Self-taught visual storyteller Lou Theodore is using her amazing artwork to capture the essence of our community of commuters. She’s been riding the bus every day this month as part of the Brighton and Hove Buses Artist in Residence Project, sketching mums, dogs, students, and football fans as she goes. We chatted to her about her technique, her Brighton and Hove Buses project, and the importance of having a good old conversation.
We asked Lou when she started drawing but quickly discovered she had been passionate about creating her whole life. “I’ve been drawing for absolutely forever,” she said. “It was my favorite activity when I was a young child. You’d always find me making magazines, drawing stories and illustrating them.” She took a break from the art scene to pursue a career in corporate marketing in London but decided to call it quits and return to the world of art when she became a mum. She said: “When I had my daughter, I just couldn’t make it work with the corporate expectations of long hours, commuting from Brighton and finding childcare. I used to work with lots of designers and art directors as part of the corporate campaigns and I always thought it should be the other way round!”
After being a full-time fine artist for five years and painting mainly landscapes, Lou found her creative calling had shifted away from making art for people to hang on their walls. She said she wanted her art to go back to being more like visual journalism, which she’s done all her life. She said: “I’ve kept trunks full of sketchbooks made up of drawings made from being aware of your surroundings, from participating rather than just being on autopilot, from simply noticing stuff.”
The Marketing team at Brighton and Hove Bus and Coach Company spotted Lou’s drawings of commuters on Instagram and jumped at the chance to ask if she would like to take part in residency. Lou is riding the company’s buses every day until the end of the month and if commuters spot themselves in one of the sketches she uploads, they get the chance to win free travel. Lou says a lot of students on the 25 have spotted her drawing them and told us why commuters are some of her favorite subjects. “Drawing commuters is a bit of social commentary,” she explains. “The community on the bus, the conversations people have, the way they inhabit the space, what they do, what they feel it’s ok to do and not ok to do, it’s so interesting.”
For Lou, the bus residency project is as much about conversation as it is about creating art. “I’m not at all self-conscious about drawing in public and in front of people and I like the conversations and interactions that come out of that. I have these really amazing conversations with people,” she said. So, who comes forward for a chat? Lou said she spots a lot of the same people on a regular bus and has all kinds of people telling her about their lives and asking how they can rekindle their childhood love for art. But it’s always the children who flock to Lou and her sketchbook. “Kids are always first in the queue,” she said. “They’re straight out and asking ‘what is that, what are you doing’ and asking if they can join in. It’s really nice! I tell them you don’t need to be able to draw beautifully to capture your day.”
Lou draws her bus residency sketches with a black fountain pen before using her trusty pocket-sized watercolour palette to capture the colourful clothes and hairdos of her subjects. If the bus isn’t too busy Lou finishes her pieces on location, but she often takes sketches to coffee shops to add the finishing touches. When she spots a person to draw, she’s all too aware they could be using a short hop ticket. However, she likes the messy, imperfect feel to the pieces she rushes to finish on location. “I love the fact that some of the pictures get smudged, that I make mistakes, that I draw over, that I don’t draw straight with a fountain pen,” she said. “I love when you can see people’s marks. If you look at an amazing illustrator like Quentin Blake, you can see the kinds of marks and mistakes where he’s worked into his drawings. Those kinds of lines and that mark-making is the signature. It’s imperfect and there’s just something really beautiful about that imperfection and that sense of place and time.”
Lou’s residency finishes on January 30th, and she’s already itching to get started on her next projects. As well as making more of her visual diaries, which are made up of equal parts text and drawings, Lou is in talks about other residencies. She could soon be trading her buses for galleries in museums and would love to draw museum collections while running workshops with adults and children.
She tells us why the process of making art in a museum is so important. “When I start the drawing process in a museum, I get this gaggle of pied-piper children and teenagers following me,” she says. “It seems such a great opportunity for younger people to engage with the exhibits slightly differently.
“One boy who was about ten sat with me for ages drawing an Edwardian dress. His mum said ‘oh my god, normally he rushes through museums and glances and things and asks if we can just leave and go to the park’. She told me it was the first time she’d seen him really look at things and ask questions about them.”
We wrapped up our chat by asking Lou for her advice for artists. She said: “I think it doesn’t matter if it’s fine art or crochet or knitting, what’s important is that you’re a maker.”