When Brazilian transplant Renata Ocampo isn’t snuggling kittens and puppies at her day job as a manager for AtlasVet (lucky!), you can find her in one of two places: cranking out music with her band Warm Sun, or keenly stitching embroidered portraits for her friends, family, clients, and herself. Ocampo’s work is distinctive for the lifelike quality she brings to the faces of both celebs and non-celebs alike, often working from photographs to perfectly nail the curve of a smile or squint of an eye. She primarily works in black and white, but sneaks in flashes of color (see Ai Wei Wei’s ginger cat, above) here and there.
During our chat she tried to protest “I’m not creative!” but her works shows a clear understanding of the technical facets of creative work. Ocampo has only been embroidering for about two years, but you can follow her prodigious output on her constantly updated Instagram feed—or even take a beginner’s class with her at the creative space The Lemon Bowl.
1. How did you get your start embroidering and what encouraged you to keep going?
A few years ago I purchased an embroidery kit from this artist named Megan Eckman. It was one of those kits that comes with a design printed on the fabric and I really enjoyed working with thread and fabric. Shortly after that I started to experiment printing black and white pictures on fabric and stitching some details in colored thread. After getting better at using different embroidery techniques I moved onto drawing the designs myself and then transferring them onto fabric.
2. Can you describe how long the process takes to embroider a portrait and what it entails?
The entire process might take anywhere between 4-16 hours. First I decide on the picture that I’m going to use, which can take a while since not every picture transfers well to embroidery. After that I treat the image to be able to print it so that the lines are strong and definable. Then, I draw out the design onto a tracing sheet with a special pen that will later transfer on fabric.
This step is very important because once there’s pen on the fabric, there’s no way to fix it. So I try to keep it simple. After that I typically use thread as if it was a pencil, while looking at the original image as a reference. Some pieces might take longer than others due to the amount of hair and details that I want to add.
A photo posted by Renata Ocampo (@renata_ocampo) on
3. Your work is primarily done in black thread on a white background. What motivates you to work in that color scheme?
I use the maxim “less is more” in everything that I do. From drawing, to embroidery and even music. I like the subject of my art to be as clean and direct as possible. I do sometimes add a little color to details but not much more than that. I guess it’s just an aesthetic choice for most things to be really focused and clear.
4. Which portrait is your personal favorite and which commission was the most fun to work on?
My favorite portrait is the one I made of Nick Drake…. It probably took me a year to finish because I kept putting it down, but it ended up being the most rewarding.
Commissions are always so much fun! It’s so special to be part of the whole creative process and to make something that has so many sentiments to the commissioner. Most of them are a secret present to a loved one so I love to hear back about their reactions afterwards.
It has always been positive! Surprisingly, my favorite commissions were not portraits, but cars! They turned out really cool looking and it was so much fun to make them.
5. You teach an embroidery class at the Lemon Bowl. What steps do you recommend a beginner take if they want get into embroidery?
I think classes are a great way to start! When I started I had to learn all by myself and it was not easy. The embroidery kit helped, but there are so many tricks and tips that I learned over time that it would have been awesome if I had known them from start. I also feel like looking up to other embroidery artists is another great way to learn and be inspired.
6. What other creatives do you look to for inspiration?
I’m very inspired by everything. Movies, music, other artists… I will, for example, watch Trainspotting for the 10th time and all the sudden feel the need to stitch all the main characters. Some embroidery artists that I really like are on instagram as: @adipocere, @gisellequinto, @tinycup_, @sarahkbenning, and @coralandtusk. Check them out!
7. What’s your next creative adventure?
I started to experiment with a sewing machine. I would love to be able to make my own clothes and to embroider directly on them.