Art & Design Interviews

Down to Earth: An Interview with Sarah Nilson 

Our candid interview with oil painter Sarah Nilson about her career and the inspiration behind her artwork.

If there’s one thing oil painter Sarah Nilson is, it’s definitely adventurous. She welcomes the unknown, in fact her whole career as a painter was built on it. Her journey into becoming a professional painter began two years ago during the start of the pandemic when she got laid off from her bartending job and her father being a professional oil painter himself suggested that she try her hand at it too. On a whim she took his advice and decided to go for it. The North Carolina native moved to sunny Austin, Texas where she found she had everything to gain and nothing to lose. 

 We spoke over a 10 am zoom call from her art studio. She admitted to me that although she’s usually a morning person she hadn’t gotten enough sleep the night before, as a result  she kept saying “sorry, does that answer your question?” and “sorry, what was your question again?” after pretty much every answer she gave. Even though she was tired, her energy was as vibrant as her paintings. Needless to say I was still grateful that she pushed through and talked to me, most people would’ve just cancelled. We candidly discussed the inspiration behind her most popular art project “Just Froget About It”, the challenges of being a content creator, and her favourite thing about being a painter. 

The Curve:  How would you describe your art to someone who hasn’t seen it? 

Sarah Nilson: Well with my oil paintings, it’s not necessarily about composition or what I paint, it’s really  just about colours, I just want big bright colours that are really saturated. That seems to be what I’m drawn to the most. With the frog stuff, you’re guess is as good as mine, I don’t fucking know.

TC: Is there a reason why you choose to only work with oil paints?

SN: Well oil painting is my Dad’s medium and he described oil painting to me as a well respected medium and it seems to just fit into the fine arts realm. Oil painting has now shifted into something I do for me more than it is for anybody else. I’ve got two different instagram accounts for my artwork right now and they’re so wildly different that it’s really hard for me to know what one person likes.

My “Just Froget About It” account is where I post my illustrated doodles. Because that account has picked up so much popularity I’ve kind of left painting with oils to be my weekend warrior and something that’s just for me. I’ve thought about trying other mediums but I’m just so used to the texture of oil paints that it’s my preference.

TC: How did you come up with the idea to start your “happiness project” “Just Froget About It”? 

SN: When I was learning to paint with oils at the beginning of my art career, I felt like oil painting was my Dad’s thing so I was in this place where I felt scattered and I felt like I was doing something just for my Dad’s approval so it just didn’t feel quite like me, it wasn’t blue collar enough, it wasn’t as relatable as I wanted it to be. I feel like art has a tendency to be really high brow and I didn’t really like that so I just started to knock it down a level. I had also watched this youtube video where a guy said that a good way to hone in on your personal creativity is to draw the same thing everyday for a year so I figured I should take the advice and try it out because I kept hearing about these 365 projects and that drawing the same thing everyday for a year was a really good way to skyrocket your career.

I was willing to do anything because I didn’t have a job, well painting was my only job and I took it really seriously. So I started to draw a frog because it seemed androgynous because nobody needs another white woman telling them what to do, especially on Instagram. I wanted to make it something that anybody could relate to so it started to evolve into this thing that gave me encouragement to paint because I wasn’t able to get it from my Dad because we had an argument about learning how to paint. Basically, the inspiration behind it was to keep me going and keep me on a good track with my mental health and wellness because I felt stuck in a career that I didn’t like, well really I just didn’t like anything about my life. So this silly frog was my tiny word of encouragement to keep going.

TC: It’s been about two years since you started the “Just Froget About It” project, and that account now has over 130,000 followers- are you surprised by how popular it’s become?

SN: For sure! I don’t understand it, like I get that it’s relatable and fun but I still don’t understand the audience, the capacity of it and how to utilise it. I’m just painting in a room and then taking a picture of it and putting it on Instagram. I don’t understand the weight of it yet. To be totally honest with you, I didn’t really think it through. I just knew it was something that if I kept working on it enough it would end up being something.

During the entire time that I was creating it, I was painting while listening to podcasts and youtube videos so I would find little inspirational sayings or come up with things I could use. Learning how to paint has taught me so much about being patient with myself that I felt like it was an important message to put out there for others who were struggling with that. 

TC: Does the frog you paint in your “Just Froget About It” drawings have a name?

SN: I don’t want to give it a name! I’ve thought about it, but I really don’t want to give it a name. I think it makes it more relatable and I like the idea that maybe someone else will give it a name.

TC: On your Instagram stories and posts you’re so interactive and outgoing with your followers, so it kind of makes me wonder, are you an extrovert?

SN: Fuck no! [laughs] I am very much an introvert! Up until I became a painter my only career had been bartending so my entire working career has been learning how to talk to people, because the work isn’t pouring drinks, it’s talking to people and learning how to relate to any person on any level. Talking to people and catching their vibe and trying to give it back to them is so draining for me. My happy place is solo, by myself, in my own bubble doing my own thing.

TC: Even though your own artwork is still somewhat of a question mark to you, is there anything in particular that inspires it?

SN: My audience is my inspiration, they really keep me going. The incredible amount of people who send me DM’s being like “Hey, thanks! this is really helpful.” That helps me to continue to be insightful with the things that I’m learning on a daily basis and writing it down and then creating an image out of it. My art is for me, but a lot of it is for my audience.

