Whether it’s a bottle of wine poised next to a sun lounger, or a hot cup of freshly poured tea, Niamh Birch has a knack for capturing those fleeting moments that are all too often overlooked.
With thick paint and a loose, unrestricted style, her paintings of the real world in full colour are a million miles from the backlit screens and video calls we're often made to believe rule today’s landscape. Put simply, she paints the things in life that truly matter.
We recently caught up with her at her studio in Hackney to discuss her work, her inspirations and how she knows she’s finally finished a painting…
Maybe an obvious first question—but how did you get into painting in the first place?
I first started painting in college on an arts course after discovering a Cornish Painter Kurt Jackson. He paints landscapes and seascapes and was also the Artist in Residence for Glastonbury Festival, which I thought was the coolest thing ever—I still do. Growing up in North Devon, naturally those coastal factors were the foundations of my early work which soon evolved.
How do you approach a new painting? Do you work from sketchbooks or is it just a case of getting something straight down on the canvas?
There’s a fair amount of sitting, staring and overthinking and then an impulsive moment arrives where the ‘just bloody get on with it’ thought enters. I’ll try and plan what’s going on the canvas but most of the time it’ll start off as a sporadic drawing, which I’ll build up in layers, normally working on a few works at a time. I’ll also flip back through sketchbooks if I’m stuck and normally find something useful pretty quick.
When you’re in the middle of a painting, what are you thinking about? Or do you get into that flow state thing when you aren’t thinking at all?
The aim is to be in that flow state, where you’re not really thinking, just doing. That feeling alone is often a reminder of why I paint. If that’s not happening—which often it’s not—I’m probably thinking that last paint stroke was a very bad move. Now the painting is momentarily ruined, this song's shit, I need some fresh air, I’m hungry, work on something else, and repeat.
And when is it finished? Is there a point when you know it’s done and everything clicks?
Sometimes it takes a painting a month or so of sitting in the corner of my studio for me to realise it’s already finished. Other times it’s when that on/off flow state comes to an end and after a few touch ups, it’s that satisfying last throw down of the paint brush to know it’s done.
Whether it’s a sleeping cat or a kitchen table, your work captures those nice moments in life that can often be overlooked—are your paintings a case of trying to shine a light on these everyday things?
Exactly that. I started painting prominent objects around the house, starting with Mum's glass of red, kitchen crockery and the bathtub. Reinstating the importance of home; from interior decoration to the warmth and comfort of togetherness and everyday acts of service. It’s the smaller gestures and quality time that hold great importance to life’s joys and I’m currently painting domestic settings that celebrate that.
How do you choose a subject in the first place? Is it that thing of grabbing something that resonates with you—whether that’s taking a photo or jotting down a note?
I take a lot of photos of scenes and objects like tabletops, quirky or old furniture, patterned wallpaper and peoples sitting postures to return to when deciding on subjects for a painting. Anything that resonates with me at that moment in time—often it’s an instant decision to recreate a feature within the photo, or it’ll take hours of ideas going back and forth with some drawing in between.
I might be wrong, but it feels like there’s been a movement back towards more figurative painting—with artists painting things that people can relate to or understand instead of more abstract stuff. Why do you think this is?
With social media and technology advances, our generation is virtually more connected than ever, but less so in real life, often struggling with constructive communication and being present.
Painting the human form can open up conversations about the importance of human touch, intimacy, presence and connection. I’ve started to introduce figurative elements within domestic and interior spaces in my work to capture a certain living character that still life forms can sometimes hold.
Seeing as this is for Stan Ray, I better ask about clothes a bit—do you have a painting uniform? What makes good clothes to paint in?
Most of the time, a shit load of layers. Like most studios it gets WELL cold here so my uniform consists of day-to-day clothes I’ve accidentally ruined with oil paint—a bit of an un-chic mess. My current studio is at the very top of an old warehouse in Hackney Wick, so it also roasts in summer. Something along the lines of organised chaos, I’d call it. My mum often uses the phrase ‘happy as a pig in shit’ so imagine something along those lines.
Whatever artists choose to wear, the commonality is clothes acting like an exclusive uniform which is individual to one's character. I like painting clothes to be comfortable, hard-wearing and preferably loose fitting.
What else do you need around you to make a good painting? I know with writing some days it’s easier than others—and sometimes it can feel impossible—do you have any tricks or rituals that make painting easier for you, whether it’s putting a certain album on or painting at a certain time of day?
Radio, music, podcasts, desert island discs are always on shuffle, background noise is essential. Anything featuring Stevie Nicks, Sade, Gill-Scott Heron and the Do You Radio archives will improve one of those days. As long as I’ve had a decent breakfast, a sunny bike commute and then begin with a brew, I’m sweet.
This question maybe goes back to the start a bit—everyone paints when they’re a kid, but what made you stick with it?
Honestly god knows. Whenever I questioned a career in painting, the overriding thought knowing there’s nothing else I would put my mind or devotion to as much as I am with Art (without really knowing it at the start) surfaces. You watch artists grow and follow their successes and it’s a reminder that it can be done. If I were to give up, I think I’d have done it by now.
Video by Max Weston
Photography by Gavin Campbell
Words by Sam Waller