For the longest time I’ve wanted to write a post about Emily Warren’s beautiful work. Emily is one of the great and talented girls I share a studio with here in Lewes, and she creates her animal heads under the eaves in the rooftop space above where I sit. Every so often she descends the ladder softly (she describes herself as a ‘quiet person’ on her Instagram profile, and indeed she is a stealthy rabbit!) with her arm around a zebra’s neck, or clutching a family of unpainted, long-eared hares.
I thought the lead-up to Christmas was the best time to post about Emily, because as my friend once said, her work is the stuff of heirlooms, which makes the heads very special children’s presents for Christmas.
This post is a simple Q&A, as I think when it comes to work as intricate and stunning and unique as this, it’s best to hear about it from the maker herself.
1) Describe your process to make each head. Where do you start? What do you use as reference? And how do you know when one is finished?
I use mainly found materials. I use cardboard as a base to build each piece with, and then add the detail with papier-mâché using a smoother tissue paper or dress pattern paper for the final layer, which I then paint. I use a combination of materials – ink, gouache, acrylics, watercolours, pens and pencils. It’s probably a bit complicated, but it’s just the way my animals have developed over time.
To start, I use old and new books of lovely pictures of animals and birds. I draw things first to sort out shape and form. I’d love to draw from real animals more… I find cats and dogs the hardest – but not wolves and foxes, strangely. I couldn’t really say what my favourite animal was, I think it changes all the time but the fact so many are endangered makes me so, so sad.
I can make my pieces relatively fast – in a few hours – but what takes the time is the papier-mâché drying. This takes hours and hours, but the result is very strong and very light.
Sometimes pieces are quick to paint and finish, with on others I spend ages changing little details. Just a tiny adjustment, especially the light in the eyes, can completely change an animal’s expression.
2) How did you start making your animal heads and have they evolved much since you began?
I’ve always, always made things. Using found and recycled materials really started when went to study art at college. I also became intrigued by folk and outsider art and artists then. For the end of my degree, I made a circus from found recycled materials.
The papier-mâché really started during my MA at Central Saint Martins in London. It was the time of the 7/7 bombings and I kept the newspapers from that week in my studio. I wondered why, and what I should do with them, and decided to make them into something lasting but positive.
So I made a large stag’s head with the paper, and when I started working at Wickle in Lewes, Elizabeth saw it and bought it just before Christmas. Commissions began straight away and I haven’t stopped since.
3) What is the biggest commission/head you’ve had? And the smallest? And the strangest?
The biggest commissions are the stage pieces I made for The End of the Road Festival – a fox and a badger that went either side of the main stage and are 1m x 1m. The smallest are probably my tiny matchbox scenes – I recently made some for The Matchbox Project at The House of Fairytales.
The strangest may be a giant hand that was bought to be a centrepiece at a wedding – or a giant chicken. I’ve made a few people and I find portraits particularly hard. That reminds me, there was a portrait of a couple that was commissioned as a wedding present for them – they had to be dressed in Tudor costume!
4) What are you most commonly asked for?
The most common I’m asked to do are hares, bears and mice. My favourite was a mountain goat and I quite like the birds, especially if they have wonky eyes. Sometimes I feel sorry for them and want to keep them.
But I actually really enjoy packing stuff up and sending it off – then starting something new. I don’t really ever have ‘stock’ and I’ve never kept any of the animal heads. I tend to give them away to friends or family if they hang around too long – or I sand them down to remake or repaint. I guess that goes with the re-using and recycling ethos – I won’t have a surplus, I just make what I need.
5) How do you take commissions and what’s the lead time?
You can email me with the size, time constraints and complexity of the animal and then I reply with a price (a guideline is listed in ‘Essentials’ below) For ideas of what I get up to, Instagram is good – it’s so quick and easy, I’m tending to update that more often than my website (see URLs below). I usually need a month for a commission – in less busy times it could be quicker.
For Christmas commissions I only have space for a few more pieces – they’d need to be confirmed by the end of November.
6) Where else can we find you ahead of Christmas?
I’ll be at the Artists & Makers Fair in Lewes Town Hall on the 5th of December with my suitcase of small animal heads and other bits and pieces. Also one of my favourite shops, The Lion Street Store in Rye, will have a Christmas display of my woodland animals in the window – all of them will be for sale.
Lead-time: Approx one month
Prices: Smaller pieces (i.e. mouse or bird), £85-£100; medium (i.e. hare) £200; large (i.e. giraffe or zebra), £300-£600
Disclosure: I asked Emily if I could do a post on her, as I think her work is very very special. She has offered to make me one small head for my sons in return, but even if she hadn’t, I would still be putting this post on Little Lewes. I like to promote and support local businesses and artists who are doing things that are unique and that should be celebrated. No other compensation, financial or otherwise, was offered or accepted for the writing of this post.
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