also similar as they are all quite wild and remote and the nature is unspoilt and there is lots of colour.

‘I will do very simple line drawings which can be quite quick or I will go out for the afternoon with sheets of watercolour paper and sit under a tree and paint. I love doing that. When I come back to the studio I work with oil paints on canvas and linen or work on really big scale watercolour sheets.’

Clara’s work is sold at The Bakery Gallery in London’s Portobello Road, Battersea’s spring and autumn Affordable Art Fair, Sussex Prairie Garden’s art events, on her website clarawilkinsonart.com and at her home through Artists Open Houses. Large originals cost around £2,000 and quality giclee prints start from £60.

‘I try and tier it so there are paintings people can build up after they have come to my home a few times or seen them online,’ she explains. ‘Then there are the less expensive prints and I also do a range of cards that people can come away with and feel they have got something. I will also take cards and the book with me when I am out working on murals.’

Visitors to her home are likely to meet her three boys, Lucas, 10, Theo, 15, and 16-year-old Michael. They all help out with the open days and have inherited the family’s creative DNA.

‘They are used to having art everywhere and living with an artist mum,’ she says. ‘The eldest is really into painting and very good at drawing and wants to be an architect, my middle boy is very good at abstract paintings and the little one, as I call him, loves crocheting, knitting and painting.’

A typical day for Clara will begin with dropping her youngest son at school, followed by a yoga session and then focusing on different aspects of her work.

Great British Life: Clara's studio is in her house and has incredible lightClara's studio is in her house and has incredible light (Image: Claire Waddell and Antonia Blunt)

Forgotten Nature

‘If I’m not working on a mural project and doing my own work I might paint in the morning and then do things like organising prints and updating my website. I do all the preparation for the mural work in my studio and have one desk for murals and another desk and storage area for my artwork to keep the two businesses quite separate.’

In addition to her large-scale work, Clara often finds inspiration for intricate paintings from the small and often unnoticed side of nature.

‘I got into the shapes of weeds when I used to take long walks during lockdown and noticed how things were growing on main roads when they had just been left to grow,’ she says. ‘I found beauty and depth in the overlooked. I found the shapes and structures of weeds quite beautiful on both a technical level and what they represented as they were something that is forgotten yet they are also as beautiful as flowers that you would buy or paint.’

Whether she’s working up a ladder creating a giant wall mural or painting on a small piece of watercolour paper, Sussex has undoubtedly enabled Clara to grow her business - whatever subject matter she chooses.

Clara will open her home on May 4-5, 11-12 and 18-19 during the next Artists Open Houses festival, aoh.org.uk