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Artist Nicola McBride on Process, Precision & Pens

By The Arty Teacher - April 12, 2023

Have you noticed the explosion of colourful pen art on social media lately? Well, it’s no coincidence that many of these masterpieces are inspired by the incredible work of artist Nicola McBride. Her Scottish-inspired still-life drawings have captivated students all over, and it’s no surprise that her influence can be seen in so much of the amazing artwork being shared by art teachers online.

I went to visit her in her studio in Scotland to learn more about her process and inspiration and how she manages to create so many colours with ballpoint pens.

(There is a free presentation for art teachers to use in the classroom at the bottom of this post)

How it Started

After a career as a painter, McBride’s first colour biro drawing was of her show dog Alfie. Her son wanted a picture of their family dog and this time she chose to do it in coloured ballpoint pens. She put the drawing on a show-dog website and this led to a lot of dog commissions using the same media. And that’s how it began. Tiring of dog commissions and the expectation that she could produce work from a tiny, poor-quality photo, McBride reflected on what she would really like to create work about.

Back when she was younger her Dad managed bars. Mesmerised by the optics and the colours she was inspired to make artwork of glass bottles. Deciding to stick to Scottish themes, it grew from there.

“I was always interested in lettering as well. I started calligraphy when I was about 6 years old and loved it. I love drawing labels, letters and branding. I include scrabble pieces too.”

Process, Precision & Pens

I was mesmerised by the neat, line drawings in McBride’s studio. She draws in pencil before she adds pen. So precise, I wondered if it had been traced or if she had used a lightbox, but no.

McBride told me that she started off using grids but it was too difficult to get rid of the lines. Now she adds a grid over the image she would like to draw on her phone, uses paper strips to mask off an area of the drawing, and then draws section by section.

Drawing by artist Nicola McBride

We all know how unforgiving ballpoint pen can be. Our students are sometimes fearful of this permanent medium. I asked if she worries about this.

“If you build it up lightly, it doesn’t matter. There are tons of mistakes in my work, tons.”

I’d read on social media that McBride only uses 8 colours and black. She uses Bic Crystal Multicolour Ballpoint Pens. You can find the exact pack on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com #Ad

I wanted to know how she managed to create such a full range of colours and the following sketchbook pages revealed her colour-mixing process. McBride told me:

“The one I go through the most is the brown. I could go through that in a day.”

It would be a great task for your students to see if they could create a colour wheel like the one above.

It’s interesting to see that you can see hatching in these sketchbook pages and in Mcbride’s finished artworks.

I was also curious to find out how she created the flat background in her work. Sticking to just 5 different colours for her backgrounds, they are created with acrylic.

Themes in Nicola McBrides Artwork

What’s great about using Nicola McBride for inspiration in the art room is her use of local Scottish products. Tunnocks teacakes and caramel bars, Irn Bru, ‘Scottish Plain’ bread and ‘Isle of Harris’ gin are all Scottish products. McBride is endorsed by Tunnocks.

“The Tunnocks merchandise always captivated me, particularly as a child. Teacakes were like medals in my house and only given out on special occasions.”

What products are made in your area? Whether it is Eccles cakes in Manchester, pies in Wigan or cheddar in Somerset, this is a great way to make a still-life project meaningful to the students you teach. If your students are from diverse backgrounds, they could bring in products and foods that reflect their cultural heritage too.

Another theme in Mcbride’s work is identity and memories. She regularly creates commissioned pieces of art for people. She explained that people will put together objects that reflect the personality of the person the gift is for. Sometimes people request that she uses the scrabble pieces that feature in many of her artworks to spell the name of the person or hint at their personality.

The artwork below is about McBrides own childhood memories.

I’ve mentioned above her use of lettering in the form of labels and scrabble pieces. ‘Art and Words’ often comes up on exam papers and knowing that McBrides work has this as a theme is useful.

Local products, identity and lettering are themes that regularly appear in McBride’s work.

Advice for Aspiring Students

I asked what advice she would give to students who wanted to create work in her style.

The photograph you take initially is the most important part, definitely. How you crop it, how you arrange your objects, without a doubt. I’ve taken so many photographs and by the time I’ve started I’ve thought, gosh, that’s not worked. I’ve had to go back and retake them. Take tones of photographs of your subject matter. Always have the object in front of you as well, to look at when you are drawing.

Then next step is drawing it out is more important that layering the colour over the top because if the drawing is not right, it’s all going to fall down.

Build up layers very, very slowly. Very lightly at first. So all the colours that I use have got maybe three layers underneath them. That helps with the ink not fading as well.

Keep practising and practising and practising and you will see improvement over time.

Pick your objects carefully. Pick things you enjoy. It doesn’t matter if they don’t match. Pick things you enjoy to look at.

Education & Pre-Biro Life

McBride went to a very small, diverse secondary school in Dundee. She was the first person to go to art school from her school in 10 years!

“I had a fantastic art department. I slept in the art department more or less, I was in there all the time”

McBride is also a part-time art teacher and head of her department. I asked if she had always wanted to be an art teacher and she said yes, she’d been inspired by her art teacher with whom she is still in touch. In fact, her art teacher even drove her up to Aberdeen to drop off her portfolio as part of her application for her degree.

McBride graduated from Gray’s School of Art, Aberdeen with a BA Hons degree in drawing and painting in 1997. She developed an abstract painting style. Even then, she preferred drawing to painting. In her degree show a few paintings sold but all her drawings, over 50, sold.

She rented a studio in WASPS (a charity that provides affordable studio space for artists) after she graduated. She had part-time jobs and continued to exhibit with some degree of success. However, five years after graduating, she stopped enjoying painting. By this point, she’d been teaching for about 3 years and gave the studio space up.

Art Teaching and Working as an Artist

Humble and slightly shy, McBride said she doesn’t use her work with her students, in fact, many of them don’t even know that she works so successfully as an artist. She joked that a student once came to her to show her an ‘amazing biro drawing’ which was in fact her own work. Using her maiden name as an artist and her married name as a teacher, even then she didn’t confess it was her work.

I wondered how teaching and working as an artist worked.

“It’s a nightmare! Especially when the portfolios in school all need to be finished and sent off. My work just stops as I’m working late every night. In the summer months, I’ll come home and manage to do an hour or two every evening. I’m strict about my non-teaching days. I lock myself in here [her studio] and work. I do work quite fast to be fair. When my heads down and my music is on, I do work quite fast.”

With galleries regularly giving her solo exhibitions, McBride will eventually have to teach fewer days.

Working with Schools

McBride offers in-person, bespoke workshops for schools. These workshops can be tailored to fit in with your still-life units of work. To find out the cost and more details, contact her here.

You can also find Nicola McBride on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.

Click the image below to access a free presentation on artists Nicola McBride to use in the artroom.

Nicola McBride Presentation

If you’ve enjoyed this post on artist Nicola McBride, why not register to be kept informed about future posts? Once registered, you’ll also be able to access the free art teaching resources available on this site.

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The Arty Teacher

Sarah Crowther is The Arty Teacher. She is a high school art teacher in the North West of England. She strives to share her enthusiasm for art by providing art teachers around the globe with high-quality resources and by sharing her expertise through this blog.

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