Colin has been a professional artist since 1982 and something unique to this site is Colin’s Art Story. The following is written by Colin himself, giving all of his students and friends an insight to how he got started.
This page is going to be devoted to telling my own story. I am going to explain the influences in my life that has led to a very happy 30 years as a professional artist and tutor. This is not however going to be an autobiography as I intend to keep on track and only include references that are relevent to my art career. I am going to relay this in chapters and these will be added as frequently as I can.
The Story Begins…
As far back as I remember I have always like drawing but I was never very good at it as a youngster. My art lessons at school were non eventful but I still enjoyed painting, drawing and the other art related activities. I certainly enjoyed them more than my academic studies; I was never destined to become a great scholar.
An incident at secondary school was to have a profound effect on me and has stayed with me all these years. My art teacher, Mr Senior was very much a ‘new age’ thinker and always favoured those students who painted weird and wonderful pictures. My paintings reflected life as I saw it and could never understand the ‘squiggles’ and weird abstract shapes that were being passed for art. I remember one time during an art session I had drawn a firework night scene including several people, a bonfire and fireworks exploding, I was very pleased with myself until Mr Senior viewed it. To say he slated it was an understatement and made it very clear that I would never make an artist. This did upset me and I what he said stayed with me for nearly 30 years.
My next brush with art memory was at my place of work. I used to enjoy drawing cartoons and whenever there was an event that merited some art work they called on me to provide it. The finished cartoon was displayed on the notice board and was a great focus of amusement to all the staff and visitors. Some of the content I am now slightly ashamed of but I did not feel that way at the time. I do remember that my artwork was no big deal and I would never have though that one day it was going to make me a living. Mostly I drew pictures using graphite pencils I don’t have any memory of using colour at all although I might well have done. One thing that does stand out in my memory was that my workmates like the big bosoms I drew on the ladies in my pictures so I cashed in on that rather too much, again I am not that proud of that snippet of information either now. Looking back on those days I can see that the practice and encouragement could have been the start of my interest. Non more so that the admiration of my fellow workmates kind of started to give me confidence that had been taken away from me by my art teacher at school.
The next step in my art awareness was to draw pictures for my children. Like all parents I wanted to show off to my kids and they thought I was great and challenged me to all sorts of weird and wonderful subjects. One thing that really stands out and was very challenging was the time my son came home and asked me to draw a Dinosaur for his class. He had told his teacher of my skills, bless him and said that he was sure I would be able to help them. This stretched me a bit because not only was this picture going to be seen by lots of children but teachers as well; could I still get away with it. I worked hard on the picture and when it was finished I thought it was pretty good and was very pleased when I heard that it had been well received but everyong, including the teachers. From then on I was encouraged to draw more and more for my children and I also found developed into an interesting hobby for me to. It seems strange now that before that time I had never considered drawing for myself although I did enjoy the action and application of drawing. At this time I can’t remember using paints very often and if I did then it was from the children’s watercolour boxes.
The next episode concerning my art awareness I can remember was a series of art programmes on television with an artist called Nancy Kominsky. She painted in oils and had a very loose style using a palette knife. I brought some oil paints and her book and had a go. I enjoyed using the medium, although I did not like the smell of the turps, and though I had done a fair job. I showed one of the pictures to a couple of friends and their comments were not at all flattering. I had painted a still life which included a bunch of grapes, my friends though that they were brussell sprouts and were not impressed with the rest of the paining as well. The picture went in the bin and I gave up on the idea after that.
5. It was during a casual conversation about hobbies that was to be the very beginning of the sequence of events that was to lead me to my new found career. A friend of mine mentioned that he made bone china birds as a hobby and as I showed some interest offered to show me the process he uses. The visit interested me so much that I agreed to try my hand at it under his watchful eye. I could not quite get the hang of it so ended up helping him by producing the original models in Plastercine and helping him paint them after they were fired. Very soon I was also designing them too and during this process I used coloured pencils to colour them in. He though that the pictures were good and that I should paint a few pictures of birds in their settings. I enjoyed this and very soon extended my painting to other subjects and my friend was surprised at the results telling me that I really didn’t know just how good they were. He was right I did not.
My Friend suggested that I visit local art shows to compare my paintings with what was on show. He said that he felt that it was the only way I would come to accept that I had some talent. After visiting several art shows I had to admit whilst most of the paintings on show were miles better than mine there were certainly many that were not. This gave me the spur that I needed and set about painting a variety of subjects but mainly concentrating on local landmarks. I had seen many other artists had done this successfully judging by the red dots on these type of paintings at the art shows. It was during this period that my life turned upside down. My wife was being treated for a cancerous mole on her arm and the cancer spread to other areas very quickly. She died in 1980 aged 36 and my world and that of my two children came tumbling down.
