Give it a Go: Painting with Caroline Cleave

Autumn is the perfect time to get inspired by the transitional colours and textures from the great outdoors. Artist and Designer Caroline Cleave shares how to find solace, satisfaction and creativity in the changing seasons through painting. 

Caroline’s family business, Boathouse, is based in the old lifeboat station in Port Isaac, Cornwall – originally built for the local RNLI volunteers in 1868. 

Since taking ownership of the old boathouse 30 years ago, the family’s connection with the RNLI has remained strong ever since. Caroline was even asked to design a fundraising Christmas card for the crew. Putting her paints into practice, she created a scene of how the old boathouse would have looked during the festive season in the 18th century.  

Caroline’s son George Cleave is also a proud crew member of Port Isaac RNLI, and her husband Jon is an author, illustrator and singer with the town’s legendary band The Fisherman’s Friends

You can browse Caroline's designs on our online shop.

Caroline Cleave and her son, and Port Isaac Crew Member, George

Photo: Caroline Cleave

Caroline Cleave and her son, and Port Isaac Crew Member, George

When did you start painting? 

‘I used to teach art in Bristol but didn't get a chance to focus on my own work – so it was our move back home to Cornwall with our small boys that inspired me to refocus. 

‘Back then, I loved painting with watercolours on huge pieces of stretched paper and my favourite piece was one I titled Boys Catch. It was of the first mackerel that the boys caught in Port Isaac and it still has pride of place in our home.

‘I now work with acrylics which are really versatile. They can act loosely like watercolours or be applied thickly for added medium.’

Where do you get your inspiration? 

‘Port Isaac is an inspiring place, and we live right in the heart of the village with the coast and countryside right on our doorstep. 

‘I love spring, so I always paint the first snowdrops and daffodils that appear outside my studio, and the full-blown, brilliant blue summer sea holly in our valley garden.

‘My son George is a fishmonger in the village, so I'm always drawn to the shapes, textures and vivid colours from his daily catch in Newlyn. I feel my work pays homage to the fish that has sustained our community for centuries – they’re the reason the village is here.’

Caroline’s Christmas card, ‘Safe Home in Port’, dedicated to the RNLI Port Isaac lifeboat volunteers of 1868

Photo: Caroline Cleave

Caroline’s Christmas card, Safe Home in Port, dedicated to the RNLI Port Isaac lifeboat volunteers of 1868 

What do you love about painting?

‘It makes me happy! I’d encourage anyone to give it a go and just play with materials and colours you love. Don't always try to create a finished masterpiece – enjoy getting to know what your materials do first.’

And what challenges you about painting?

‘Time. I have so many ideas I want to explore, so I always have several different pieces of work on the go.’ 

What do you do if you get something goes wrong in a painting, or it doesn’t turn out the way you envisioned? 

‘I embrace accidents as they can be the best thing about a piece of work. Although my work looks controlled, it goes through lots of phases where paint is being applied quickly and freely, then rubbed away and reapplied. It’s good to see paint doing its own thing and then trying to save those happy accidents.’

What do you focus on painting first when you’re starting a new piece? 

‘I rough everything out first with a big brush, using an earthy colour called burnt umber. It looks a huge mess to begin with, but it allows me to be free and apply colours to build up the layers and give my work depth.’

George Cleave and fellow Crew Member Tom Brown at Port Isaac RNLI

Photo: RNLI/Amy Caldwell

George Cleave (R) and fellow Crew Member Tom Brown (L) at Port Isaac RNLI

Do you have a favourite painting you’ve done? 

‘I love the detail in nature and the way flowers, grasses and seed heads grow, so I enjoy taking these small samples and enlarging them. 

‘I have a huge painting in my studio called Hot Summer – the subject matter was only a few centimetres tall, but I wanted the piece to celebrate these little snippets from the hedgerow which are often overlooked.’  

What do you need to get started with painting?

‘An open mind is key. Don’t waste money on expensive materials or lots of paints as you can mix so many colours from just a few. 

‘Also find a space to work that is well covered so you can paint without fear that your splatters will ruin the table or flooring.’

What would your top five tips be? 

  1. Explore what you really like.
  2. Get a rough scrap book and start filling it with colours, textures and images from magazines, newspapers or even wrapping paper. This will help you discover what appeals to you. 
  3. Ask yourself why you like certain colours, images or textures.
  4. Look at artists who may have used similar colours or images to those you like. They’ll hopefully inspire you and question more about the work, like: ‘What material is being used?’ and ‘what is it painted on?’.
  5. Play! Get some cheap paint, brushes and a roll of lining paper and just explore what the materials can do. Look for the happy accidents and how colours work together – and above all, have fun. 

Give it a go!

Feeling inspired to pick up a paintbrush? Take inspiration from what you like, keep an open mind and focus on having fun rather than creating a masterpiece. 

Browse Caroline's designs on our online shop