TC: What do you think it is about your artwork that attracts people to it?

SN: I think people are drawn to it because it’s wildly relatable. My platform of choice is Instagram and while I think that Instagram has this really negative association, like a lot of people don’t like it. The app is kind of dying in a way because nobody wants to see a white chick with a big butt do exercises, like it’s just not relatable. But Instagram is also a tool for escape and I really like the idea that not everybody knows how to be holy and completely present or meditate or not be so hard on yourself.

I feel like the app has a negative tendency, so I’m really trying to do the best that I can  to flip that narrative on its head and use Instagram as a platform to teach people how to be completely present in the moment. I think that that’s the draw, that I’m teaching something new on the app that is not being done a lot yet. You know, why would anyone be anything other than authentic? I kept my face off of “Just Froget About It” for so long because again, I just didn’t want to be the white woman pushing mental health on you. So it’s just been recently that I’ve stopped being anonymous and put my face forward.

Painting isn’t all about painting, a lot of painting is about not painting.

TC: What’s your painting process like, from start to finish, do you have a specific routine?

SN: That’s a good question! It changes, I’ve noticed that the more I commit myself to learning something new, the more opportunities I have to give myself grace and it’s just really helped me be easier on myself. I started yoga around the same time that I started drawing the frog and when I practise doing it I usually hear things and then a little seed is planted in my head and then a week will go by and it’ll turn into a thing that I’ll write down really fast and create an image around that. For example, I’ll hear something like “failure isn’t real” from somewhere and then that turns into me googling research papers and then that will turn into imagery.

It really does change. To be a content creator means you have to consume a lot of content. So I’ll hear something after hours of scrolling through Tik Tok and be like “that was fucking genius! How can I make that mine?” I try to paint everyday but it doesn’t always happen. I always think about painting everyday. Painting isn’t all about painting, a lot of painting is about not painting. So it’s also about doing things like being in my art studio and thinking and being nice and listening to myself. When I first started the frog project on a daily basis I was willing to post something that I half liked, it was just more about putting something out on time. Whereas, now I’ve decided it’s more important to have good work instead of putting it out in a timely manner. 

Sarah Nilson looking forward to painting a new piece in her art studio

TC: You recently posted about the pressure to create and talk about mental health content for your audience even when sometimes you don’t feel like doing it- can you elaborate on that?

SN: I still really feel that pressure. It’s not any pressure that anybody has put on me, it’s just me. I just want to help because I feel like I’ve cultivated this really great space for healing and I want to keep giving back to that space but I am also multi dimensional. I do think that mental health and wellness means not having to constantly talk about your trauma, laughing is just as important.

I still really struggle with that, because I do want to make content that isn’t mental health related, I want to do stuff that’s pop culture related, but I’m scared I might lose some of my audience for doing that. I don’t really know how to work through that other than to just do it anyway. If something resonates with me and I feel like it will also resonate with my audience, then that will take higher priority than “oh I was inspired by this episode of Euphoria I’m going to paint something about it.” I might take that energy and put it into oil painting because I have created a brand and I want to keep it consistent. 

TC: A lot of artists struggle with branding themselves because they can lose themselves in becoming too commercial- how do you deal with that? 

SN: I try to compartmentalise the business Sarah and the creative Sarah. Just showing up and doing whatever I need to do creatively and then working on marketing and business separately. It’s a constant struggle figuring out how to balance those two things.

TC: What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far in your career as a painter?

SN: Getting out of the hustle culture mindset, I’m still really struggling with that. I’m used to thinking if I have a day off sitting still is fucking dumb and I should be doing something. This is your chance to get ahead, so work. Especially for creatives, a lot of painting is about taking in the world around you and doing things that feed your creativity. Even doing things that inspire me like going to an art museum or doing yoga, I still really struggle with letting myself do that. 

TC: What’s your favourite thing about being a painter?

SN: Everything! It’s just as awesome as I thought it was going to be. Nothing quite itches the scratch like being creative does. 

TC: You’re currently based in Austin, Texas- what’s your favourite thing about living there?

SN: The ceiling is much higher, there’s way more opportunity and creatives here and being weird is encouraged. Back in North Carolina I was always the weird one, whereas here in Austin I’m just myself.

TC: Do you think it’s important to be weird to be creative?

SN: I don’t think so, [laughs] I think being authentic to yourself, whatever that means,  is the most important thing. I don’t think I’m weird, everything I do makes perfect sense to me.

Give yourself permission to make bad work, it’s the only way to get through the ugly stage of anything.

TC: Do you have any advice for aspiring artists?

SN: Stay consistent, that’s probably the most important thing. Give yourself permission to make bad work, it’s the only way to get through the ugly stage of anything.

TC: What’s next for you? Do you have any upcoming projects we should be on the lookout for?

SN: I’ve got some collaborations coming up for a stuffed animal for the frog project and I’m currently working on a merchandise line. But my favourite part about my career and journey as an artist is I don’t know where all of this is going. I like to think of my career like that book “The House of Leaves” it’s about this house that continues to grow and it’s a really difficult read. I don’t think that anyone’s ever finished the book, because it’s so all over the place. I like to think of my career like that. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I do know that the road will continue to pave itself as long as I continue to do the work.

You can follow Sarah’s journey here :

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