In the period following my wife’s passing I threw myself into my artwork with a passion. I found for me it was a way I was able to cope with the pain and loss. For about a year I painted a great many pictures giving them away to family and friends After this time I was getting more confidence and building my own collection of techniques. Not only was I enjoying my new hobby but I was getting better at it. It was suggested to me that I consider framing some of my pictures and entering them in local exhibitions. The thought of that scared me and I knew I would not go down that road as least for the time being, I decided on a different route. A few months earlier I had met a professional artist through a business venture and I thought I would ask him what he thought of my work. He readily agreed to see me and I paid him a visit with a few of my best paintings under my arm. My expectations were low and I though at best he would tell me that they were ‘nice’ and to keep at it. He spent a long time studying the pictures and made several very helpful suggestions as to how I could improve my work, at no time did he criticise my painings. I was deeply in his debt and was preparing to thank him and go on my way, it was then he stopped me in my tracks.
I had greatly admired this gentleman’s artwork; he was a professional marine artist and had numerous examples of his work around his home. So I was prepared to listen to his comments and accept them without question, however I was not prepared for what he said next. He told me that he was sure that within a few years I would become very well known in the south east for my art. Imagine being told that having absolutely no idea where it came from. I was so stunned that I thanked him as best I could and went on my way. It goes without saying that this sudden and unexpected development boosted my confidence no end and I set to and painted furiously for the next year partly because I really hoped that what he said would come about and partly to escape from the grief I was feeling. That year proved so successful that I decided I would throw caution to the wind and visit a local art gallery to see if they would be willing to show my work. The art gallery was owned and run by a professional artist called Tony Blackman who was very well known for his river scenes of Gravesend and the river Medway. He particularly liked my local scenes and agreed to show several of them. They were already framed so he said that he would try a couple in his gallery window. I was over the moon and stood outside while he positioned one in a prominent spot. When I arrived home about an hour later Tony was soon on the phone telling me that he had already made a sale. I was numb and could not believe it particularly as he asked for some more paintings to sell. I was to sell many more of my paintings at Tony’s gallery over the coming months. On one of my visits to drop of more artwork Tony asked me if I would consider having a one man show in the spring of 1982. I readily agreed and set to work building up my collection, I had just 6 months prepare for this which meant a lot of painting. But once again there was another turn of events that was to lead me along a very different path.
On New Years Eve 1981 I hosted a party for friends and family. My brother brought along a mutual friend of him and his wife whose name was Eileen. We all had a good time but the highlight of the evening was my attraction to this rather lovely lady, I realised Eileen was rather special. You might wonder how this personal incident related to ‘My Art Story’ well as you will see it played a big part. I did not meet Eileen again until the spring of 1982, meanwhile a lot of things happened that was to turn the course of my life. The person I had employed to run the physical side of my business informed me that he wanted to leave me for pastures new, but said he would give me time to find someone else to take his place. The choice I had then was to find a suitable replacement for him which I new would be hard, I was looking after my two children and to farm them off to others was not an option. I decided that I would look into the possibility of selling my business.
While all this was going on I was steadily building my collection of pictures for the forthcoming exhibition. The exhibition opened in April 1982 and was a major success; I sold 50% of my work on the private view. It was at this time I met up with Eileen again, I took her to see my exhibition and this time I was determined not to let her go.
I had a very good friends of mine had quite recently moved to Broadstairs and my children and myself had visited him many times and liked the quaint seaside town very much. I took Eileen down to meet them and she too fell in love with the town. I asked my friend to look out for suitable premises that I could use as a gallery with living accommodation. I also sought Tony Blackmans advice as to the running of a gallery and he was kind enough to give me many valuable contacts in the trade. Things happened very quickly after that, I sold my business, Eileen had agreed to move down to Broadstairs with me and my friend in Broadstairs tipped me off to a very suitable shop plus flat that was available. Obviously it was all meant to be because I sold my house, Eileen sold her flat and we brought the Broadstairs premises without any problems. By the end of July we had moved in and we opened our gallery on the 1st August 1982, oh Eileen and I even found the time to get married in the July.
Our gallery sold my own original paintings, paintings by local artists, antique prints and some pen & ink prints I had commissioned from Tony Blackman of local scenes of Broadstairs. I also offered a framing service that soon became popular. After a few months I wanted to expand the range of pen & Ink prints of the local scenes and though I could have a go myself and produce my own. These turned out well and I had added another string to my bow. Then I thought it would be nice to colour some of them as an alternative to the black and white prints. These proved to be very popular and I found that I had a tough time keeping up with the demand. After a couple of years the business was going great guns and I was looking to expand the range and variety of my skills. This was to come from an unexpected source and led me to another major twist in the tale that was to prove the beginning of a great new adventure.
