"I always wanted to be an artist, I can’t remember wanting to be anything else."

Born in 1961 Vicki Sullivan is an Australian, contemporary and realist painter. She grew up in Sorrento, Victoria, a lovely, Australian, seaside town named after the beautiful town of Sorrento, Italy. Vicki still lives nearby in Mornington Peninsula, which is surrounded by the Southern Ocean on one side and Port Phillip Bay on the other. Her childhood was idyllic and carefree, spent roaming the local beaches, riding horses, making cubby houses in the bushes and being surrounded by a loving extended family. Her grandmother was a strong influence in her life and was often heard saying, “If a child is interested in something, foster it”. She made sure her grandchildren always had paint and pencils, craft materials, carpentry tools, wood, sketchbooks and brushes, and always encouraged them to follow their dreams. As a child, Vicki was always drawn to realist paintings and longed to learn said technique, being able to paint something so well seemed like magic to her.

At sixteen, Vicki studied art full time at Frankston Technical College (now Monash), which was a wonderful basis for learning about lots of different art mediums. She went on to university, but painting realism was discouraged and deemed unfashionable, so she took up ceramics instead. She painted silk, made scarves and clothing, but there was always a longing to learn how to paint realistically.

Vicki has been recognized as an Art Renewal Centre Associate Living Master and her work has been exhibited many times both in Australia and internationally. She was invited to exhibit her work in the “Artelibre 20×20” exhibition at the European Museum of Modern Art (MEAM) in Barcelona, Spain, in 2019, and was selected for the “Painting Now” exhibition at the MEAM in March 2019. Her work was recently selected for the Women Painting Women, Men Painting Men, Visions of Venus show at the RJD Gallery in Bridgehampton, New York,  the “I Observe” exhibition at Rehs Contemporary Gallery, New York, NY, The Kennedy Prize for Beauty, Adelaide, South Australia, and the 29th Miniature Exhibition at Abend Gallery, in Denver, Colorado.

Sullivan recently won an Art Renewal Center Purchase Award and in 2018 an Art Renewal Center Publication Award for Collections Magazine, China, her paintings were featured in Poets Artists publications and online exclusives on Artsy and Artnet, including the 100th Variety Issue Provocative Patterns curated by Lorena Kloosterboer, The Art of the Nude, a 33 Contemporary Artsy exclusive, Painting the Figure Now ll curated by Didi Menendez, The New Nude  curated by Walt Morton, Anything but Painting the Figure curated by Lorena Kloosterboer,  ‘Adorn Me’ curated by Carol Hodes and ‘Figurative Realism’ curated by Dirk Dzimirsky. Her drawings have been selected for publications in Strokes of Genius Book 10 by Northlight Books in the USA.

She was recently commissioned to paint the former Chancellor of Swinburne University, Hawthorne Victoria, for the Swinburne University collection.   Her work has won awards in Australia, USA, UK, and is also held in many private collections worldwide.

At first glance, there is something almost pleasantly shallow in Vicki’s realistic portraits, what you see is what you get. But then, almost suddenly, there is a subtle, yet unmistakable depth coming from an absent gaze, an upwards-tilted chin, or nervously fidgeting fingers. These simple expressions suggest something more, a hidden narrative we can only imagine, and would love to be a part of. Her portraits are so vivid, one would wish they would escape the canvas and share the secrets of their adventures with us. Equally beautiful are her still life paintings, they too seem to speak to us. The absence of human presence in these pieces evokes a sensation of mystery, of wonder and curiosity.

Q. What role does art have in society?

A. We humans, as cave paintings demonstrate, have always used art as a language, a visual language, which helps us understand and interpret the world we live in.

Q What is your best Childhood Memory? 

A. When I was 12, my father took me to see an old man he knew called, Norman Spunner. Old Norman had a little grey pony in his paddock. My father said to me “See that little grey pony over there?”, I did, “Well if you can ride him, I will buy him for you”, so I saddled up, hopped on and rode him around the paddock, and my dad bought him for me, I named him Phantom. I had the best fun riding my horse all over the town and the surrounding area with my friends, including the beaches.

Q. As a child, what did you wish to become when you grew up?

A. I always wanted to be an artist, I can’t remember wanting to be anything else.

Q. Do you remember the first art you made? What was it and how old were you? 

A. I can’t recall the first piece I made. I have been painting and drawing for as long as I can remember, and as a child I was totally obsessed with horses, I used to draw them all the time. Horses were my main subject.

