“How long does it take you to do a painting” This is a question that I am asked over and over again, “I don’t really know” is the usual answer to which I often get a quizzical look or a wry smile, I get the impression that the person believes I have something to hide but I don’t its just that I usually have three or four paintings on the go at any one time and with the process involved in oil painting it is not on my mind to record how long each takes to complete, I suppose the question is just a way of striking up a conversation. I have never found it easy to discuss my work and more so in the early years, I suppose by spending long hours of isolation in my studio painting you tend to lose the art of conversation. I know some artists who can talk about their work forever and it always amazes me that people stay to listen but it has also made me aware that people are interested in what we do and who we are.
I was not born with a brush in my hand I never touched one until 1992. I was born in Accrington in 1957 and left school sixteen years later without a qualification to my name, I did not like school but I suppose art should have been a subject that I excelled in but I didn’t have any interest in what they had to teach, you could say the school failed me by not unearthing the natural talent hidden within, or you could say I failed myself, either way it went unnoticed. I left school without a plan, I had never even heard of unemployment benefit until a friend told me I could get it. Fortunately in those days you could walk into a job on any given day so I was soon working in a store loading bay, this I hated and I was soon sacked. I started labouring for an old guy who was a builder and I learnt to carry the hod this led to me working with my best mate at the time and his father who were brick layers and for the next ten years I was a hod carrier, although the work was very physically demanding I loved it and I was a natural. Eventually like all good things it came to an end, the gang split up and at 31 I knew it was time for me to hang up my boots so to speak, I had seen many Hod Carriers over the years who had gone on far too long and it had made old men of them before their time. I started working for a removal company and it was while doing this that I met a man who would change the direction of my life forever.
I was tasked with delivering a piano to an address not far from where I lived myself and as we were halfway in through the patio doors I noticed some paintings on the wall, I passed some positive comment and the guy replied “put your hand in your pocket they are all for sale” Once the piano was in place I looked at the paintings and at his studio, it transpired he was an artist called Steven Townsend. I left the house in a state of near shock and amazement, I had seen in those few minutes my future although at the time I didn’t know it. For the next two weeks I could not get that meeting out of my mind and eventually I plucked up the courage to return to Steve’s house, as he opened the door I just blurted out “I want to do what you do” after the surprise had left his face he invited me in and we discussed the situation, I left with the task of producing two paintings which I would show him and he would give me an honest answer there and then as to whether it was worth my while carrying on. I painted a Merlin and a Peregrine and took them back some weeks later and he obviously saw something for he told me to carry on. From that moment I would be working eight to ten hours a day then rushing home to paint for an hour or two in order to improve, my work was suffering due to my heart not being in it, I was going through the motions and ultimately this led to the sack, thinking back I now know my boss did me a favour although my wife didn’t think so at the time for it was Christmas eve and we had a young family.
Professional wildlife artist, sounds great but at the beginning it was very difficult and had it not been for the selflessness of my wonderful wife Michelle I would not have been able to pursue a career that for certainly the first fifteen years was like living a dream, however I must point out it resembles in no way painting as an hobby, there is pressure, sometimes for me every brush stroke is a battle and self motivation is essential you just cannot go through the motions, you strive to always improve and your standards must always be maintained.
At first I was naturally influenced by Steven Townsend and he became a good friend and still is to this day, he was always there with bits of advice but he would never teach me always stating that I had to learn myself, I would be a little frustrated and thought he was deliberately keeping things from me but now I understand where he was coming from, I owe him a lot.
There have also been others, Carl Brenders the Belgian artist was for a long time my favourite and Robert Bateman who’s work I still love, Michael Dumas and David Kassan the figurative artist from New York I would learn from them all but it was the light in the work of Chris Rose that showed me the way, this was the one ingredient that my work needed to take it to the next level, it is also the ingredient that many artists fail to recognise.
Just recently I have been thinking about how I see myself as an artist, by just concentrating on wildlife you get categorized and that is restrictive for I see myself as a painter and that should involve painting whatever subject you feel inspired by at the time. Portraiture and still life have been interesting me lately and inspired by the work of American artist David Gray I decided to diversify. I am enjoying it a lot, it has taken me back to when I first began in terms of the excitement I now feel when I pick up a brush. It is also a new learning curve which cant be a bad thing.
In 2007 I became involved with the RSPB in the Bowland fells an upland area given over mainly to the pursuit of driven Grouse shooting, here I would be involved as a volunteer monitoring breeding raptors with the Hen Harrier, Peregrine, Merlin and the Short-eared Owl being the key species. In 2012 I had a big decision to make, I had been offered the job as assistant project officer with the RSPB in Bowland a contract that would last for five months during the breeding season from March to the end of July, after much thought I decided to take it. This has been a big change in direction and although I am still painting for seven months of the year it has still took some getting used to. I think it has been good for me in a way for I had not been in love with painting for some years and this has given me a new lease of life and come August I am now eager to paint.
Painting has been a massive part of my life and while I am able to pick up a brush and see what I am doing I will continue but I cant help thinking that had conservation been an option while I was at school I believe that this would have been my chosen career path, in a way I have been very lucky for I have been able to realise an hidden talent and follow my heart into conservation and I suppose it could easily have been someone else who delivered that piano.