A friend of mine was visiting the gallery and noticed that several of my watercolour pictures featured animals in the landscapes; he asked me if I could paint a portrait of his dog. I said I would give it a try and set about working from photographs he had given me. I had included many animals in my paintings and had found them both easy to do and enjoyable to paint. However I found that close up portraits were not easy and I certainly was not enjoying the experience. After several tries I had to admit I was beaten and relayed this to my friend who was disappointed and surprised that this task was beyond me. Although I was disappointed with this failure I soon bounced back and continued my work within my safe zone. This matter was still played on my mind though because a few weeks later I paid one of my regular visits to my local art store to pick up some materials and a box of pencils attracted my attention. I had used normal coloured pencils when I first started designing the bone china birds a few years earlier before switching to watercolour. These pencils however were of a different consistency chalky like pastel sticks I had played with at school. To this day I don’t know why I brought a set of 24 but I remember that it had crossed my mind that maybe these could be used to draw animals, little did I know then what a life changing decision that was to be.
I set to using the pencils I had purchased not having any idea what to do with them. At first I tried using them the same way as I had done with the more familiar coloured pencils, but that was no good so I played about with them until I produced some kind of result. I soon realised that they should be used in a similar way to the pastel sticks I had used previously and after that things started to improve rapidly. As there were no guidelines on how to use of them I was free to make it up as I went along, that was great fun and I really took a liking to them. I tried different subjects but found that the animal portraits I thought I could have used them for proved to be the best subject material, so I started producing animal portraits by the score. Very soon I was happy enough to place one of my better efforts, a dog, in my gallery window for sale. Within a day I had sold it. So I did more and sold them too, I thought ‘I am on to something here’ and this was further confirmed by a customer asking If I could produce a portrait of her cat. Thus started my very lucrative pet portrait service and that lasted several years before I became too busy with teaching, art shows demonstrations etc.
I was very happy running my gallery, painting my pictures and hand washing my prints and now that my new service painting my customers pet portraits was going well that I am sure I would have been content for it all to remain that way; but it was not to be. I used to get visits by representatives selling framing materials mount board etc. on a regular basis and became quite friendly with a few of them. Andrew in particular was always a welcome visitor; he worked for Daler supplying me with mount board and other similar products. One day he called just as I was completing a portrait of a Dog with my Carb-Othello pastel pencils. He was very interested in what I was doing because he used to work as a representative for Swan-Stabilo, the makers of the pastel pencils. To say he was gobsmacked is to put it mildly as he had never seen the product used in this way before. There just happened to be a trade show opening at Olympia within a few days and said that he would introduce me to the Swan-Sabilo personnel on their trade stand. Obviously I jumped at the chance although I was apprehensive as to what the reaction would be to my work. True to his word Andrew made the introductions to the Stabilo staff which included the UK Managing Director, Stanley Vaughn. I was taken to an office on the stand to show off my work stared at the picture of the dog Mr Vaughn brought in each member of the staff to view the picture before turning to me and expressing his admiration, again he to had no idea the product he was marketing could be used with such a dramatic effect. He then dropped the second bombshell of my art story with a proposition that would alter my career path yet again.
I spent some time on the Swan-Stabilo stand chatting to the staff and discussing the potential of the now elevated pastel pencil. It was during one of these conversations that Mr Vaughn dropped his bombshell. He asked if I would be willing to demonstrate the pastel pencil on next years trade show ‘in Olympia’, ‘in London’.
I found it difficult to curb my excitement but I think I managed to contain it well enough. I of course agree to his request and travelled back home to Broadstairs on an all time high. For the next few months I thought of nothing else but my forthcoming elevation to ‘demonstrator’ at a big London show. It hadn’t struck me then as to whether I would be nervous or not putting myself on the front line like that. I suppose I was so wrapped up in the excitement of the moment. However that was soon to change and as the date of the exhibition drew near the nerves started to kick in. Boy did they start to kick in. I suddenly had this vision of hundreds of people looking over my shoulder while I worked seeing every little mistake and walking off the stand tittering and pulling my work to bits. Try as I might I could not shake off this feeling of dread, was I good enough to pull it off, I really had serious doubts about my ability. In the days before the show I was a nervous wreck, I couldn’t sleep and during the day I had constant panic attacks. Who did I think I was kidding, the first time I demonstrate ever and I have to choose a major exhibition, in Olympia, in London. But the day before I was due to leave home for the show, my lovely wife came up with a life saving solution.
