Talking Illumination, Emily Washington

Whilst studying mathematics at university, Emily Washington found her love and inspiration in Islamic geometry. After learning more about the artform, she developed a unique style bringing a contemporary twist to this traditional artform.


We talk to Emily about her journey to becoming an artist, colour compositions and her thoughts on the preservation of cultural heritage.


Your works are inspired by Islamic geometry and illumination painting traditions of India and Iran. What made you develop an interest in these artistic traditions?

I studied mathematics at university and when I discovered Islamic geometry, I think it very much appealed to me both as an artist and a mathematician. I was completely amazed by the beauty of what could be created with a compass and straight edge.


I began to embellish my geometry with floral patterns and took a class on illumination. I have always loved to paint tiny details, so much so that my art teachers at school were forever asking me to paint on a bigger scale. I instantly loved illumination and wanted to learn as much as I could so I began looking for more classes and researching online.


How did you train to become an artist specializing in these traditional artforms?

My original geometric constructions were really messy but with some gentle encouragement from Samira Mian and her pure joy for geometric pattern, I started practising at every opportunity. I would spend hours and hours repeating a construction over and over again and sometimes would find myself getting up in the middle of the night to redraw something or jot down ideas for a colour combination.


I began to experiment and combine flowing, floral details with my geometry and then was lucky enough to find another great teacher in Esra Alhamal. My first class with Esra was recreating a pattern from an Uzbek tile. We built the foundations of the pattern using basic geometry and learnt how to build up the design using symmetry. Esra then taught us the basics of illumination. I absolutely loved my tiny paintbrushes and straight away after the class I began looking for similar patterns to practise from and painted for as long as my eyes would allow.


Using a couple of wonderful online libraries, I loaded up many manuscripts looking for beautiful Shamsas, hundreds of years old, for me to try and copy to learn from. I knew that my painting could be a lot neater and was amazed by the incredible detail in manuscript illumination so I wanted to take a formal Islamic Illumination course to develop my skills. I found a course with the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts with Ayesha Gamiet. Ayesha was enormously inspiring and one of the most important lessons I learnt from her was to slow down and take more care over each part of the process.


Where do you find inspiration for your colour compositions?

There are certain colours that I am always drawn to, for example I constantly find myself going back to indigo. When I first started painting again, blue and gold were colours that I knew looked amazing together so I kept using them. I wanted to start being more adventurous and around the same time bought a beautiful palette of natural pigment watercolours. The combination of colours in the palette led me to try different things and become braver in my choices. Sometimes I know as soon as I start drawing what colours I will eventually use to paint but often it’s just an experiment.

You have developed a contemporary twist on this traditional skill, how did you develop a distinct style?

My style developed through many hours of practise. I spent a year trying to do at least an hour of drawing/ painting a day and during that time my own distinct style developed very naturally.


Why is the preservation of cultural heritage important?

Preserving irreplaceable knowledge from past generations is incredibly important as it allows us to better understand our history and keep traditional practises alive.

What are your hopes and aspirations as an artist?

I am really enjoying learning from great teachers so my main hope is to continue taking as many courses as I am able and continue to experiment with new ideas. I have started to sell prints and original paintings very recently and am looking forward to building on this in the next year.

What advice would you give to an artist at the start of their journey?

I love the Instagram accounts of artists who have their full journey available in pictures. I used to like going back to the first few posts of artists I really admire and reminding myself that they are where they are today because they have worked incredibly hard to get there. So my advice to anyone at the start of their journey is to enjoy yourself and remember there is no limit to what you could achieve.


What do you think the future of Islamic art looks like and how do you think we can continue to keep artistic traditions alive?

Online teaching has made such an enormous difference as it has opened up opportunities for so many people who previously would not have had access to learning Islamic arts. The generosity of so many wonderful teachers sharing their knowledge has allowed a much greater audience to appreciate beauty in Islamic art. Being part of a community of artists from around the globe, who all share a love of learning is really exciting and I strongly believe that artistic traditions stay alive through education.


For more information check out https://www.instagram.com/em_washington.art/?hl=en


The views of the artists, authors and writers who contribute to Bayt Al Fann do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Bayt Al Fann, its owners, employees and affiliates.