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I made the decision to start on the path to becoming a professional artist when I was 18. I was already at art school undertaking a Datec Diploma in exhibition and display design, but I didn’t feel inspired by that area of commercial art. Don’t get me wrong it was fun to do, but it just wasn’t me.
I was much more intrigued by the fine art department headed by David Drummond-Milne and co-taught by Jeff Johnson and Richard Archer. All three of these artist tutors created fascinating, world-class artworks. Dave and Jeff made breathtakingly detailed watercolours painted on copper plate coated in acrylic gesso, whilst Richard made disquieting small-scale sculptures encased in Victorian glass domes. These inspiring tutors had an energy and enthusiasm for their subject which I found infectious. I had heard that occasionally they would help students they felt had a talent worth nurturing, giving their time outside their teaching hours. But this privilege had to be earned by showing you had a solid work ethic by making art on your own initiative. So I spent my free time painting and drawing, creating artwork I hoped they would find interesting. Eventually, I succeeded in attracting their attention with a series of watercolour self-portraits.
My goal was to get into university to study Fine Art. For a kid who had left school with 3 ‘O’ levels, this wasn’t going to be straightforward. I would soon be completing my design Diploma and was told that an A level in Art and Design would also be entered alongside it, but I still needed several more qualifications to meet the University entry criteria. They advised me to sign up for a couple of extra ‘O’ levels and start ‘A level Art History’ at night class, plus attend life drawing classes. I mainly painted at home and travelled into college a couple of days a week to draw and get feedback on my progress. Because of my tutors’ love of watercolour, I spent a good deal of time working with this medium as well as painting with oils.
My tutors all spoke in one voice regarding what your art should be:
“It should reflect you, who you are, what you are interested in, how you see the world.”
Beginning to earn a living
In that academic year I did manage to get into Newcastle University to study Fine Art and for the next four wonderful years, I revelled in that rarefied world of academia. But all good things must come to an end. Now I had to earn a living! I began by teaching watercolour and drawing. First for art clubs and then for Newcastle University’s extra mural department. In time I had made enough of a name as a watercolour tutor to be teaching up to twelve lessons a week for five different education providers. Sometimes I changed venue three times a day. As well as this, I picked up some work as a demonstrator working at trade fairs, but my favourite gig was demonstrating painting methods in museums.
Making art has always run alongside my teaching. I exhibited widely in the North East in the spaces available to exhibitors. Starting off with a one man show in an advertising agency I eventually gravitated to showing in museums and public access galleries.
Fascinated by watercolour
The fascination with watercolour, started by my tutors, has never left me. I have devoted much of my career as an artist and tutor to exploring what the medium can do and tried to push the boundaries of how we see watercolour. I initially followed my tutors’ examples working in miniature to later developing and painting giant seascapes that were eight feet by four on huge rolls of watercolour paper. It’s been a relentless quest to become a true watercolour expert, so I can be fully eloquent when I put brush to paper and hopefully speak with a unique voice. This journey has been shared, to a large extent with my learners. They have enthusiastically followed by explorations into the more obscure aspects of using watercolour and cheerfully tried a multitude of stylistic approaches with me. This has helped make many of my students become watercolourists with a very broad skill set. I have made many friends along the way and I’ve made long lasting friendships with many of my students.
For some artists it can be a lonely road locked away in their studio day after day. My life as an artist and tutor has been a sociable one, very much enriched by the people I have met and spent time with. Jeff once said to me
“whatever you do … don’t spend all your time being an artist, you need people to have truly rich life”