Life & Style

The Apothecary Artist

Studio of Vanessa Lewis

For those looking for a unique Christmas gift, you can find The Apothecary Artist at The Olive Tree Markets on Saturday 21 December 2019.

Hidden in the quiet backstreets of Maryville lies the magical world of the Apothecary Artist, otherwise known as Vanessa Lewis. It’s here in her light filled studio that she works on her beautifully intricate artworks that are inspired by nature and embossed with gold, earning her the reputation of a modern day alchemist.

It was while living and travelling in Europe as a child, that Vanessa discovered a love of ancient art practices and where she fell in love with the beauty of Europe, its richness of colours and the relationship Europeans have with art.

“When we lived in Corfu there was so much importance placed on festivals and religious icons and I loved the reverence and connection people had to art. There were these beautiful shrines on the corner of roads which people were so engaged with and I loved how much they appreciated this simple yet beautiful form of art,” she said.

“While visiting Florence with my family, everyone else was mesmerized by the statue of David but I fell totally in love with the paintings. I was completely blown away by their beauty and the ability and skill of these artists who could create an object from materials into something that could inspire another person, even centuries later.

“I think in that moment I realized this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to know more about this unique art form so that was really the beginning of my art journey.”

Combining her love of art and history, Vanessa studied a Bachelor of Fine Arts at Newcastle University and a Masters in Museum Studies at the University of Melbourne but after graduating, found she still had a desire to learn more about the practical art skills she was so fascinated by as a child. 

“Maybe it’s because I love cooking but I always loved the idea of making my own paints and learning more about the materials and the actual ingredients. Tempera is the method of using those natural ingredients to make paint such as mixing egg yolk with lavender oil and lemon myrtle oil and then adding in some pigment,” she explained.

“It’s a painting technique that has been used for centuries and is similar to how you would make a sauce like aioli with the mixing of egg yolk with other ingredients. There’s also an element of chemistry involved such as working out which pigments need which binders, how different pigments respond to each other and how they age over time. The more you delve into it, the more you find there are so many incredibly rich and diverse options for making paints.”

Wanting to learn more about this ancient art form, Vanessa headed to Florence last year to do a course in tempera and is now busy finishing off her PhD, which looks into the use of tempera in Australian art.

“Surprisingly, some of the most iconic Australian artworks have used tempera so my PhD has been a really interesting process. I’m learning how to apply that in a contemporary context because it’s a much more sustainable practice than using something like acrylic paint,” she said.

Complementing the age-old technique of tempera, Vanessa also makes her own inks using a range of methods, as well as adding gold leaf to enhance her limited edition prints.

What initially started as research into these age old techniques has since turned into a popular creative venture for Vanessa who now sells her limited edition prints at a number of markets including The Olive Tree Markets, Handmade Canberra and The Makers Nest in Sydney as well as through independent retailers such as Honest Paper and Maitland Regional Art Gallery Shop.

Starting with a pencil sketch, Vanessa uses her homemade botanical inks to create delicately detailed artworks that are inspired by her love of nature and the beauty she finds in the everyday. These are then sent to a local printer, conveniently located just around the corner from her studio, who produces limited edition prints of her artwork.

Vanessa then adds her golden touch to the prints with the addition of gold leaf, another ancient art technique she uses to create a whole new dimension to her artworks.

“Gold leaf art is another time-honoured tradition I enjoy using that involves fine layers of metal being delicately applied to paper, capturing and reflecting the light to create a truly unique piece,” she explains.

For those keen to learn more about this delicate art process, Vanessa is hosting her first ever Gold Leaf Art workshop at Hudson Hum on Sunday 1 December, just in time for Christmas. Participants will learn all about the technique of gold leaf art while creating two gold leaf artworks to take home.

“The workshop is open to anyone, you don’t have to be an artist to do it. I want to be able to share with people the joy that comes from learning an ancient skill like gold leaf art while showing them that anyone can learn this art form,” she said.

As her love of the medium grows, Vanessa continues to enjoy seeing how her work makes other people happy.

“It’s such an amazing gift we have to be one of the creatures of this incredible planet and I feel that people respond to my artworks because of this. It’s a connection to nature through art,” she said.

The Apothecary Artist