Ex-swimmer who chased Olympic dream now paints wild animals for a living

A talented swimmer from Leicester gave up her 10 year dream of competing at the Olympics and transformed her side-hustle of painting pet portraits into a full-time living. Danielle Tomlinson, 24, used the lockdown to find her passion and now has over 11,000 followers on Instagram.

During her sporting career, the Danes Hill resident won a national gold medal, broke three long standing records for Leicestershire and was a finalist in the World, Commonwealth and Olympic British trials. However during the pandemic the part-time painter decided to leave the pool behind.

The Leicester talent focuses on painting animals due to her love for wildlife and thanks the lockdown for helping her get where she is now. She said: “Strangely, the pandemic helped me kick-start my career. I used to be Danielle the swimmer and I’m not anymore.”

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Danielle graduated in sports science at Loughborough University in 2020, just as coronavirus was taking grip on the planet. She told Leicestershirelive : “The pandemic had just begun and everyone was at home, on their phones or trying to use their spare cash to decorate or upscale things around the home.

“Then as I sat there applying for jobs that didn’t interest me, I thought why not take my university side hustle and make it into something bigger. I gave myself three months to make my hobby something bigger and with my family’s support, the rest is history.”

The athlete said she had been swimming since the age of four and was “all sported out”. Her £40 pen portraits of pets have now turned into larger than life paintings of lions, gorillas, otters, bears and endangered animals.

Her work hails a contemporary and urban style through the use of spray paint and acrylic to “breath personality” into her subjects. At the minute she creates original pieces but also accepts commission requests.

She said: “I started swimming quite young and then competitively from the age of 10. Originally I had the Olympic dream.

“But I had done it for so long by the time I graduated I felt a little suffocated by it. My family just asked me to see if I could make it.

“I thought lets go bigger and that’s when things really kicked off. Within two months I was able to make a full-time living.

‘The one I can’t have’ – A spray and acrylic piece of a lion painted earlier this year.
(Image: DANIELLTOMLINSONART)

“My Olympian friends have shared my work too, which has helped a lot, but somewhere down the line people just wanted more and more. I’m at a point now that I’m turning commissions away. I’ve learnt that its just as important as saying no, as it is to say yes.

“It’s quite nice to be able to say I can refuse work now but it just shows how much I’ve managed to get things going in such a short period of time. Its a bit crazy now if I’m honest, I send work to the US every week pretty much so hopefully it keeps going.”

Danielle said her love for animals also started at a young age, gaining inspiration from her parents. She said: “My parents have always loved animals as it is. But my mum worked as a vet receptionist and was always bringing home strays, and part of that has always stuck with me.

“I visited South Africa for swimming at the age of 16 and I’ve also been to California where I visited Yosemite. I saw all the different types of animals there, like cougars and bears and I was just so inspired.

“Every time I travel I realise that the natural world is amazing. Especially in an era where everyone is attached to their phones. From bears to orangutans, I have built up such an appreciation for all living things. My mission at the minute is to try and make people aware of our animals – I hope I succeed.”

Danielle will be exhibiting her work at a gallery at the end of Summer. Details will be released via her social media in due course. She will also have a series of prints available for purchase by the end of April. For further information visit her website here and to follow her journey, click here.

Leicestershire Live – Leicester News