We talk to Sarah Gwyer about her dazzling celebrity embroideries using buttons, beads and charms, including Michael Bublé, Amy Winehouse and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge.
Sarah, a Cotswold based textile artist hopes her bright and colourful embroideries of famous faces will help a wider audience appreciate the skill and time needlework takes. And even better pick up a needle themselves!
Please tell us about your work
Following a fine art degree in Cardiff, I completed a masters in printmaking at the University of the Arts in London. By the time of my graduation I was already working on and exhibiting bead embroidered portraits. My work is contemporary, pop art. It roughly splits into two sections – thread paintings and cross-stitch with a little embellishment on one side, while the other is fully beaded portraits and sculptures.
Colour is central to all my pieces – I love to work in bright colours and squeeze in the full rainbow whenever possible. My work is fun and a little ‘Where’s Wally’. There are always a few charms or beads to add little stories into the portrait. What combines all my 2D works are the matt black lines reminiscent of stained glass. I find the dense black really helps the colours pop and gives structure in a beaded work.
Michael Bublé, work in progress.
Michael Bublé is part of a Christmas themed collection with each image predominantly featuring gold or silver. So, the other colours in the background and his outfit have been chosen to enhance the gold embellishments in the piece.
Who and what inspires you?
Mostly popular culture and particularly musicians. I’m fascinated by the celebrities with very devoted fans, who know these strangers as good friends.
How do you choose your portrait subjects? What draws you to them?
I generally choose subjects that have a wide interest – well-known faces most teenagers and their parents would recognise. It’s usually a person I admire – it may be a talent or skill they have, or they are passionate about a cause I feel strongly for.
I was particularly drawn to the Duchess of Cambridge as a fellow working mum, albeit in extremely different circumstances. When she spoke about her home life it all felt familiar and genuine. Behind the pomp and ceremony is a mum trying to balance the needs of her family with her work. Yet she has the added pressures of an intrusive media and centuries of tradition.
Duchess of Cambridge.
What happens once you’ve settled on a celebrity?
1. I use Photoshop to create a composite from several different images of the star. The outfit, hair and facial expression will be taken from different images to create a portrait I think best captures them.
2. I lightly paint the canvas in the basic colours in acrylic. This not only provides a background colour, but also tests if the piece is at the right scale.
3. I always bead the eyes first. They are central and must be perfect to ensure recognition of the subject.
4. Next, I scour my collection for apt charms and beads. For Bublé I hunted down lots of Christmassy and musical charms. All the Christmas charms are stitched with a metallic thread so I can easily remove them once photographed and fill the gaps for a less seasonal version.
5. Then I gradually embellish outwards, completing the beaded black lines early on. These along with areas of flat colour can be done under artificial light. However, faces require natural light so are stitched in the day.
6. Once the work appears finished, any gaps are filled with delicas. I give it a good shake to check no element has loosened. Charms are particularly prone to this so now I try to source those with two anchor points.
What’s your working space like?
There is a big set of shelves stuffed with bead jars. I then work on a large table, but with two young sons this space is often shared with Play-doh, Lego, and colouring books! The house is open plan which enables me to switch my attention easily from stitching to the boys. However, now they are both at school I’m planning an extension which will contain my studio and give me a little Lego free space!
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Why buttons and beads? What appeals about dimension and embellishment?
I’ve always been a magpie for anything sparkly. I love a lustred finish and translucent embellishments. It gives me a much wider colour range because you can really play with the light and bounce it around the portrait. When a beaded piece is hung it’s hard not to notice it as it captures glints of light at almost any angle. Beads also let me play with abstraction and realism – the beauty of stitch work close up can be as appreciated as the whole portrait.
With paint you can mix any shade and draw any shape. How do you manage this with buttons and beads?
Having a vast collection helps a lot. With early portraits I had to create works with a much higher contrast and relied on many transparent beads allowing the paint behind to show through. Sometimes I need to balance the colours, so they work from a distance. If an area is too pink, for example, adding a bead with a hint of green will balance it out when looked at from afar.
There are also some really useful bead shapes – hearts and bugles are great gap fillers and for everything else there’s delicas. I’ve also found its better not to be too much of a perfectionist – a bead in the right shade takes priority over an embellishment that’s the right size.
Where do you find the buttons?
My collection comes from all over the world. I no longer buy any new plastics, so any plastic elements come from broken and preloved jewellery. Wherever possible I try to buy from online bead shops that still have a physical store. Although many of my favourites have closed over the last decade. It’s such a shame when there isn’t the opportunity to see the beads in person – particularly as exacting colour is so crucial to my work.
How do you organise them?
My seed beads and delicas are kept in small tubes. All my other embellishments are separated by colour. If I have a lot of one bead, it gets stored separately to avoid wasting time searching amongst them. As my collection expands, it gets sub-divided. Currently yellow is split into light yellow, bright yellow beads, bright yellow charms, amber yellow and muted yellows.
Your work has amazing detail. What top tips do you have?
- Seed beads come in a vast variety of sizes and colours and don’t pull on lightweight fabrics.
- There’s also a huge range of twin-holed beads that can be anchored more precisely.
- As for thread painting, I prefer to stitch on to canvas. It removes the worry about puckering which can be detrimental when every millimetre needs to be accurate.
- It’s also good to keep a record. It’s far too easy to see what area you’re least happy with when a work is complete but it’s so important to look back and see how much you’ve improved and learnt.
What is your favourite part? And the most challenging?
I love starting a new piece. Once it’s drafted in my head or on my computer it’s so exciting to start. I find stitching hands my biggest challenge. Due to their dimensions they don’t lend well to bead embroidery. In my thread painting of a juggling Duchess of Cambridge I waited until I had a few hours of uninterrupted stitching time in natural light.
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What’s been your proudest achievement to date?
I had a beaded sculpture picked for the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition in 2017. It was a literal dream come true. I got to exhibit amongst some of the best British artists in the same building that has shown Turner, Hirst and nearly everyone in between.
Amy Remixed, exhibited at the Royal Academy 2017.
Where can we find your work?
I can spend months on just one embroidery so by producing prints and cards I’m able to keep my practice accessible. I’m a proud supporter of the ‘Just a Card’ campaign and these sales ensure a steadier flow of income. My work is sold through my social media channels and Etsy store.
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