Creative Caversham – Helen Ridley


Helen had a career, but it wasn’t very creative; redundancy provided the chance to build on her artistic skills. She tells Elestr Lee about her thriving new business doing live portraits at weddings and parties.

LIKE MANY people, Helen Ridley found herself re-evaluating her ambitions during the Covid lockdown – and having taken a brave decision, she is now delighted to be pursuing a career as an illustrator.

“Originally I studied fashion design at the University of Middlesex,” she explained. “After university, I worked in product development for big-name brands such as the White Company, Habitat and Harrods. It was very varied work; I spent a lot of time auditing factories abroad, checking that they met standards for both the employees and for the products. I spent ten years doing this. But it wasn’t very creative. So, during lockdown, I decided to take redundancy, and instead took a short course in illustration at the London Metropolitan University. I also did several online courses and began building up my portfolio of illustrations.

“Since then, I have never stopped drawing. And if you keep on drawing, you keep progressing!” she said.

Having grown up in Chichester, Helen moved to Reading seven years ago. Taking the plunge to become an illustrator, she started off by making gifts and greetings cards which she aimed to sell online and at markets. Ho wever, she has discovered a new use for her drawing talent – doing live portraits at special events.

“I go to weddings and corporate events and do quick portraits of the guests in watercolours and finished with fineliner pens, in around 10 to 15 minutes. At the end of the event, the guests will have an original portrait to take home with them. The portraits capture the person all dressed up for the occasion. It’s a great way to capture people on a memorable occasion, and an alternative to caricatures,” she added.

Guests may pose for Helen while she draws them, or else she can do a portrait based on a photograph. “I create a gallery of pictures and, by the end of the event, they are ready to collect,” she explained.

Helen is thrilled that she has become very busy doing live portraits at a range of bookings over the past year. During the run-up to Christmas, she has been busy doing portraits, for example at the Artisa Christmas Market at Caversham’s Creativ.Spaces in Marsack Street. Doing portraits of people with their pets is also proving a popular birthday and Christmas gift idea. Helen is now looking forward to doing portraits at weddings planned for the coming Spring. And she is also looking forward to making her second appearance at the Caversham Art Trail, having joined the Art Trail for the first time in 2022. She is far from daunted by her new-found career.

“Some artists are a bit scared by the idea of doing ‘live illustrations’ such as my kind of quick portraits, which I do in front of people, but I love doing it,” she revealed. “I enjoy working at speed, and I am becoming increasingly confident. I really like going to events, meeting new people, and creating something special for them.”

“I think it’s a bit of a reaction to lockdown, when we were all shut away and separated from other people,” she added. She is delighted with the reaction to her work so far.

As well as attending corporate events and weddings, Helen has found herself in demand teaching drawing and painting skills at centres including Norden Farm in Maidenhead and Creativ.Spaces in Caversham.

“I will be starting a watercolour painting club at Creativ.Spaces this year, where I will be helping people to learn skills, and then plan and compose their work. It’s great to work in Caversham, there is such a supportive art community.”

“At Norden Farm I run a studio art club, which explores different themes from landscapes to abstract; I also teach the use of different materials including watercolour, pastels, and pen and ink,” she explained.

To complement her busy work as an artist, Helen works as an Awards Assistant for the World Illustration Awards organised by the Association of Illustrators in London, a role she took on during 2022. This combines her previous experience as a product developer with her new career as a live illustrator and supports other illustrators as they find their creative feet. During the coming year, Helen is hoping to juggle her work doing live portraits at events with illustrations for magazines and publishers. “I am hoping to get involved in illustrating books,” she revealed. And with her positive, determined attitude, it seems very likely that during 2023, she will achieve her ambition!

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