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In the 1990s, I had a traumatic time due to mental health and depression. It turned out that I am bi-polar, though fortunately, not on the most extreme side. I now take meds, which make me as normal as I’m ever going to be. At the time, I thought I should be thankful to have my own business and be able to make a decent living. Unfortunately, I wasn’t happy, though I didn’t understand why. Then came the crash, which I won’t go into. It was sudden and left me unable to do much work for a couple of years. There was little choice but to sell my business and look for pastures new. Art eventually provided the solution, and today I am a professional who is able to put food on the table from painting and teaching. But this wasn’t the first time that creativity had a significant impact on my mental health and wellbeing.
Being different isn’t necessarily something a young teenager wants to be. I certainly didn’t. But I was. It felt like there wasn’t a place for someone like me, especially as a difficult home life took its toll. Of course, I pretended to be part of the ‘in crowd,’ but underneath lurked a very different person. My moods were up and down and I suffered bouts of insecurity. The only time I was truly happy was sitting in my bedroom playing the guitar. That was, until I won the art prize and got to stand on stage during assembly and receive a handshake and ‘well done,’ from a normally fearsome headmaster. The actual prize I received wasn’t important, it was the recognition I needed that mattered.
Soon after, my mum and dad came home from a parent-teacher meeting. They couldn’t make their mind up whether to be happy or angry with me. The positive part was being told by an art teacher that I was very good at drawing and painting. So much so that I should consider a career as a commercial artist. On the flip side, English and Maths received a scathing review. I now know that I have mild dyslexia and get a bit mixed up with some letters and numbers – I have to get my wife to check painting sizes and order the right frames.
Writing has long been a ghost from that period, which has haunted me over the years. Yet, I’ve always had a secret hankering to tell stories with words as well as paint. During lockdown, I plucked up the courage to give it a go and managed to write a novel – with the help of an editor and mentor. I wrote 75,350 words to be exact, a number that I can recount with pride. Since then, I’ve had two short stories accepted for publication and a second novel is on the way.
Doing this in the evenings and painting during the day helped to minimise what could have been a serious bout of depression arising from worries about the impact of Covid on picture sales. But, once again, creativity came to my rescue and in the end, I sold enough work to keep the wolf from the door.
Having studied at art college in the ‘70s, my longing was to be a full-time painter. However, the place I attended was focused on abstract rather than the figurative stuff I wanted to do. For three years, I fought back against very harsh criticism. In the end, my mental health suffered again and I lost my self-belief and didn’t paint for 15 years. The most valuable thing I learned was how not to teach in workshops and the importance of know-how, positive thinking, and confidence to do more.
When I finally picked up a paintbrush again, I was nervous, and it took several years to learn the techniques I now use in order to create paintings I liked. During my illness, art became my saviour. I realised that making money in a job I hated was a waste of my life and decided to take the plunge and try to become a full-time artist. It was the best decision I ever made, despite the worry about paying bills. Painting gave me respite from the dark periods and growing confidence made me feel valid as a person. When clients commissioned a portrait or I sold a painting, it was so rewarding – someone actually loved my pictures enough to put them on their wall. To this day I get a warm fuzzy feeling that has nothing to do with being paid. I’m sure everyone remembers the first picture they sold and the joy it brought. I certainly do.
One painting, the main one shown here, made a huge difference. It is a self-portrait painted at a really bad time. I used to find it hard to get out of bed and face the day. As such, I stared out of the window at a scrawny tree in the garden and we became good friends!
I set up a camera in the bedroom and asked my wife to take a picture whenever she came into the room. It took several weeks to get a photo where I didn’t realise it was happening. This was important because it avoided a posed shot. Three things came out of this. First, I talked to the painting as I worked. It was a liberating experience, and I learned a great deal about myself. Second, whenever I feel down, I look at the picture and it reminds me how lucky I am to have escaped that period. Third, which you may find strange, I exhibit it whenever the opportunity arises. This is because I believe sharing mental health issues is very important. As you will realise from this, I have no problem talking about my past problems. It makes some people uncomfortable, and others can’t understand why I am prepared to expose myself in that way, but I’m never daunted.
