The art of joyful painting with Camilla Engstrom

woman painting words on a wall

Following on from her live installation at Soho House West Hollywood, we sat down with the artist to talk about pivoting careers, feeling good and finding solace in forest bathing

By Charlotte Harding   Tuesday 17 December, 2019

With so much doom and gloom in the world right now, Swedish-born artist Camilla Engstrom is a ray of sunshine. Her Instagram (@camillamengstrom) has racked up nearly 50k followers not only for her paintings, but also for her spontaneous dance routines, set to an eclectic playlist against the backdrop of her rainbow-coloured canvas.

Since posting the first video she made dancing (to a reggae song by Eek-A-Mouse), Engstrom has pioneered an Instagram genre of goofy, twirling, unchoreographed moves that play into the vibrant nature of her work – which she showed off last month when she painted live in front of members at Soho House West Hollywood.

Questioning the archetypes of femininity and the ravages of climate change, Engstrom’s drawings and paintings tackle pressing issues in a thoughtful yet playful way, often depicting mountains, volcanoes and Mother Nature. ‘A lot of people have told me they feel a lot of joy when they see my work,’ she says.

Growing up between Sweden and China, Engstrom had trouble fitting in. ‘I always felt a little different because I grew up in a pretty small town. My biggest influence was my grandfather: he lived in the same building as us and he loved to draw, paint and write. He always told me that I was going to be an artist. I never believed him until four years ago when I actually started to commit to it.’

She trained in fashion and business at the Fashion Institute of Technology, but quickly fell out of love with the impossible ideals the industry imposed on women’s bodies, dropping out in 2013 to pursue a broader art practice, turning to textiles and eventually painting. ‘I started dating an artist and he would ask me to assist him on painting, and it made me realise that I wanted to do it for myself,’ she explains. ‘I didn’t have a clear plan. I started with what I was comfortable with, which was textiles and embroidery. Then I got a studio, and I started painting Husa, a pink, round figure. She’s my alter ego.’

It was a meeting with a gallerist that encouraged her to truly commit to her new direction. ‘Having someone believe in me made me take myself more seriously as an artist. I gave my paintings more time and attention. I’m still figuring out who I am as a painter, what I want to paint and what materials I want to use. It’s a discovery.’
woman crouched in front of two of her paintings throwing up peace signs
painting of abstract woman
abstract colourful painting with a snake
Her practice started to gain attention with Husa (meaning ‘housemaid’ in Swedish), a recurring character who’s often found indulging in earthly pleasures in a childlike, imaginary world. ‘Husa was a huge starting point – she was the first light drawing I made as an artist. I was so used to drawing fashion illustrations that are so skinny and tall and weird and I was tired of these stupid measurements,’ she explains. ‘So, when I was finally free from drawing that, I just decided I wanted to draw the opposite, and Husa was born.’

After moving from a basement in New York to Los Angeles, Engstrom grew in confidence, the environment around her helping to change her focus and art in the process. ‘Being closer to nature in California has made me so aware of climate change, especially the wildfires. The only way for me to express my concerns is to appreciate nature and make people feel the same way.

‘Last week I went to visit the Redwoods and spent time forest bathing – the best thing you can do is go out and spend time in a forest. I’m curious about exploring how to create a landscape as a way for me to tell people that our planet is a living thing and we’re killing it right now,’ explains Engstrom. ‘I would never want a person to look at my work and feel bad. I want to spread joy and peace. That’s very important to me.’

And as for spreading joy through dancing? ‘It’s just a way to activate myself,’ she explains. ‘Painting can be very static. Sometimes I choose to make a really large-scale work just so that I can move my body around the canvas. I've always done it, and I think everyone should do it too!’

Below, Engstrom picks her favourite songs for every mood…🌞🌈🌧

When you’re happy: ‘Lovely Day’ by Bill Withers
When you have creative block: ‘So What’ by Miles Davis
When you feel indulgent: ‘Good As Hell’ by Lizzo
When you’re tired: Tibetan bowls
When you have loads of energy: ‘Ça Plane Pour Moi’ by Plastic Bertrand
When you’re sad: ‘I Can't Stand The Rain’ by Ann Peebles
When you’re feeling festive: ‘Take On Me’ by a-ha 

Images courtesy of Camilla Engstrom

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