The Warrior Artist podcast [13] My studio is in my head – visual artist Aoife Nolan shares her creative process

About Aoife

Aoife Nolan’s career background was in fashion (film costume and bridal wear) and she successfully operated her own business for over a decade before going to the Crawford college of art and design to study art where she was awarded the RHA student access programme and her graduate show received several awards.  She has exhibited in Ireland and in the Endicott College, Massachusetts in the US.

Aoife describes her work as the merging of interior and exterior landscape and her work is inspired our need for connection and for connection to the earth. Aoife’s practice includes experimental processes, such as corroding copper, making her own pigments from natural materials and harvesting rainwater.

Aoife always had a love of art

“I suppose most teenagers would be going to pubs or nightclubs. I always went to galleries.”


Thinking like an artist

She realised that she was already an artist even though she hadn’t gone to art college.  “My way of thinking has always been the way an artist thinks, which was something I didn’t really realise until I went to art college”

“I’d always thought like an artist. I’d always looked at things in a different way to other people. I’d always enjoyed looking at other people’s stories, going to art exhibitions. I loved listening to artists talk. I’d often gone to artists talks. I’d taken notes, I’d sketchbooks. I kept things, all of those things, without even realising, oh, this is what it was.”


Going to art college

Aoife describes changing from her successful fashion career to art like a switch or shutting one door and opening another.

Aoife told herself “If I don’t do this, I’m going to be on my deathbed wondering why I didn’t do it…It’s like an itch that needs to be scratched”

Going to Art College during COVID gave Aoife a strong grounding for a self-motivated studio practice. “I didn’t do first year, I went straight into second year, then the college closed, so I was straight through the whole COVID experience…  it gave me a bit of an eye opener of what it’s going to be like when you finish college…You’re out on your just have to self motivate yourself.”

The importance of drawing

‘I feel like the bedrock of my practice is drawing.”

The process is more important to Aoife than the finished artwork. “I’m a process based artist. The end results that you see on the wall is secondary, really. For me. I’m more about the process and I’m not precious about the finished product.”

“I’ve had the experience of making it and that’s the bit for me that I’ll always have and that’s the bit that enriches me.”

“I’m happy to let it go. I’m happy for somebody else to have the work. I’ve made it to leave it off out into the universe. I don’t need to hold onto it. I’m not precious about it.”

Working outside

Aoife starts her painting process outside. “I work a lot outdoors, and while I’m outdoors, I’m constantly checking in with the sounds. The temperature is the wind on my face, is that surface cold, is it warm? What can I hear at this spot today that I couldn’t hear yesterday?  I’m very much immersed. My whole body is immersed in the act of making when I’m outdoors in the environment.”


“It just happened. ..I didn’t have a plan or an idea… I was feeling quite blocked.. I downed tools and went to the beach to think, and it just fell into place.”

” Just the act of walking barefoot on this particular rock with the piece of paper spread out on the rock, and I’d smeared charcoal that I’d found on the beach onto the rock, walked through it, walked over the paper.. the answer came to me and I haven’t looked back”

“It just kind of happened over a period of time. I felt more and more strongly drawn to a particular sheet of rock at the end of the beach in Garretstown, Co. Cork.”

“I just saw skin, and it just reminded me of all the creases that you would see on human skin or on an elephant skin”

“This is the skin on the Earth, and the Earth is our mother”

“I wonder when the day will come when this rock just doesn’t excite me anymore. .. I’m sure it will come, but it hasn’t come yet, so I’m still going back to my rock. The locals know me now – the girl on the rock”

“[Nature is] like a bottomless pit of delights. You’re walking along seashore and you’re just going, oh, my. Every footstep is something new, especially with the seaweed. The range of colours is just mind blowing.”


Aoife likes working with rolls of heavyweight Arches and Fabriano paper.  ‘My next door neighbours think I have a wallpapering business because I spent the whole time driving around with the back of the car heaped up with massive rolls of paper.”

“I work on huge sheets of heavy paper about a meter and a half wide, 10 meters long, cut them into sections.”

Sometimes she stretches paper.

“They were made by wetting the paper, soaking it, then stretching it over the canvas and stapling it the way you would a canvas fabric, but it’s actually paper, and then after it dries [as] paper”

Aoife’s practice is very expansive and she likes to make her own materials.


Natural materials

“I bring nontoxic soluble materials to the site with me. I bring the paper, I bring rainwater that I harvest at home with me, and I use materials that I find at the source – bits of sand, slimy bits of seaweed, bits of charcoal left on the beach after barbecues, soft pieces of rock that can be ground down.”

