Words With Diane

Diane Benn is a Midlothian-based artist who specialises in portraiture, but has also illustrated (and written) her own series of books for children. Here she is featured in our  Words With… column, talking to  contributor, Coreen Connell.

What is your connection to the Lothians?

I moved to Edinburgh in 1990 for a job, and although originally from Yorkshire, I have now lived here longer than I have anywhere else in my life. I live and work in Dalkeith.

Have you a favourite place to visit locally?

I like North Berwick and the East Lothian coast, especially the John Muir Country Park. I find the coastline there really beautiful and very accessible and it’s also a great place to paint.

Could you tell us a bit about your work?

Portrait 1I am an artist who likes figurative painting, especially portraiture. I also like landscapes and still lives – anything really that is based on observing an object or objects. I like to look at things a bit differently, or to put an unusual slant on the world and that’s where my children’s books come in. Imagine an uprising of mice or a skeleton that remains alive and the difficulties that might pose… My favourite, ‘A Warning at Christmas’, is very topical (in a light-hearted way) as Christmas is cancelled because Santa’s run out of  raw materials to make presents. Of course, the day is saved by clever kids who get everyone to recycle, but it makes you think – what if? I enjoy word-play and this adds to the challenge of writing in verse – making it funny and relevant and not just for the sake of rhyming.

The approach to illustrating is very different from the discipline of Fine Art, which I studied at college. I did a course at Edinburgh College of Art to learn the basics then I jumped in, illustrating, “The Very, Very, Very Lazy Cat”; my first book, which comprised of 38 paintings in total! I’m having a break from writing/illustrating at the moment, but the thought of elephants drinking afternoon tea does keep popping into my head…

How do you approach painting portraits?

Portrait 2I’d like to make having a portrait painted much more accessible, not something ‘other’ people have. Some people want to commemorate a loved one or have a picture of themselves that evokes a special memory or time. I paint everybody: kids, grandparents, partners, friends, animals. I don’t really have a preference – although from a technical point of view, fur is much more difficult than skin to paint. There’s something very tactile about a painting and about the quality of paint on a surface. It’s very satisfying to look and it really helps you engage with the person in the picture. That’s why I especially welcome portraits of people who’ve passed over as I know it brings tremendous comfort for loved ones left behind.

I work primarily from photos – again this makes it very accessible (not everyone has the time to ‘sit’ anymore), and my portraits are quite small – they start at nine inches square. I take a different approach to traditional portraiture in that I don’t list a person’s ‘achievements’ in the background painting. Instead I like to concentrate on the face to convey the personality, for example the way a certain feature makes them uniquely who they are – such as the twinkle in an eye or a particular dimple when they smile. I pride myself on getting a good likeness and also capturing the ‘spirit’ of the person and one really great thing about working from photos is that the subjects are often smiling (they don’t have to sit for hours in one pose, you see) and this helps me convey their true personality.

You’ve had quite a lot of success in local exhibitions too?

I exhibit in local galleries and take commissions directly. I have been featured in the Scottish Design Exchange at Ocean Terminal and at the Velvet Easel Gallery in Portobello, and I recently won a prize at the Paisley Art Institute for a landscape painting of Portobello that I submitted.

DB3I was also involved in the Three Harbours Arts Festival in Cockenzie, Port Seton and Preston Pans. It’s an open doors exhibition and a friend who does stained glass was kind enough to give me some wall space. It didn’t go terribly well unfortunately! The first weekend was the Edinburgh marathon so no traffic was allowed in and then we had gale force winds over the next few days which deterred folk from coming. It was great to be part of a local arts festival though and after it was over I sold three of the paintings in a local gallery.

And when you’re not working?

I like to be outside. In my spare time I often go walking at the beach. Sometimes I borrow a friend’s dog (see the heading picture!) I also enjoy my garden.

Find out more about Diane and her work at:






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