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The sculptural nature of waves and blooms captivated artist Alison Gilmour as a child growing up in Auckland, New Zealand. But before she took to the canvas with oils, there were shampoo bottles to design, tamarillos to paint and a pilot’s licence to acquire.

Alison Gilmour can happily paint for eight hours straight without break when she’s absorbed in a painting. Her easel looks out to pohutukawa and totara branches that brush her windows. Husky Ghost dozes at her feet (the occasional victim of a splash of oil paint). “It does get hot in here in summer so I have to fling all the windows open, but then I can hear the people next door jumping in their pool which is a bit tortuous.”


Alison paints from a studio above her Auckland home set against native bush. Her paints are kept in a tool chest next to her canvases– she’ll often have more than one painting on the go. A watercolour portrait of a young woman hangs on one wall. “An ancestor of mine, Sir Luke Fildes, painted her. He painted King Edward VII and illustrations for Charles Dickens in Victorian times, too. I like having it up there as an aspirational reminder.” A parachute hangs on a line strung across the middle of the room. Her partner Colin is an avid skydiver who’s completed more than 2000 skydives, though Alison says she hasn’t been tempted yet. 


Days spent in her studio result in photo-realistic, large-scale paintings of flowers and New Zealand sea and landscapes. But it was fruit that got her hooked. She bought a set of acrylics after attending a local art class one night in Mairangi Bay. “I just wanted to see if I could do it. So I did tropical still life: a pear, an apricot, a tamarillo, an apple, and I thought ‘hey, that’s not bad’, so I kept going.”


Alison grew up in Devonport, where her passion for nature was seeded. “I loved watching waves. They’re so sculptural, the way light dances behind them before they break, I could look at them for hours.” She always enjoyed drawing, but with a medical family – her dad was the local pharmacist and her mum a nurse – Alison assumed she’d head into a science-related field. 

But the courses she wanted were offered at Otago and she wasn’t ready to fly the nest. “I ended up doing a graphic design diploma at AUT, so that’s where my destiny went.” She took on her first gig at a plastic bottle company in Northcote designing labels for shampoo and cosmetics after graduating. After a few years in advertising, a stint in the UK followed working in various graphic design studios and an in-house studio for a restaurant/hotel company. 


Settling back in New Zealand in the early 90’s, she decided to learn how to fly. “I was living in Hamilton at the time, and my boyfriend was a workaholic beekeeper, so I thought, ‘what am I going to do now?’ I decided to get my pilot’s licence and I loved it.” Alison flew regularly to Great Barrier Island, hovering at 2000-3000ft above sea level to admire white stretches of coastline.


A desire to capture the scenery she’d seen both aerially and on-land propelled her to paint. “Graphic design is quite stressful, there’s a lot of deadlines so I didn’t really have a lot of time to paint. I think I just reached a time in my life where I felt called to do it.”


That calling led her to a chance meeting with New Zealand landscape painter Tim Wilson in 2007. By that time she’d started showing her work at exhibitions in Auckland and Wellington, mainly her seascapes. “I met him at a Christmas party in Auckland through a girlfriend of mine and talked to him about what I was doing. I said, ‘if you were me, what would you do?’ And he said I needed to switch to oils instead of acrylics.” Alison was teaching herself to paint at that point, so asked if she could pick Tim’s brains sometimes.


“He said yes and gave me his card, in fact he was living around the corner from me at that stage in Auckland, but it took me two years to get up the courage to ring him up. He remembered me though, and we became really good friends.” Alison began travelling to Queenstown every couple of months to learn how to use oils with the mentorship of Tim. 


Her work is currently displayed alongside Tim's and one other New Zealand artist’s work, Anita May Blanchett, at his gallery in Queenstown. Travels to the Kapiti Coast, Martinborough and Great Barrier are among places that have inspired her work. “I get out and snap photos whenever I see something I like. Special places in my heart though like Matapouri Bay I think produce special paintings.” As for flowers: "I think it could be the texture of them. Like waves, they’re sculptural and so naturally beautiful.” 


Currently peonies are blooming on her kitchen table in varying shades of pink. She’ll photograph the flowers each day for a week as they open their heads to compose the perfect arrangement to paint. A florist at the flower truck La Femme Fleur in Cox’s Bay arranges the blooms for Alison. “She’ll make them look all loose and lovely. Then I take loads of photos of them each day as they open and combine them in Photoshop until I have the look I want to paint.”


Alison says she has plenty of bodies of work in her head she wants to paint, she just has to work out which to do first. There’s a photograph Tim’s taken of a stream with a beech forest waiting to be painted, and her newest arrangement of flowers in a vase on her mum’s old embroidered tablecloth. “I wanted to paint the texture of it, it called out to me. There’s something beautiful about combining the old with the freshness of new blooms, too.”

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