what’s in your toolbox: holly farrell


Today I would like to introduce you to the charming world of Holly Farrell. Holly was a hobbyist painter until she turned her passion into a career in ’95. Holly captures the wonderful soul of objects in her still-lifes and portraits. Using pale color palettes of both acrylic and oil, she paints vintage pieces of yelloware pottery, floral sofas, peeling chairs, and well-loved cookbooks. She also employs the use of pattern by placing her subject matter in front of lovely wallpapered backdrops. Her subject matters are both honest and dreamy, encouraging the viewer to take notice of humble, oft-overlooked domestic objects.  If only I could hire Holly to come over and paint my collections of vintage props…

1. Design*Sponge: What is in your toolbox? What tools products can you not live without?

Holly Farell: Golden Fluid Acrylics, 600 sandpaper, 100% cotton jersey rags, fine Premier or Masters brushes, J.W. etc. gloss varnish, tempered masonite.

2. Design*Sponge: Fill in the blank, “when I am in my studio, I feel ______”

3. Design*Sponge: What are on the top shelves of your inspiration library at the moment? This can be books, blogs, magazines, newspapers, comic books, anything at all!



Holly Farell: Books about art – American Folk Painting, Mark Rothko, Southern Folk Art, Tom Thomson, Morandi, American Folk Portraits. Almost any Judith Miller book on houses. Reading – Richard Yates is an all-time favourite.  You can really ‘feel’ his writing.  David Sedaris helps me to unwind and Barbara Gowdy I quite like.  I read every day.  For me, it’s a necessary escape.  Most days I am lost in my painting which can be isolating.  Books are my segue into real life.

CLICK HERE for the rest of Holly’s interview after the jump!

4. Design*Sponge: How do you combat creative blocks? What tools do you use to keep your creativity flowing?

Holly Farell: Creative blocks are troublesome but I try not to think about them too much.  My process is so slow that I typically have ‘subjects’ waiting to be painted.  If I think about them too much in advance I lose interest in them, so I try to stay focussed on the works in progress.  I worry that my slow process hinders my need to evolve, but when I look back on my work I can see subtle changes in light, texture or presentation.  I have also recently delved into Portraiture (real people) which came out of painting portraits of Tammy dolls and Barbie and Ken (fake people).

5. Design*Sponge: You are known as a self-taught painter who first dove into your art at 28. Did you take any classes? What were you doing before that? what inspired you to make that first brush stroke?

Holly Farell: At 28 I was working in a group home for teenagers who had developmental and psychological challenges.  It was a great job, but very stressful.  I began to tole paint – painting flowers on metal or wood, anything I could get my hands on.  I also copied folk art pictures, learning how to work colour and the brush.  I got bored with the repetition and tried my hand at papier mache’ and then my husband said I should try canvas.  My first paintings weren’t very good but I kept at it until I had enough to enter a juried show.  That’s where I made my first couple of sales.  That being said, I knew I wasn’t a very good painter and that I needed to learn how to draw again if I really wanted to accomplish anything.  Over the next few years I would practice with everything in my apartment which is how I came to be a Still Life painter.  I had wanted to take courses at one time but just never got ’round to it.  ‘Doing‘ has been my education.


6. Design*Sponge: In a sentence, what advice would you give to young, aspiring painters? AND what was the best advice you ever received?

Holly Farell: Well, advice is a hard thing to give when I feel I have a great deal still to learn myself.  I guess that one shouldn’t expect that being a good painter means selling.  I think you have to strategize when/where you want to show your work and you don’t always need a gallery to do this.  My first shows were in my living room, couch pushed aside, walls freshly painted and paintings priced low ($75).    I did this twice a year until I ended up renting a space that included a beat up old storefront – then I had a more ‘official’ look to my shows.  I represented myself this way for years until I felt galleries might be able to expose my work to a wider audience. ‘I think if you want to paint, paint.  Worry about people liking them later (if ever)’.

As far as the best advice I ever had…a painter I admired, respected and was very much intimidated by, came into my studio and looked at all my work hanging on the walls.  He was very kind in pointing out all of the paintings he liked and what he liked about them.  He was very kind in not saying anything about paintings he didn’t like, or in retrospect, paintings that weren’t very accomplished.  His comments encouraged me to see the strengths in my work which, in the end, resulted in my focus on Still Life.  He never once condescended to me.

7. Design*Sponge: If you could peek inside the toolbox/studio of any artist/designer/craftsman(dead or alive) who would it be?

Holly Farell: Hmmm, that’s a tough one.  What I would really like to peek into is their mind, see how they see the world around them – maybe Rothko, or Morandi?  How about Egon Schiele?  Tom Thomson?  I think painters are always on the inside, looking out.  I think they are always just trying to figure things out.


8. Design*Sponge: What does your daily agenda book/ planner look like? Would you mind scanning in/taking a photo of a “to-do list” of yours?


