Multi-award-winning wildlife ARTIST Nick ONeill

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Multi-award-winning wildlife artist Nick Oneill has been painting the underwater world for many years, yet as a child, he was terrified of the sea. We had a chat with Nick about his relationship with wildlife and the ocean…

Why (and how) did you become an artist?

I have loved to paint and draw for as long as I can remember and never gave up on the dream of using my art to make a living. As well as my love of the underwater world I also grew up with a love of speed and my participation in motorsport led me to start painting racing helmets – first for myself then as I got more and more commissions it allowed me to leave my “normal “job and paint helmets full time. I was still painting on canvas as a hobby but soon realised that I could use the new skills I learnt custom painting in my art too and this led me to where I am now.

How would you describe your work to someone who had never seen it?

A distilled essence of the underwater world

What do you want people to take away from your paintings?

I want people to see how beautiful and varied the underwater world is and to be transported there while exploring each piece.

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How do you go about creating one of your works – what is the process?

I am completely self-taught so probably have quite a different approach than many artists – I rarely sketch out the idea, instead I see the finished piece in my mind and then work out how to do it before using a computer mock up to finalise scale and composition. I use a combination of traditional painting and techniques learnt during my time painting racing helmets - such as hand cut stencils and intricate masking with layers created both with paintbrush and airbrush.

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Do you paint in a disciplined way, or would you describe your style as free? Or neither?

I’m quite disciplined in my painting but I do love to experiment with new materials and techniques whenever possible.

Do you paint from life, from reference or from imagination?

I use reference photos for the fish and animals as this allows me to capture the details of each individual but put them in worlds from my memory and imagination.

What art do you like? Which art/artists have influenced you?

I like so many artists and so many different styles that it’s hard to say which I like best but as a marine life artist that has spent a lot of time in the US and Caribbean, I have always been surrounded by the art of Wyland and Guy Harvey so can’t help but have been influenced by them.

Also, does your personal experience come across in your paintings – if so, how?

I like to think that my understanding of colours shifting at depth and the movement of the fish come across.

How would you like to see your style develop? What could we expect to see from you in coming years?

I honestly don’t know where my art will go in the future years, I love developing new ways of painting and using materials to create effects not seen before, I have pioneered two completely unique ways of working with resin in the last few years and I am always pushing to find more.


What is your preferred medium and why? Do you use more than one medium? Have your preferences changed?

I use acrylic paint from Daler Rowney for all my base coats and then various acrylic paints and inks with both brushes and airbrushes.

Which of your paintings would you choose to leave as a legacy?

Either “'A Long Way Down" or one of my “Wave” series of paintings as they both were firsts of their kind in the world, and I still haven’t seen anyone else that has used a similar effect.

You have travelled all over the world and gathered a mass of stories and anecdotes along the way – from the fascinating or the funny to the outright bizarre. Do you have a favourite memory or two that you would like to share with us?

As a scuba diver there are always plenty of funny stories, from overly amorous dolphins and angry moray eels to hilariously incompetent dive buddies nearly knocking themselves out inside a wreck.

I remember my very first dive in open water when I was 12, I had had 10 minutes pool training before going straight to the ocean (things are different now!). I was told to hold onto the boat's anchor line and follow it to the seabed about 50 feet below. I did exactly that, carefully running the rope through my hand and over my shoulder all the way to the bottom. Unfortunately the line had been running over my shoulder and around the valve on my air tank, slowly turning it until, just as I hit the seabed, it turned it off completely, cutting off my air supply. I think I might be one of the first people to do an emergency ascent less than 2 minutes into my very first dive.

I was once invited by the Florida Aquarium to dive their shark tank and a special exception was made for me to take my camera equipment (this is not usually allowed unless working for the aquarium) in order to take reference photos for painting. Unfortunately, in all the excitement before the dive I forgot to put a memory card in the camera, so I had to pretend to take lots of photos for over an hour even though I only had camera memory for about 10 pictures.

When did you first realise that you wanted to make a living as an artist? What is most important to you about your art?

I think like most lifelong artists I always dreamed that I could make a living with my art, it was just a case of trying to figure out how to do it. The most important thing to me is for people to be happy when they look at my paintings, to either bring back fond memories of adventures abroad or inspire people to go out and make new ones.