Artist & Paint-Maker Karen Spencer

Art has the power to bring people together from all over the world, and since starting the Ruby Charm Colors project, I’ve met a few that have made my world a better place. Someone who has inspired me recently is Karen Spencer, also known as @indigoartgb on Instagram.

Karen hand-crafts absolutely gorgeous watercolors that have comfortably nestled their way into my collection of art supplies and I just adore them. Not only are they high-quality and an absolute dream to use, but I love knowing they are made by a real person—an independent artist who struggles and finds joy in art just like me.

Backstory

Originally from Carlisle, Cumbria, Karen was adopted and brought to Blackpool where she has lived her whole life. Blackpool is on the Lancashire coast in northwest England, and is a lively seaside resort town with piers, amusement parks, and casinos. It also hosts the annual Punk rock Rebellion Festival and one of the most famous light shows on earth, Blackpool Illuminations.

Growing up in such a vibrant and colorful place likely had some influence on Karen’s artistic nature. As a child, she was drawn to music and the arts and dreamed of illustrating books for children. She went to art collage but money was tight at the age of 18, so she worked nights at a rest home and started making her own acrylic paints to help pay the rent on her first flat.

Holding down several jobs while trying to get through classes took it’s toll and Karen had to leave college before she got her degree. But, she worked at a number of jobs that allowed her to keep honing her artistic skills. Since the promenade along Blackpool always has room for artisans, she worked as a glass engraver and as a candle carver, and was an acrylic nail artist, too—for 20 years!

Fast forward

Following a few life-altering experiences, Karen took stock of what she really wanted to do. After noticing artists in the YouTube videos she watched were making a living, she opened her Etsy shop, KJDesignByKaren, in 2016 to sell handmade earrings and hand-printed totes (which she also sold on eBay). Around that same time, she noticed handmade watercolors appearing on the market. Since she had already been collecting a variety of pigments over the years to make acrylic, oil paint, and egg tempura gouache paints, she decided to give it a try.

ksetsyinfo

Karen’s beautiful paints started selling, and as she attracted more customers and followers, her business gained traction. She introduced mica paints to her lineup, and her rich, shimmery tones caught the attention of artists and adult coloring books fans who craved unique, high-quality paint, and who wanted something extra with her new mica paints to spice up their work.

I was introduced to Karen through a dear friend who sent me a set of Karen’s micas. They were a surprise gift, and as I opened each carefully wax-paper wrapped rectangular pan, I felt like I was opening the world’s most special piece of candy. Seriously. Little pans of delicious jewel tones. Not runny like honey or molasses, but viscous enough to easily leave a fingerprint when pressed. Each pan made me gasp and ooooh and ahhh (just ask my daughter) and I couldn’t wait to grab my brushes. I was immediately struck by the creamy texture of the paints and I am now hooked.

And Karen has been coloring and painting my illustrations! In addition to being a skilled paint-maker, she is also a very talented artist. The first coloring she posted on Instagram took my breath away. Against a gold background, she worked some major magic on my “Cicadas” line art using a mix of Faber-Castell Polychromos colored pencils and her handmade watercolors:

spencer_cicadas_rubycharmcolors

She also colored (and painted) “Mice in Freesia” and blew people away with her blending skills and color choices using the Polychromos pencils again with her watercolors. Just look at those rich orange hues of the flowers against the deep blue ground and the delicate greens tinged with yellows and purples—lovely:

spencer_mice_rubycharmcolors

Her third piece, “Nacho the Crestie” featured in Volume 2 and in the Creative Companion, turns heads, too. The colors are fabulous and the little cream circles look like a string of pearls that lift right off the page. This piece was done with a mix of Caran d’Ache Luminance colored pencils and Karen’s paints:

spencer_gecko_rubycharmcolors

So what about Karen’s paints? Why are they so special?

Paints generally contain a basic mix of superfine pigment particles (which gives the paint its color) along with a liquid “vehicle” that suspends and binds the pigment in such a way we can use it as paint. Different paint makers use different combinations of pigments from natural and synthetic sources and vehicles (like humectants which attract and hold moisture) in their mixtures, and many are kept under lock and key.