One of the most valuable things I have learned is just how many people struggle in secret. I can’t count the number of times someone has told me that they have mental health issues when seeing the picture. It is like a confessional, and I’m able to offer as much solace and encouragement as I can. It also demonstrates the power that art can have.
The interesting part is that many of those people are artists. I now believe that the ups and downs we face when making art are often inherent in creativity – and necessary. To feel inspired, we need something to measure it against in order to appreciate achievements. As such, being uninspired is the counter-balance. I frequently feel both, which means, despite being a professional, I am no different to anyone reading this.
Mental health doesn’t necessarily equate to depression. For some artists, it manifests itself as low confidence and self-belief. This can be debilitating and I take my hat off to those who find the courage to keep producing artworks. So many times I have seen posts on the SAA Facebook page from people who are fearful of showing their work or even of calling themselves an artist. Fortunately, there are lovely people who write encouraging comments to persuade those who doubt themselves to do it. The lesson we can all take from this is that we readily see the merits in others’ work, while seeing the opposite in our own.
As an aside, I want to say something about the word, ‘artist.’ Anyone who picks up a pencil, paintbrush or whatever medium they prefer, is an artist. There is no exam, criteria or rule book to say otherwise. Expressing yourself in any way you choose makes you an artist. Whatever your mental state, I can’t recommend highly enough working on a self-portrait. Yes, it can be a bale due to the issues raised, but it can also be an opportunity to explore our inner self.
Why are some artists reticent to do this? I believe there can be several reasons: concern about what others think, both in terms of likeness and a worry of looking vain. Uncertainty about the context – the happy side of our personality that we want others to see, or an expression of how we might feel. This is a question my commission clients sometimes wrestle with.
Do they want to be painted how others see them, how they see themselves, or how they want to be seen? Next is the fear of exposing the person underneath, given expressing vulnerabilities can still, in this day and age, be interpreted as a sign of weakness by some ignorant individuals. Finally, body image. There have been countless articles written about the subject, as it is one of the most hurtful ways human beings can judge each other. Fortunately, there are signs of some improvement such as featuring fewer thin models, with the stereotypical ‘perfect body,’ in adverts. But, there is still a long way to go. As artists, however, we have long appreciated and enjoyed drawing the fuller figure and interesting faces. It is such a shame that we don’t always recognise the sculptural beauty of our own bodies and value the character in our faces.
I’ve included a still-life painting that was done immediately after I lost my dad. The objects represent his life and interests. If you would like to create something about yourself, but don’t want to paint a face, why not put together a composition that tells your life story. Or anyone else’s for that matter. It is a wonderful legacy.
I was once given a mug with the words ‘told you so,’ printed on the side. It was meant ironically by my staff, at least I took that to be the case! At the time I was in a good place and learning my painting trade on weekends, so I decided to produce something with a touch of humour. My wife took the photo and skilfully brought out the look, which, evidently, I took on when being a smart Alec!
From a more serious perspective, this was the side of me that friends and colleagues saw—the humorous, fun guy brimming with enthusiasm and self-belief. Most were surprised in years to come to discover the gremlin behind the mask. Today, I count myself lucky to be reacquainted with the old me and able to share my enthusiasm with others. Art has had a major part to play in this.
This picture came about after my father passed away. I was always told how much I looked like him and the mannerisms we shared. Thinking about this, I realised one of the things we both did was stare into the distance as a means of contemplation. Many is the time I have been asked to snap out of whatever is consuming my thoughts and to pay attention. So, I decided to paint the picture with that in mind, as I had previously painted one of my dad doing something similar. I stopped at the underpainting, having decided it conveyed everything I wanted to say. This raises an important point.
‘Finishing’ a painting, particularly a self-portrait, shouldn’t be the main objective. Once the story has been told, it is complete. As with a lot of my self-portraits, this picture had a purpose and the link between us was all that was needed.
The sequence of pictures shows the wipe-off process I use for chiaroscuro-type work. This one is more contrived, though there is still something of the philosophical about it. Anyway, I was lucky enough to have a model with film-star looks on hand! It doesn’t have to be for public display. It can be a very private piece of work designed for you to have a chat with yourself
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This article was originally published in Paint & Create magazine July 2022 edition, with Paint and Create being one of the many perks of SAA Membership.