Stuart Macbeth meets an Artweeks debutante whose chosen field is paintings of cows

As Oxfordshire Artweeks returns for its 33rd year, more than 500 artists are preparing to participate throughout May.

The festival offers a spectacular variety of work in 400 or more studios, homes and makeshift galleries. One artist making their debut will be Melanie Charles, who studied at Banbury School or Art but gave up to be a full-time mum, then a secretary, receptionist and office manager before being inspired to pick up her brushes in 2013.

“We were on holiday in Cornwall when I saw some paintings of giant cows. I really wanted to buy one, but could not afford it. So I said to my husband, I’m going to paint one for myself when we get home. And I did. Mavis was born.” Mavis is a black and white Friesian. “Cows have such interesting faces,” says Melanie explains. “They look like gentle giants to me.”

Mavis is painted in close-up, as though peering into the lens of a camera. And instead of the quaint rural scenes you’d find in the cow paintings of an artist like Verboeckhoven, Melanie has framed hers with a vibrant, bright pink background.

Melanie’s friends were among the first to find the approach refreshing: “A friend asked me to paint one for her. And then another friend. Then I had some commissions for portraits of pets. I haven’t stopped painting since.”

Subsequent commissions include pigs, sheep, ducks, donkeys, horses, chickens, stags, reindeer, penguins, cats and dogs. All are done in a home studio; the spare bed-room of her family home.

She begins at 9.30am, after taking her children to school.

Accompanied by “lots of tea and music,” Melanie works primarily in acrylics, which she prefers as they dry quickly. Their immediacy enables her to make innovative use of social media, having a visual conversation about her work with followers on Facebook.

Melanie admits she’s not inspired by name artists and is “not the biggest fan of modern art.” She finds inspiration through interacting with local artists online. This approach enables her to contribute vivid updates on works in progress.

Through the day Melanie will take photographs, or compile time-lapse clips. She admits: “I have had people message me to say they have arranged their lunch hour so that they can catch up and see the next photo.”

Now her work can be seen at the Harrow Inn in Enstone, from May 2 to 10.

“The landlord has been amazing. The venue is perfect. The entire place is decorated in soft grey tones, so my big, bright, bold canvases look brilliant.”

Melanie and the landlord collaborated on how pictures would be hung: “We decided where and how many images to display. I have a large stone wall in the bar area that I am free to fill.

“It’s a tough decision to put your work out there for people to see. It’s so personal. I love each and every one of my characters.”

So how does she feel about putting her work up for sale?

“I have mixed feelings. I’m usually pleased it’s sold, but when it comes to handing over the paintings it feels like I'm selling my babies.”