9. Design*Sponge: Where do you like to shop for inspiration for your gorgeous, vintage still-life paintings?

Holly Farrell: I patronize all antique markets and shows I can get to.  Ebay and Etsy have lots to see and I often find ideas just browsing through their websites.  I also ‘mine’ my past.  That’s where most of what I paint comes from.  I can find inspiration just about anywhere.  Not all things inspirational are paintable though, but they may lead to shift in subject matter.  For instance, my family owned and operated an old roadside diner for a number of years – it wasn’t a very pleasant time as my father was an alcoholic who was at his most violent and terrifying during these years.  He died from ‘the drink’ at age 39 and left his wife and seven children to figure out how to carry on.  For me his death was a great relief.  I was ten, and unlike my older siblings, I had only known what alcohol turned him into.  So, I guess his death brought us all together – it was the first time I understood what a family could be – and the things that surrounded me at this time (classic salt & pepper shakers, cutlery, glassware, coffee mugs – typical roadside diner gear) are the things that ground me in nostalgia.  I hope that makes sense…

10. Design*Sponge: If you had to make a mix-tape of songs that are inspiring you at the moment, what would they be?

Holly Farell: I listen to music all the time when I paint, and to pick a few I feel like I’m cheating on the rest.  However, most recently I have been listening to (and don’t judge me too harshly):

– ‘The Fantastic Expedition Of Dillard & Clark and Through The Morning Through The Night’ (double cd), Gene Clark and Doug Dillard.
– Chopin, ‘Nocturnes’
– Gordon Lightfoot, ‘Songbook’
– The Handsome Family, ‘In The Air’
>- Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, ‘Raising Sand’
– Bruce Springsteen, ‘Nebraska’
– David Gilmour, ‘Remember That Night’
– Jill Barber, ‘Chances’
– Everything But The Girl
– Any 70’s Elvis, Brian Eno, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Cliff Richard, Dusty Springfiled, Nick Cave – the list goes on and on…Johnny Cash…

11. Design*Sponge: Are you working on any new projects that you’d like to tell us about?

Holly Farell: I am terribly excited about my Portraiture.  I have recently completed my first portrait: Antonin, 2010 which can be seen on my website.

Emi

yes!! I love to see things like this! I’m a hobbyist artist and dream of turning my passion into a career :) Good to see people following their dreams!

Jennifer Finn

Such beautiful art! I love how it feels isolated, but not lonely. Almost like a respite. Thank you for sharing the interview. It was so nice to read.

dana

so very talented! the white on white chair painting is beautiful…reminiscent of Wayne Thiebaud’s Yellow Dress.

Eli

Too funny that you posted this today! I stumbled across Holly Farrell’s paintings a few weeks ago and was inspired to create something myself. Of course lately I’ve been feeling that my technique is just not up to par and I was starting to hesitate. However, I have decided it is fate that you posted this today just as I was starting to let this project slide to the back burner. And after reading her story I have a renewed sense of inspiration! Thanks! :-)

@Jennifer: ps. I love your description- perfectly encapsulates how i felt as well.

janie

Beautiful, simple, uncluttered. I have always loved still life and these are truly lovely to look at. x

Tammy Lyon

so in love with the cookbooks painting… stunning, simplistic but says so much… can’t help loving the Tammy dolls also!

Lindsay

So pretty. I love the books, teacups and the spools. Not to devalue the beauty of her original paintings and I wish I had the money to pay artists what they rightfully deserve for their skill, time and effort., but I wonder if she would ever consider a selection of high quality prints for those of us with tighter budgets?

Amy

Thank you thank you thank you! Holly’s work and words are just beautiful. This interview is going straight to my inspiration folder.

gia

fantastic interview. I really enjoyed it. This blog community is growing, it inspires me thoroughly.

cindy

i learned about holly on the decorating show ‘room service’ years ago and absolutely love her work. i also love how she wipes her brush on her clothes creating abstract art pieces. her series of vintage hats is one of my favorites. wonderful interview … thank you!

Ell

What a surprise to see Holly’s name come up on Design Sponge. I’ve been a fan of Holly since I was a kid, maybe 10 or 12 years old. My dad took me to the annual art show at City Hall in Toronto every summer, and I remember seeing Holly’s work (that year, and many years to follow) and falling in love with it. I’m thrilled to see that she has been so successful. Great interview.

amy

So inspiring and wonderful to look at. Thank you. I love the bow ties on Holly’s website. And the toy cars! And that she has an archive of her work so we can see the progression….I love it all!

holly regan

From one Holly to another….
I love your story…love your latest portrait….Love the diversity in music choices! I love that design sponge is a forum for this boundless creative energy.
{Now if only I could stay home in my jammies today and CREATE.}

torey

I’m a painter myself and am so inspired by this story – the paintings are so clean and glowing, and I also love to hear about an artist who is self-taught and made it on her own…..

Nina

Aaaaaamazingly inspirational!am in middle-Ireland, snow-day off from work, curled up in the bed reading this interview & feel transported, uplifted & enthused!thank you for your story & wonderful work! @//*_*\\@

mollie hindley

I love her paintings! They are beautiful and have a calming aura about them. Do you know if prints are available to purchase?

Zarich

I have been wanting that chair painting all my life!

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