20 Nov 2021

Small Business:

Five Questions with artist Erin Thompson

The holidays are fast approaching and here at The Hill is Home we love to support local businesses and artists. During the pandemic, I met watercolor artist Erin Thompson. I was lucky enough to win one of Erin’s pieces sometime earlier in the year– a storefront sketch of Tunnicliff’s Tavern, and every time I look at it, I am reminded of all the happy moments (and delicious meals) we’ve had at 222 7th Street SE.

Erin’s detailed and skillful drawings of houses, storefronts and of small moments with families are deceptively simple while also being charming and touching. Make sure you check out her Instagram and follow her, and visit her store at ErinThompsonStudio.com/shop.

I sent Erin a few questions about her art and process and her answers are below, lightly edited for clarity.

Erin Thompson holding up one of her newest items in stock– a print featuring several Capitol Hill rowhomes. Portrait by Maria Helena Carey.

How long have you been painting and drawing? Is this something that has been ongoing through your life or is it something relatively new?

I’ve loved to draw (and sometimes paint) since I was a young child and in my free time took many classes through a community center in my hometown. Art and creativity have been an intermittent constant (if that’s a thing!) throughout my life, popping up amidst repeated attempts to follow more typical/societally-acceptable paths 🙂 I fell into somewhat of a hiatus after my children were born, but then 2-3 years ago, I felt the urgency of returning to it to help me deal with some stress I was facing in my parenting.

What draws you specifically to watercolors and to your aesthetic?

Most of all, I am drawn to draw, whether with pencil, charcoal, or ink. I love using line to portray a human subject’s position or gesture, or a building’s character. I learned to watercolor as a teenager, and dabbled with it only minimally over the years. Then just before the pandemic, I pulled out my paints with much trepidation after not touching them for a very long time, as I had been working nearly exclusively in black and white [until then]. At that point, I was feeling inspired to try adding splashes of color to black and white sketches I was doing in my sketchbook.
When the pandemic started, I got really into watercolor as I sought to help people capture moments of connection while we all were isolating from each other, within my “End the Disconnect” project, which I pursued while my kids napped, after they went to bed, etc. Among other things, I am inspired by children’s book illustration, and feel the pen and watercolor medium gives a nostalgic, storybook-like feel to my artwork. [It] feels right to me for capturing the subject matter I love: meaningful moments of parent/child togetherness or between siblings, memories of special houses/buildings from one’s life, beloved pets, etc.

Original artwork by Erin Thompson, courtesy of the artist

Lately, I’ve been loving using Copic’s colored ink to bring color to my pen drawings, because of the way it allows me to work more spontaneously and intuitively, and it’s more bold than my watercolors. It’s becoming popular with my clients and customers, too, though watercolor remains extremely popular, as well.

What made you turn your art into a business? Has it been an easy process with the District?

A few things came together and prompted me to move from a hobby to a business. A couple years before I started Erin Thompson Studio, when I was a full-time mom, I was approached by a local PR firm that asked me to live-sketch attendees at a product launch party after finding my old blog of Metro sketches. The firm ended up changing course, and I never did do the event, but it lit a fire in me to start drawing again, and it planted a seed in my mind that people might actually pay me for my artwork.

Then, a year and a half later, as I was collapsing under the weight of… my grief over the end of my nursing relationship with my son, I started drawing and painting images from photos I had of nursing my son and daughter. Around this same time, I was anticipating my son starting preK3 at Maury, and I was filled with sadness at the end of his toddlerhood and my time home with him and trying to determine how to revive my former graphic/web/UX design career.

As I researched local web/UX programs to bring myself up-to-speed and looked at the time and financial commitment it was going to take to ramp up, I had a lightbulb moment where I thought, “What would happen if I put that time, effort, and money into turning my art into a business?” My husband, Matt, who’s my greatest supporter, helped me find the courage to start sharing my mother/child artwork over Facebook and MOTH that summer/fall. Things started to take root, slowly at first… Now, 2 years later, my holiday slots were booked by the end of summer! For much of this past year, I’ve been doing roughly 1 commission each week, while growing a line of prints and notecards celebrating Capitol Hill homes and establishments.

Over the course of my life, making art has been one of the ways I cope with loss and change and hold onto special memories — most recently, inspired by the feelings I’ve felt as I weaned my children and otherwise watched them transition from one phase of development to another, and as we’ve lived through change and disconnection during COVID. Even just today, as I went through outgrown clothing to donate to the Maury yard sale, I got teary and nostalgic from all the memories and felt the urge to go make some artwork! I started my business because I imagined other moms wanting to commemorate their own breastfeeding relationships and other parents facing similar feelings through their child(ren)’s transitions, and wanted to use my artwork and sensitivity to help them cope or preserve and celebrate meaningful moments of connection. As the pandemic started to prompt local businesses to close, [whether indefinitely or forever] — for example, Capitol Lounge and Beuchert’s I expanded my business to capture buildings with meaning to me, my clients, and the community. Partly because I lost my childhood home to a fire, I greatly relate to the connections people feel to childhood homes and physical structures.

It’s been a gradual process to officially become a business, though I’ve been paying taxes on any business income from day 1 🙂 I have not found it to be an easy process with the District, and I’m constantly struggling with fears of “doing it wrong” and spending way too much time trying to do it right, as far as DC government regulations go.

What are your favorite subjects to paint?

My very favorite thing to do is to draw live people in public — at coffee shops, on Metro, etc. As the pandemic shut everything down, I started to feel inner panic, knowing I would not be able to draw live anymore. I haven’t been on Metro since the pandemic started, and I miss Metro drawing terribly!

In my business, I love receiving photos from my clients and referencing them to help capture their meaningful relationships, places, and memories. The pieces I typically enjoy the most are those where a client has shared with me the meaning of the moment/home/people involved, or what the gift will mean to its recipient — it really inspires me as I work and makes me feel so honored to be asked to make such special art. This past year, I loved hearing from a local mom who wanted a way to capture memories of playing with her son in Stanton Park during the pandemic. She supplied me with a photo of him playing there, and I supplemented with some of my own photos of Stanton Park to create this pen and watercolor piece celebrating their special times together:

Original artwork by Erin Thompson, courtesy of the artist

In addition to commissions, as I walk or run around our (Capitol Hill) neighborhood, I get so much inspiration, take a ton of photos, and then come home feeling fired-up to create art celebrating homes and establishments that caught my eye. I’ve been having a lot of fun building a collection of pieces celebrating the Capitol Hill neighborhood, and I use a variety of medium/styles so there’s really something for every Hill lover. You can see more samples in my shop: ErinThompsonStudio.com/shop.

Erin working at her home studio. Portrait by Maria Helena Carey

Are there any local resources for artists that you’ve worked with?When I first moved to DC, I attended life drawing open sessions with MOCA DC, which I don’t think is still around, after the death of its leader. I discovered CHAW (Capitol Hill Arts Workshop) after I moved to the Hill in 2001, and I’ve taken a photography class there, a few life drawing classes with Ellen Cornett, and have attended a bunch of their life drawing open sessions over the course of the years. I frequently use the recorded live model sessions offered virtually by Croquis Cafe, and in the past year or so, I took a virtual hand-lettering class with Samantha Testa that prompted me to start drawing figures with a nib pen dipped in ink. I’ve done a couple other virtual workshops with non-local artists, Samantha Dion Baker and Megan Biffert (through Etchr).

Hope you enjoyed getting to know Erin a little better. You can see more of her art through her website, Erin Thompson Studio, or visit her Linktree.

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