Q. How and when did you first become seriously interested in art?
 In high school, when I was 16, I heard about a two-year course in Frankston, about an hour away from my home, where students studied art full time along with English and social studies. The course was a lead into university, so I set my goal on studying there. Luckily my parents were supportive and allowed me to enrol.

Q. Tell us about your particular style and how you came to it?  
 I found great teachers who privately taught the tonal method of painting realism, and as I painted and learned, my style developed. I believe your style finds you, it is encouraged by what you learn, what you like, and decisions you make along the way. I believe your style is influenced heavily by your very nature.

Q. What does your art aim to express?
 I am hoping to find a way for people to appreciate beauty and respond with positive emotions, I paint things that bring me joy, in hopes of passing that joy along. I like it when one of my paintings feels lifelike, as if the subject could walk out and into the room.

Q. What personality trait has gotten you in the most trouble?

A. My passion for saving the environment has probably landed me in the most trouble. Hopefully, I am now more experienced and informed about how to campaign for the environment and humanity without leaving myself open and vulnerable.

Q. What have you had to sacrifice for this career? 

A. Time, lots of time in the studio, almost every day, but I don’t feel it is a sacrifice, I feel it is a privilege and I am grateful to be able to spend my life working with something I love.

Q. Who are your biggest influences? Are you inspired by the work of your peers or anyone else in particular?
 I absolutely love many of the 19th century painters, such as William-Adolphe Bouguereau, John William Waterhouse, Joaquin Sorolla, Therese Schwartze, John Singer Sargent, Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema, Arthur Streeton, Sir John Longstaff, Cecilia Beaux and many others. I am also a huge fan of many contemporary realist painters, too numerous to even mention. I love travelling because I get to see great paintings from the past, of which I have limited access to here in Australia.

Q. Is the artistic life lonely? What do you do to counteract it?
 As a portrait painter, one of the great benefits is regular encounters with very interesting people. I find it enriching to meet people from all walks of life, and I enjoy being part of a worldwide community of artists. Luckily, with the help of the internet, I now have friends and colleagues from all over the world. I enjoy the camaraderie immensely and I find it such a bonus to be able to ask others for their ideas and tips when dealing with all aspects of our practice. Locally, I have a group of wonderful art buddies who come to my studio once a month, we hire a model and paint all day, only stopping for a big lunch together, we have a great time and learn a lot from each other.

Q. Apart from art, what do you love doing?
 I like to spend time in nature, I walk along the beach almost every day, it is very soothing for my soul. I love gardening and growing flowers, as well as reading and spending time with friends and family. I love travelling, especially in Europe.

Q. What is your philosophy in matters of art?
 I believe in painting what interests you and being authentic. I guess I am seeking calmness and well-being, while trying to also convey that in my work. I get stressed out by all the angst and destruction going on in the larger world, so I retreat to my studio and try create some beauty to put out into it. If it makes one person feel better, then that will make me happy.

Q. What does 'success' mean to you?

A. Hopefully leaving the world a better place and making a positive difference. In my art career, success is a varied concept. For myself, succeeding is to grow as a painter and continue to learn and improve my skills, every small step forward is a success to be grateful about.

Q. What are the biggest things you've learned in life thus far?

A. Persistence is key, almost anything is achievable with persistence.

Q. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given, and by who?

A. Live your life with gratitude, I don’t know where I heard it, most probably from my grandmother. Things won’t always go the way you want but by being grateful for what you have, you achieve contentment.

Q. What advice would you give to the next generation?

A. I would say, find a good teacher, whose work you admire, and draw as much as you can. Life is short so work at what you love and follow your passion. Always keep learning, don’t compare yourself to others, only compare your past work to your present work, and be willing to put in the many hours to improve your skills. Painting is not easy, but every little breakthrough is a win. Be patient, it takes time to understand what you are seeing and to hone your observational skills. Getting those brush miles under your belt is so important in order to really get better. I would also suggest to draw and paint from life as much as you can, these are the best ways to improve. 

Q. How would you like to be remembered as?

A. As a good person who was greatly loved by friends and family.


Artist Vicki Sullivan in her Studio

Vicki Sullivan , Interview about painting