How artist Lesley Birch spent 21 days in isolation after York Open Studios shutdown

Perfect Day Crocs: One of Lesley Birch’s 21 Days In Isolation artworks in oil, inspired by Cornwall, in harmony with her paint-spattered choice of footwear and garden pebbles

YORK Open Studios 2020 must be York Shut Studios 2020 instead, after the Government’s orders to stay home put paid to visiting other people’s homes.

In the face of the Coronavirus pandemic, however, York’s resourceful artists and craft makers are still finding ways to share their wares, whether online in the Virtual Open Studios showcase at, on their own websites or by filling their windows with artworks.

This weekend, as with last weekend, 144 artists would have been exhibiting and working at 100 locations, among them landscape painter Lesley Birch at her home studio in Clifton Place, York.

Far from downing brushes, she decided to undertake the one-off 21 Days In Isolation Project, her progress documented on Instagram, #lesleybirch21days.

Lesley’s latest paintings for her Romantic Landscapes series hanging up to dry in her home studio

“I set about the project almost immediately at lockdown,” says Scottish-born Lesley. “I’d always thought about filming my painting in a time-lapse and had never got around to it.

“So, I set up the clamp and my camera on my easel and away I went. The first few time-lapses worked out well. Then I thought, ‘why not do this for 21 days? – a time-lapse a day and a painting a day – and see what happens’.  

“Why 21 days? Well, that just came into my head, but I realise that was actually the initial lockdown time [set by the Government], so it must have gone in subconsciously.”  

Setting her artistic boundaries for the project, Lesley decided to work in oils. “I’ve been trying to develop my skills in this medium, and I decided to base the paintings on my trips to Scotland and Cornwall, working from my sketchbooks,” she says. 

Artist Lesley Birch, pictured in the studio in earlier times before 21 Days In Isolation

“I filmed a painting every morning, because the light was good, and painted into the afternoons. Every day I had a fantastic routine: breakfast; set up the oil palette and paper. Ensure camera OK. Then away!

“Morning break coffee and assessment of the painting. Another painting maybe. Lunch. Then photographing the paintings and uploading them to my Instagram feed.”

Under the #artistsupportpledge initiative set up by artist Matthew Burrows, Lesley could sell her 21 Days works as part of the pledge. “The deal was if I reached £1,000 worth of sales, I’d buy another artist’s work. So really, it was artist supporting artists – worldwide.”

Lesley worked from her studio in her garden. “Usually it’s for printmaking and large acrylic paintings, so it was a change to restrict myself to oils. I had to gather my materials from PICA studios in town [in Grape Lane], bring them home and order paper and new oils online”.

Lesley assessing the first few days’ work on the studio floor

How did the working experience contrast with Lesley’s painting trips to Italy, Spain, Cornwall and Scotland? “I wasn’t feeling the wild wind or soft sun on my skin and I wasn’t by the sea, so I used my sketchbooks as inspiration. And my head. I revisited these beautiful places in my head. It was great!” she says.

Painting at home contrasted too with the busy environment at PICA, a shared space where others work around her. “I was alone…with my IPod music – I’m not I’m not sure my music is to their taste!” says Lesley, a former musician with Hue & Cry in the 1980s.

“My PICA friends commented on Instagram on what I was doing, so there was still that support. And I chatted to my studio mate Mark [fellow artist Mark Hearld] most days on the phone.”

What did Lesley learn about herself as an artist working in isolation? “I think many artists already work in isolation – and indeed, this is the way I worked before I got together with the PICA crowd,” she says.

Such A Rugged Day, memories of Scotland, by Lesley Birch, from the 21 Days In Isolation Project

“So, I just reverted back to that way of working: alone, with my music. I challenged myself with the focus; I never thought I’d be able to create so many pieces.”

Comparing how she felt on Day 1 and Day 21 of her “mammoth task”, Lesley says: “Well, Day 1 was a bit of an exploration. I had no idea that I was planning going on for 21 days until the end of Day I, where I felt exhilarated and in no doubt that I could produce one or more paintings each day.

“By Day 21, I was utterly exhausted. The creative energy to ensure I was happy with each piece was a challenge. The Instagram messaging system went mental with paintings selling in seconds by the last few days! I even had to send one to New Zealand.

“I was collecting addresses, bank transfers, and then I had to go online and order a whole lot of packaging for sending out the paintings, which still had to dry. I was overwhelmed.”

Pale Green Sea on the easel  as Lesley painted in isolation

Lesley had decided to sell her uplifting landscape paintings at only £120 a pop, including shipping, “because we are in difficult times at the moment and everyone should have a chance to buy original art”.

“I’ve really enjoyed painting in the alla prima style [a direct painting approach where paint is applied wet on wet without letting earlier layers dry] and plan to create a new collection,” she says.

“Will there be more paintings from 21 Days In Isolation? Yes, though not on a daily basis. My 21 days are over. I feel on a bit of a roll at the moment, but I don’t want to put myself under the pressure of daily filming, so I’m just gonna take my time. These paintings will be more of the same as I have lots more sketchbooks for inspiration.”

More of Lesley’s new Romantic Landscapes paintings pegged out to dry on her studio washing line

She is calling the series her Romantic Landscapes. “That’s how this series seems to have developed in the time of Covid-19. I want an idealised view of reality,” Lesley reasons. “I think at the moment people want to escape into nice things: beautiful colours, soft skies and even a storm or two in a painting isn’t too bad.

“I know I want to escape, so I’m just following my intuition.  These paintings will probably go to my galleries, but a small collection will go online for sale.”

As for how Lesley will spend this weekend, she concludes: “York Open Studios has been in my head this past week and I shall continue to be creative.” 

Did you know?

After the cancellation of York Open Studios 2020, Lesley Birch is putting a selection of her YOS pieces online at at £200 each, framed and ready to hang.

Copyright of The Press, York