“I mix all these natural materials in with the professional artist materials for longevity and stability”

Copper ink

“I use a lot of copper. My rationale behind using the copper is that it’s in human tissue, it’s in the earth, and it’s known to conduct energy.. it’s like a metaphysical representation of the energy highway between the human and the Mother Earth.”

Aoife researched recipes and learnt through trial and error. “I did do a bit of research for ink recipes, and iodine was the missing ingredient, so I had to source iodised salt as opposed to normal salt”

“I use copper leaf that I buy, and then I have cut off bits of copper pipe that I got from a plumber. And I have spent, I suppose it must be two years now, corroding them with vinegar, salt, and iodine”

“You can change the colour by adding acid or alkali materials like lemon juice or baking soda… it’s highly volatile, but it’s just fantastic fun to work with..Cooper needs to be stabilised.  It has “a vinegar base, it’s acidic,  it eats through the paper over time. So there are certain things that I can do to stabilise it…mixing it with Gum Arabic, letting the vinegar evaporate so it becomes kind of a dust. And then mixing it with gum arabic priming the paper.”


To create dark green paint Aoife used “tiny bits of seaweed that I just mushed in with my black pigment.”

Aoife prepares the seaweed before using it.  “I rinse it first to get the salt out. …I don’t use any salt water just because I’d be afraid that I might corrode the paper over time.  I always bring the rainwater with me to the site.”

She uses seaweed as a pigment and for print making

“it’s permanent pigment, the seaweed”

“I’ve taken the seaweed back home. I’ve taken it into sample studios. I’ve rinsed it down, soaked it, and then smeared it with pigments directly onto the seaweed and lifted prints from it. I draw around the prints and just whatever I can think of that connects me to the space.”

Aoife’s favourite brushes are Isabey.


Mixed media as research

“I do a lot of mixed media. I do the sound, I do film, I do sculpture. I make moulds. I take imprints. I gather obsessively..I feel like that’s my personal research. It feels like sketch booking to me when I’m doing all of these things. It’s only when I really finish all of that research process and start to work two dimensional on the paper that I really feel like I’m making the art..I feel like I’m a two dimensional practitioner, definitely at my core.”


Creative Process outside

“I just work away on the rock. I take loads and loads photographs. I collect sound, I tune into the light, I listen to the ocean and that’s just kind of part of my process…the photographs don’t go into the finished piece. That’s just ..the way I warm up when I’m at the site. I do loads of sketches and then I start making the pieces.

” I think about the form, the shape I want to create. I look at the rock and see which parts of this rock are exciting me today. I smear pigment onto the rock, spray down the paper with the rainwater that I brought from home, and then I lift the impression off the rock and then work over it again.”

The challenges of the weather when working outside

“I work smaller if it’s raining, or I just go and tune into the space. Or I work in my studio and I don’t go. .. I kind of like that, that I’m collaborating with nature. So if it’s lashing rain, I’m not going to go. Or if it’s too windy, wind is worse than rain, actually. I’m not going to go.”


Working at night

“It was my first time working with darkness. I felt like I was working with the dark, like a collaboration because that kind of secretiveness or in the dark primeval.”



“My physical studio is at the moment in Sample studios, but with the large pieces I can’t actually work in it because it’s so, so small..the benefit of that..was that it.. forced me to work tiny scale.”


Aoife’s Process in the studio

“I do a lot of the making on the ground and then I hang them up, see what they look like, see how they are relating to each other, and then if I feel like working further on them. But when I’m using, I use a lot of metal, like copper. So if I’m using it as a dust, I kind of have to use it on the ground, or if I’m using charcoal, because it just would fall down and streak the work. It’s easier to work I find it easier to work on the ground.”

Future inspiration

Aoife is planning on exploring Sheela-na-gigs in future work.  These are “stone carvings that are dotted around Ireland, maybe other parts of Europe…they’re like a female deity type figure where the vagina is exposed and highlighted and disproportionately large”

The best advice she received

Her art tutor Helen Farrell told her: “you’re not here to learn how to draw”..what do you want to talk about?”

“I just picked up the charcoal and trusted where the line took me, it just set me free”

“what’s the story? How do you feel? What line is going to come out of you that taps into the essence of who you are as a being?”

Aoife’s advice for artists thinking about going to art college:

“Just do it. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t work. Anyone who’s thinking about going is probably doing it already anyway. You wouldn’t feel drawn to orientating your life towards working as an artist unless you were working as an artist already.”

Aoife has an upcoming solo exhibition in the Sternview Gallery, Cork.

instagram: @aoife_nolan_

Contact Éadaoin on Instagram @eadaoin_glynn and

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