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As a child, I had always been interested in drawing and painting. I received a small Winsor & Newton watercolour paint box one Christmas – the one which has the little half pans, and the lid acts as a palette. I loved that set and used it to create small paintings of windmills, rivers and old buildings.
When I was at primary school, one of my teachers, Mrs Watts, encouraged me to create an A1-size pastel drawing (because they were the only art materials available!) of Ely Cathedral. That drawing clearly stuck in the memory of one of my classmates; a few years ago, they got in touch with me on social media, having not spoken to each other in over 20 years. They had remembered me as the kid who had drawn the picture of Ely Cathedral… at that point, I realised how powerful and memorable art can be, and it provided the impetus to keep going.
I studied GSCE Art & Design and continued into the Sixth Form, studying this alongside Graphic Design and Geography. After finishing my first year, my parents sold our house, and we moved to East Cambridgeshire from West Norfolk, where I’d grown up alongside my two brothers and sister. Geographically it was only 30 miles away, but unfortunately, trying to find a Sixth Form that provided the same syllabus and would accept me having already completed a year of study was too big a hurdle to climb, so thanks to a friend of my dad, I started full-time work at 18 years old.
In the summer of 2000, I met my future wife, Susie, when the company I worked for moved out of central Cambridge into a beautifully restored 500-year-old barn in a small Cambridgeshire village. My job took up most of my time, but now and again, friends and family would ask for a commission or buy a painting I’d shown them, but it was still very much a hobby.
We got married in 2002, and then the arrival of our children led to a busy, full, and wonderful life as a family, and eventually, through three other jobs, I ended up working for the National Trust. Here I could combine my love of architecture, the natural world and project management in a job where I absolutely thrived. I had started to paint more regularly and posted my work online. However, after contracting glandular fever, I was signed off work with what started as exhaustion. That was in March 2014, and I never returned to a full-time role.
I’d signed up to participate in Cambridge Open Studios 2014, but to do so, you had to apply by December 2013. At that point, I had no idea what was about to happen. I had great support from my wife’s family, who manned my little exhibition on the farm where we live for most of the time, which allowed me to participate for short periods, and I managed to sell 19 paintings across the two weekends I exhibited. It was also the first year I created a calendar of my Fenland watercolour paintings, which sold really well. I have continued to produce a calendar every year since, and I’m told they’ve been given as gifts to people in Canada, South America, Europe, South Africa, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand! This was a massive encouragement, but my health continued to get worse. Eventually, I was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (also known as M.E.) and was dismissed from my job due to ill health in June 2015, exactly four years after starting the job.
After what started out as an incredibly difficult period of our lives, where I was bedridden for months and then needed a walking stick to assist me, eventually, I started to paint again and I started to sell more work. After losing my job, I became self-employed as an artist – a leap of faith that things would improve.
My work started to take on a particular focus; living in the Fens of East Anglia, and with month after month spent lying on the bed or sitting on the sofa, I had time to watch the clouds as they moved across the sky. Evenings were spent watching the sun set over this vast landscape of flat fields, a kaleidoscope of colour in the clouds as the light pierced the often slow-moving bank of clouds just above the horizon. With the sun setting, it gave me hope for a better day tomorrow, another opportunity to see things improve a little more. Months and months of observing soon took on a deep emotional meaning for me. This also started to be reflected in the titles of my work. Often, I would express a particular feeling I experienced looking at a particular sky, and I began to write prose as a title. The owner of one of the galleries I now show in once told me he loved my painting titles, but they were really difficult to squeeze onto a gallery label!
My techniques developed because of my illness; with little strength to hold a brush steady, I tried using a palette knife out of necessity. I wanted to paint but became frustrated with needing to rest my arm after just a few minutes. A palette knife enables me to work really quickly over a large area, with just one movement of the arm. Suddenly, I found I could create texture, movement and expression in my paintings like I’d never done before, and the frustration soon disappeared.
As my health slowly improved, I was approached to lead workshops at a local art shop in Newmarket. This was a big ask, but with careful planning, and making sure I rested before the event, I led my first acrylic workshop in 2017. I think I even surprised myself with what the students achieved! Soon I was leading these palette-knife acrylic workshops regularly, and this led to me being contacted by other local art groups to lead sessions. Keen to keep my hand in with watercolour painting, I soon also led workshops in this fantastic medium, and they are still running today.
When I found myself stuck at home and with little energy, I started to explore YouTube for art videos; whether it was learning how to paint in oils, how to stretch a canvas or how to frame a watercolour, I developed new skills and understanding that have stood the test of time.
One of the skills I developed was drawing with coloured pencil, particularly wildlife. I spent hours upon hours watching how to use the techniques required to layer the pencils, how to draw in detail and how to create highlights using erasers and tools. Eventually, a gallery in Suffolk contacted me asking if I’d like to sell my wildlife drawings with them; six years later, we still to work together, and I’m pleased to say the drawings continue to sell.
I’m often asked why I don’t stick with one medium like many other artists do. My answer is that I get bored too quickly! Because I have had to work out how to create with little energy, I’ve needed to diversify according to my energy levels. If I don’t have the strength to stand at an easel, I’ll sit and draw with a board on my lap; if I can sit at a table, I’ll use watercolours, and if I can use an easel, I’ll create a canvas with acrylics. This makes my professional practice exciting and keeps me on my toes. More recently, I’ve started using oil paints now that I have a studio shed where I can have the door open for ventilation. Another bonus of a having a studio is that I can leave out my art materials every day. Having a dedicated space is a must if this is your full-time job, especially so you don’t have to worry about getting paint on the living room carpet!
Having now been a full-time artist for seven years, I feel my purpose has changed over time. I’ve seen a shift from being focused on being a gallery artist towards teaching others, whether it’s school children or adults, about the joy and satisfaction that comes from art.
Being a creative person is deep within all of us, and I see it as my calling in life to inspire, to lead and to provide a release and a sense of peace when people see my work or take part in a workshop. I want others to realise that there is more to life than work, stress, worry and strife; that it’s ok to leave your troubles at the door and spend a few hours creating, chatting, enjoying the company of others and being pleased with what you’ve created. That, to me, means far more than selling a painting. I hope I can continue to do this for many more years!