Artist is nuts for squirrels

Local pop-surrealist artist Carollyne Yardley finds her niche in fur.

  • Jul. 18, 2012 6:00 p.m.

Local painter Carollyne Yardley has gone nuts for her art, which features portraits of squirrels with human bodies. See her work at the TD Art Gallery Paint-In July 21, 2012.

The squirrel is nature’s supreme gatherer — amassing nuts, berries and seeds, then hiding them away for retrieval at a later date.

Local artist Carollyne Yardley is much the same, except she collects unique vintage clothing, luxurious costume jewelry, hand-made hats and ornate picture frames, storing them away in her tickle trunk as inspiration for her next painting.

“I’ve been a vintage shopper and collector for 25 years and so I have this haul of really cool, neat stuff that I actually wear as well,” says Yardley, who’s had a fascination with costuming and design from a very young age.

Her collection is often what stimulates her creativity to paint her brand of pop surrealism. And while her portraits feature whimsical wide-eyed subjects dressed to the nines — a fortune teller with tarot cards, a nosey neighbour peering through binoculars, a geisha mysteriously hiding her face with a fan, and a socialite clad in a refined retro suit and pearls ready for outer-space — they aren’t quite what one would expect. The wide-eyed subject isn’t an alluring woman or a magnificent man — it’s always a squirrel.

“I started teaching myself to paint by ‘re-mastering’ the masters,” says Yardley. “The first one was by Raphael called The Women with the Veil. My husband suggested I paint a squirrel on her lap.”

That was the first squirrel to grace one of her paintings.

The first painting of a human body with a squirrel head is An Officer and a GentleSquirrel, a portrait of her husband in his military uniform.

Yardley has painted three full series of squirrels; Secret Squirrels (Acrylic on canvas inspired by the Hanna-Barbera cartoon) features Saint Squirrels and GentleSquirrels, as well as Elvis, Mermaid and Fortune Teller Squirrels.

The next series was Sophisticated Squirrels (2011, oil on board), featuring Green Bun, Steampunk and Space Hat Squirrels.

Her latest series is Sirius Squirrels (2012, oil on board); including Morning Glory (squirrel on a huge chicken), The Dovekeeper (Squirrel in a bird’s nest) and Cupid and Psyche (a squirrel riding a butterfly).

“I actually buy the frames first and then I go down and have them cut something to fit. I always have an idea before I do a piece who’s going in here,” she says as she points to the beautiful bronze frame of her newest Captain America-inspired piece, The Avenger. “I want the piece to be all connected.”

Although her inspirations range from pop culture and fairy tales to dreams and just sitting in the yard watching the squirrels, a lot of her inspiration comes from photoshoots styled with pieces from her vintage collection.

She’ll pull a variety of dresses, hats and accessories and dress up herself and other models to find the perfect look for her portraits, which feature a human body with a squirrel head.

“I like that squirrels are a bit mysterious, but very serious about their work, collecting, burying and eating nuts. The more I watch their behaviour, the more I identify with their traits,” says Yardley, who has anywhere between three and ten squirrels living in the yard of her Rockland home throughout the year.

“They are a bit scrappy and will gamble a precarious jump, or stare danger in the face without showing fear. All of those qualities are valuable if you are in business for yourself, even more so if your business is the visual arts.”

After 14 years as co-owner and creative director of a web development company (Star Global), her business partner decided he wanted out of the business and Yardley was left to make a new career choice.

“The prospects of looking for a job after having my own company for the last 14 years was actually more terrifying to me than starting a new company,” says Yardley, “So I thought about what I wanted to do 20 years ago. I went to school for fine art and art history. I looked back and meditated and thought ‘what can I do by myself that doesn’t require somebody else or another knowledge base so I won’t be stopped’, and that was my art.”

She started painting in the evenings after work in 2008 and by 2010 she was “open for business.”

“I put my shingle out, got business cards and geared all my website, facebook and everything towards art,” she says.

Originally, Yardley was painting acrylic on canvas. It wasn’t until she met Noah Becker, founder and editor-in-chief of Whitehot Magazine, that she made the switch to her current medium, oil on board, with his advice.

“We met for lunch and he took one look at my Saint Squirrel … and told me I need to be oil on board and that I should do a grisaille layer first,” says Yardley.

A grisaille layer is a monochromatic underlayer where the artist would paint the whole work in black and white, before adding any colour. The technique makes it easier for the painter to match colour values later on.

“I’ve found that I’m a bit of an aggressive painter and that I’m a little bit hard with my brushes, and canvas is malleable, so the canvas moves while I paint and the board pushes back,” she says.

She sands down the board (she sources from Castle Building Centre) before applying black gesso to the surface, then repeats to get as smooth a surface as possible. Then she draws in shapes and loose detail with a white pencil crayon.

“I really sculpt the painting in the black and white layer. That’s where all the detail is formed,” says Yardley. The grisaille layer is about half of the work of the entire painting.

She uses water-based oil paint for the grisaille layer and then linseed-based oil paint for the top layers. She also uses a food-grade, soy-based brush cleaner that acts as a thinning agent (made at Art World).

“When I first saw her work I could tell there was a lot of potential there,” says Becker, an accomplished painter, musician and art writer who lives part time in both New York City and Victoria.

“I could tell she had some questions about the history of painting and how certain things are accomplished. I thought the monochromatic underpainting would improve what she was trying to do. I was stunned at how quickly she picked it up and applied it.”

The first painting Yardley used the grisaille technique for is Green Bun Squirrel (2011), a portrait of a fabulously dressed squirrel with an overflowing mane of green hair tied up in a bun.

The results of the new technique and medium are astounding. Where as some of the detail was being lost in the weave of the canvas before, now every single strand of fur is as prominent as the squirrels’ huge black eyes.

“I’ve discovered that I’m really, really good at painting fur,” she says with her distinctive gregarious giggle. M


Watch Yardley in action at the TD Art Gallery Paint-In, Sat., July 21 between 11am and 4:30pm. Yardley will be stationed on the corners of Moss and Rockland.

Three of Yardley’s works are also in the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria’s summer small works show and sale, which is open for viewing in the Massey Gallery during the Paint-In. Plus, she’ll have three works in the Sooke Fine Arts Show, July 28- Aug. 6.

Yardley currently has eight originals for sale, but also produces limited giclee prints on canvas via her website,

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