Helen Wells & The Magic of Sketchbooks

This month we are welcoming Helen Wells to the Textile Design Lab as our Guest Expert on the productive habits of sketching and journaling. Helen creates art from the south coast of England and is passionate about teaching others the joys of finding one’s voice through a sketchbook practice. She draws inspiration from nature and intuition to create layered paintings and drawings that are dynamic and expressive. In her live training on April 24th at 1pm EDT, Helen will show us some of her sketchbooks and lead us through some sketching exercises to shake up our creative routines.

Hello Helen! Can you please summarize your artistic journey so far.


I became an artist a little later in life, in my late thirties. I didn’t go to art collage and gave up studying art when I was just seventeen.   My route to becoming a full time artist has been a rather circuitous one. I didn’t create anything at all in my twenties, then spent my thirties obsessed with art, but only ever as a hobby.  It wasn’t until my forties that art slowly evolved to become my full time career.

As a child, I was always drawing. I dreamed of being a textile designer. I loved spending hours creating elaborate and intricate patterns from my imagination. I used to go through so much paper that my father started to buy me large rolls of wallpaper lining paper to keep up with my insatiable demand for something to draw on. But then at seventeen when scheduling clash at school wouldn’t allow me to study art with my other subjects, I gave up studying art and creating art and I allowed it to just slip out of my life.

A little bit of heartbreak brought me back to art making. A relationship breakup when I was 28 or 29  left me moping around with no summer holiday plans.  I decided to book myself onto a two week painting summer school at a London art college.  It was there that I started a much more fulfilling love affair… I fell completely and utterly in love with drawing and painting. 

For nearly all of my thirties art was a hobby, I tried to go to art collage and was rejected after a terrible interview, so I just thought that creating art would remain a life enhancing, life enriching hobby. In my late thirties as I climbed the career ladder at the charity I had worked at for for nearly a decade, I began to feel that perhaps I had laid my ladder against the wrong wall. I had a clear epiphany out of the blue one day, that I really did want to make  art a more significant part of my life… so I set about trying to make art my career.

I took tiny steps in the right direction. I started to try and sell my art online. I entered competitions and group shows and slowly and surely things started to happen. I won a Winsor & Newton watercolour competition which meant my art was displayed at The Saatchi Gallery in London. Eight of my paintings were displayed at one of Gordon Ramsay’s restaurants… I build my confidence, learnt new skills and made art my part time career and then eventually my full time career.  I’ve now patch-worked an art career together through trial and error, finding out what works and what I enjoy. I love the career I have built. I license my work for wall art, branding and products. I sell my original paintings and complete commissions for original art projects such as for hospitals. I have written a book about mixed media sketchbooks  and I teach online classes. 

Do you work with an agent? How do you get new licensing deals?


I don’t work with an agent and if I’m honest, I have not been super strategic about obtaining licensing deals. I’ve spent a lot of time on my website’s SEO and building a robust social media presence and these two things have generated all of my licensing contracts. Most of art licensing agreements start with an email landing in my inbox that says “I saw your work on Pinterest…”


How do you create art for large scale murals like the one in Bologna, was this hand painted or printed on a wrap?


That was a great project to be involved with. My art is featured on the walls, floor and ceiling of the TechnoGym in Bologna Airport. The architect had seen my work online and asked to include it within her design for the gymnasium.  It looks like this massive mural on every surface of the interior, but in reality the architect took a digital file of what was a really small drawing and incorporated the deign into the construction of the interior. 


Tell us about your online art classes for sketchbooks

The aim with my online classes is to open creative doors for people. I want to share some knowledge and wisdom that folks can then apply to their own art making. I hope to share ideas and practical ways to experiment with art making, art journals and sketchbooks so that participants can take the ideas, run with them, and make them their own. 


What was the process like for publishing your book?

I enjoyed the challenge of writing a book (check it out here for more info). It felt like a big creative act, which I was initially rather scared about. I credit my use of sketchbooks with me becoming an artist. My sketchbook practice helped me to find my artist voice, develop my skills and grow my confidence. So sharing that enthusiasm via writing a book felt like a huge privilege as well as a massively daunting undertaking. But I found that as with many things in life, the fear is worse than the reality. The creation of the book felt extremely satisfying once I had broken it down into smaller components and actually started.


How many hours a week do you spend creating art? What are your favorite mediums and techniques?


I don’t have a rigid routine, my art making schedule changes depending on the projects I’m working on. I’ve just finished painting  some large paintings for a hospital in the United States, so my days have been full of painting. But normally I would say I spend a few hours each day creating art, usually first thing in the morning if I can and then my afternoon tends to be more admin and marketing, filming YouTube videos, writing newsletters…. I’m lucky to have a small studio at home, so  I can get up early and start work with minimal effort. I find I’m much more creative first thing in the day so I try and structure my day around my natural energy patterns and do my most important work first. Having said that I do often mess about in my sketchbook whilst watching television in the evenings. 

I’m an artist that just loves trying out different techniques and art materials. I use all sorts of materials and am constantly experimenting with new materials, new combinations of materials and new techniques. I love watercolor, collage, acrylic paint, drawing, felt tips and colored pencils and mixing them all together. I just love the tactile, physicality of art materials and so use all sorts of materials to make my art. 

Who are your design heroes? What about them inspires you or influences your work?


I admire the work and philosophy of artist  Helen Frankenthaler the American Abstract Expressionist, so not strictly a designer.  But a woman pioneer in what was a male dominated art scene. I was reading about her and came across this quote which I thought was brilliant.

“During a 60-year career, Frankenthaler, who died in 2011, never lost her appetite for risk. She sought out and delighted in the “productive clumsiness”, as she called it, that is inherent in learning anything new, admitting that she would “rather risk an ugly surprise than rely on things I know I can do”. Quote from The Telegraph, 5 September 2021 article written by Lucy Davies on Helen Frankenthaler

I try and remember that when I am creating and I’ve tried something new and it looks ugly. I also love the work of Rex Ray, Matisse and Hundertwasser. I am drawn to bold colors, distinctive patterns and complex compositions. 

Can you tell us about the training you will offer TDL members.


I’ve called my session the Magic of Sketchbooks and I hope to share some wisdom on why a sketchbook practice can be such a powerful creative tool. I will take you inside a selection of my sketchbooks and share practical advice about ensuring your own sketchbook practice feels exciting and interesting to you.  We’ll be doing some simple sketchbook exercises to get us considering our own creativity. One of these will be a writing and thinking exercise called The Inspiration Map and the other will be a simple low pressure drawing exercise to help with idea generation. You don’t need to have a sketchbook to do either of these exercises, just a few pieces of paper and a writing implement are all that are needed… I will see you there I hope, on April 24th at 1pm EDT in the Textile Design Lab.

You can follow Helen on Instagram here her Pinterest here and her website here!

At Pattern Observer we strive to help you grow your textile design business through our informative articles, interviews, tutorials, workshops and our private design community, The Textile Design Lab.

Featured Course

More Stories
Featured Designer: Tessa Hall