Karen’s paint-making is a labor of love. She told me that single-pigment, artist quality paints take longer to make, and that every pigment she uses for her colors reacts differently with the special humectant she uses.

Her top-secret humectant is what makes her paint exceptional. It is a recipe she got from a friend a long time ago when she was making gouache paints. As far as she knows, nobody else is using this recipe, and it’s why her paints re-wet so effortlessly. One of the first things I noticed about Karen’s paints was that one touch of my wet brush instantly brought the paint to life. Compared to traditional dry pans of watercolor that require a good bit of “scrubbing” with a brush before the pigment lets loose, the difference was immediately noticeable.

Once she blends her pigments with her special humectant, she waits a few days until most of the water evaporates. Some of her pigments take several weeks. And then she pours them again.

“My paints contain no fillers whatsoever—they are pure pigments and humectant, unlike the bigger commercial brands.”

The mica watercolors are a lot quicker in comparison, although some of the colors “shrink back” during the evaporation process and she has to top them up.

The pigments Karen uses are all high quality, artist grade from a nearly 200 year old shop in London. (For a good primer on pigments, click here). Aside from Alizarin crimson (which was originally made from the madder plant and likely to fade over time), Karen’s pigments have the highest light-fastness rating so they should stand the test of time and not fade in the light.

“I have no idea how lightfast the mica paints are, as they are a new thing” she told me. “I don’t use cosmetic grade micas—only art and crafts micas (so the sellers tell me)” and she sources them from all over the world.

My understanding is that iridescent or pearlescent mica paints are pretty stable since they are made from mica which is a mineral that reflects light and gives paints that shimmery look. My guess is that the pigments used with the mica is what affects the lightfast quality of the end product, so if you are using high quality pigments and humectants, the mica paints should be high quality (and lightfast) as well.

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Karen’s secret laboratory and workspace

What’s Next?

Karen said she wants to continue doing what she does. “It’s very hard work and sometimes I’m up till 4 in the morning, but I don’t mind—I love it. I’d like to employ a couple of like minded people maybe in the future. I don’t want to be rich, I just want to be able to support myself without having to slog it out for someone else.”

That sounds very familiar.

In our back and forth notes the past few weeks, I realized I found a kindred spirit in Karen. Like me, she surrounds herself with color and said that her house looks like a mad woman decorated it. “I believe colours can affect your mood,” and I agree.

“When I start a piece I can see the end result in my mind’s eye, so I just start with a colour then pick up the next colour I think will compliment it. I do try to limit myself to 5 colours though (you can have as many shades of that colour you like, in my 5 colour rule).”

Karen is an avid animal lover (when she’s feeling low she watches YouTube videos of baby animals to pick up her spirit) and an avid music lover, too. When you take a look at her Etsy shop, you might notice that her paint colors are named after songs: Brown Sugar, Pink Cadillac, Purple Haze, Mr. Blue Sky, Crimson Clover, Orange Crush, Yellow Taxi. How fun is that?

And have you seen the pic I posted on Instagram of the gorgeous red mica paint she sent along? She labeled it “Ruby Charm.” Be still my heart!

rubycharm

In addition to art having the ability to bring people together, it also has healing powers. “I’m a great believer in the healing that comes from art and being able to express yourself when words fail,” said Karen. And she knows from experience. She volunteered doing art therapy classes at a drop-in center for the homeless and drug and alcohol addicts, and will be returning this year to volunteer again. Blackpool “has a massive drug and alcohol problem here (like many places) with a lot of hurting and broken people.” If art can play a role in helping people refocus and heal, that’s a very good thing.

I am looking forward to seeing what Karen does in the future, and am excited to try out her single-pigment paints when I add them to my collection of micas. Keep your eyes on her: check out her Etsy shop and give her a follow on Instagram, and if you try her paints, I’d love to hear what you think in the comments.

Cheers to art and the artists who make our world a better place, and thank you, Karen, for sharing your craft and artistry with us!