Life & Culture

The art of adding sparkle

Model Lillie Bernie has built a business selling artworks via Instagram


For self-taught artist and model Lillie Bernie, social media has been a game-changer.

It has given the 27-year-old the opportunity to promote her work, free from the snobbery and sleaze she says she experienced in an industry tainted by “money and power”. Since she has made use of Instagram to sell her abstract canvases and personalised glitter prints, business has never been better — particularly over the pandemic.

“Instagram has made my career,” she says. “I would not have been able to do this without it. There is a lot of negative press around social media, but if you use it properly it’s great.

“It has made me self-sufficient. I don’t have to deal with the schmoozing or flirting, which is unfortunately part of the art world. All I wanted was freedom, without relying on an art dealer telling me what to do.”

Posting images and videos of her art work, she now has more than 26,000 followers on Instagram. A video of a “glitter shoot” she directed, received 4 million views on TikTok. Now, reality TV stars from Love Island to Made in Chelsea and The Only Way is Essex have shared Bernie’s work. With personalised glitter prints now making up the majority of her business, she has never been busier.

She never thought she would be in this position. After completing her A-levels, the former JFS student went on to read journalism at Leeds University in a bid to be a TV presenter.

“I then realised I hate the news,” she laughs. “Half of it is fake and it does not suit my personality at all.”

While her friends were getting “proper careers with proper salaries”, Bernie — who stands out with her striking blue eyes and long hair — focused on modelling. She went on to work for brands including Nivea, Boohoo, John Lewis and Harrods, spending two years after graduation travelling the world, from Bali to Greece and Spain.

“When I was getting good jobs, I was earning a good amount,” she says. “I thought, ‘how can I not take this?’ It was amazing for travelling.” But work, she says, was sporadic — and there was a lot of rejection.

“After two years of modelling, I wasn’t happy. The modelling industry is just so messed up. I was told I need to lose weight, they once pointed out a spot on my face and another time an agent told me to wear skirts, because ‘shorts don’t make your legs look nice’. I was just sitting around waiting for jobs, there was nothing else to do. I was so bored.”

Her father pointed out that the abstract painting she had made for her A-level qualification, which was hanging in their living room, was a talking point among guests.

“I am looking at it now,” she says. “It’s colourful, with sand and glue for texture. I used to only paint circles, because it represented being whole and complete.”

Her best friend was the first to pre-order a painting, shortly followed by a neighbour and family members. “I sold four paintings, before I had even made one.”

With the pre-order money, Bernie bought art material and equipment. She turned the living room at her family home in Willesden Green into a makeshift studio covered in plastic. “It looked like a crime scene.”

For the next year, she painted from home and experimented with materials before spotting an opportunity to rent a studio in Queen’s Park for £550 per month.

“It was a lot of money to me. I remember saying to my mum ‘I can’t afford this’. She told me I would find a way, so I took it.

“Once I got the studio, my parents re-decorated and I wasn’t allowed back in,” she laughs.

While still modelling, working at a gym from 5am and taking on odd jobs from administrative work to dog-walking and monitoring Kensington properties owned by a Saudi Arabian family, Bernie made time to work on her art. “I was knackered,” she says.

Using Instagram, she contacted fellow artists for advice on technique and how to create pieces with more texture. Meanwhile, she tried to get official representation from art agents and galleries.

“I was getting rejection on a daily basis, as both an artist and a model. It was so difficult to deal with,” she says. “At one stage, I felt that every direction of my life ended in rejection.

“I found the art world was really snobby, 100 per cent. You are not respected unless you have gone to art school. Everyone I spoke to would tell me to go and do a Masters in Art. They would ask: ‘Where do you sit in the art world?’.

“All I wanted to do was paint and sell my work. I remember thinking, ‘why is this so hard?’.”

At one stage, she accepted invitations to exhibitions from high-profile people which she naively thought were helpful gestures. “There was one guy who took me to an exhibition. He tried to kiss me, it was disgusting.

“I was more intimidated by the art world than modelling. I would say 85 per cent of people in the modelling world are professional, want you to be comfortable, creative and make images.

“But the art world has a different energy. There is a lot of money and power. I feel there is less respect. I was sick of being told I would not be taken seriously because I was a model.”

Since she started painting four years ago, Bernie’s aesthetic has evolved. She creates abstract canvases with texture and metallic colours that range from £500 to £1,500. To date, she has made 60 pieces. But over the past year, her personalised glitter prints have taken over, making up 85 per cent of her work, which is now sold internationally. “I am an artist, but I do also have a business mind,” she says.

In February 2020, she covered a friend’s wedding photo in “glitter diamonds”.When she gave her friend the present, she was “shocked” by her reaction.

“She loved it so much she cried,” says Bernie, whose prints range from £65-£295. “After one fashion influencer shared my work, I received 20 orders that day,” she says. “I now get videos of people reacting to the prints. The point of art is to make people feel. It’s the most rewarding thing.”

Bernie is still modelling, recently taking part in a Converse campaign for Sports Direct. “I need to be stimulated creatively,” she says. “I love what I do.”

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