It was a strange mix of excitement and dread for the forthcoming show at Olympia and to be honest if I could have been given an excuse not to go I would have willingly taken it; it was my wife who came up with the solution. She suggested that I think of selling the idea of the pastel pencils by showing people the techniques as to how I use them. This suddenly took the emphasis away from worrying about what people would say about my own artwork. I know that this might be obvious now and that this is what I was being paid to do but we always imagine that we are putting ourselves up on display and people will be judging us. Anyway all I can say is that it worked beautifully and although I was nervous I soon got used to the idea and by the end of the exhibition I definitely wanted to do more demonstrating. During the exhibition the editor of ‘The Artists and Illustrators’ magazine approached me and asked if I would be willing to write an article for them including examples of my work. I readily agree to this and a few months later my article appeared, the response was terrific and started the ball rolling for many more articles with that and other publications. Swan-Stabilo wanted me to demonstrate at more shows, they also sent me to large stores and even a few art groups under their name. Although I was really pleased with the publicity I was getting something was niggle ling at me which I could not put my finger on. It was something completely unexpected that was to provide not only the answer to my niggle but was to dramatically change my work.
I was working with the pastel pencils to produce a dog portrait; it was for no one in particular I was just building my picture stock up for exhibition use. I displayed these pictures framed up at demonstrations to show people what could be achieved using the pencils. When I had finished the picture and viewed it I got quite a shock, the picture seemed to have more substance to it than the previous pictures I had produced but try as I may I could not understand why. It was then I had a panic attack for I could not remember what I had done to produce this astonishingly real picture. If I could not remember what I had done how on earth could I do it again, was this going to be very much a ‘one off’. The only way I was going to find out was to try it again, so I set up another picture. The next picture turned out with the same quality as the previous one but again I could not remember what I had done differently to produce this result. However I was heartened by the fact that I could at least produce the pictures even if I remained unaware of what the formula was. Picture after picture turned out the same and I was finding it very relaxing because I was no longer struggling with any of the details and images, it just flowed. I began to realise just what was happening when I was working with the pencils I was going into another mind state, a sort of meditation, and the more I practiced the more I found I could come and go to and from this state at will. This was very useful as during a demonstration I had to constantly talk to people explaining the techniques I was using. As my association with Swan-Stabilo strengthened I thought it might be a good idea to sell the pastel pencils in my gallery as I had already had several people showing interest in the product I was using. So I brought the pencil stock and arranged to hold an open evening at my gallery demonstrating the pencils and showing off just what they were capable of. I advertised the event locally and had a surprising number of people turn up I sold a few boxes of the pencils. During the evening I was in conversation with a small group of customers when they came up with an idea that was to lead me into the most exciting phase of my art career so far.
I was pleased with the sales of the pastel pencils but felt that they could have been better. I was in conversation with three of the customers when they said they would be willing to buy the pencils if I could teach them how they worked. I tried to get out of this saying that I have never had any teaching experience but they still insisted that that I give it a try. I said that I would be prepared to teach them how to use the pencils over a six week course and they brought the pencils. I floundered at first but soon settled into a pattern of teaching that was purely a ‘make it up as I went along’ job. At the end of the six weeks they asked me to continue teaching them on a regular basis, so I advertised the class and got a good response. Within a few months the class was gaining momentum and I had a waiting list of new students. Within a couple of years I had four classes running and still had a waiting list. I closed my gallery for the days I was teaching which meant I was only open three days a week. These classes became very lucrative financially and I found that I really enjoyed teaching people. In 1988 I was approached by the Artists and Illustrators magazine to run a pastel pencil workshop for them in conjunction with Swan-Stabilo. This meant more experience in a new field and mammoth publicity so I agreed.
The workshop for the Artists and Illustrators magazine was heavily featured in their monthly publication and oversubscribed by over three times the 25 people needed to run the workshop. They approached Swan-Stabilo, who were co sponsoring the event, asking them if they would be prepared to run two more workshops rather than turn so many people away. Swan-Stabilo agreed and then though to ask me if I would do two more workshops for them, I readily agreed and so my first venture into workshops began with a loud bang. The workshop took place in the London Zoo, in Regents Park, London, and was a resounding success. On the back of this success came more offers of demonstrations and workshop over the coming months, more magazine articles followed and that in turn lead to more publicity. In 1988 the Artists and Illustrators magazine was planning a new art materials show in London aimed mainly at the consumer. Swan- Stabilo was offered trade space which they took up asking me to be demonstrator on the stand; the venue was The Horticultural Halls in Westminster, London. This was very well advertised in their magazine for months running up to the event; add to that it was the first big show of its kind success was almost guaranteed.
The Art Materials show in Westminster was very successful and as there were only a handful of demonstrators those stands that had them attracted more customers. Our stand was extremely busy all the time and halfway through the four day show Swan-Stabilo had to send for more products to meet the demand. Everything went uphill from then on, more shows more articles more workshop and more demonstrations. My private classes were going strong and in the 1994 I decided to close my Art Gallery and concentrate on teaching, workshops and promoting my mail order business along with the other ventures already mentioned. In 1997 I received a phone call from Faber-Castell asking me to field test a new pastel pencil they were bring onto the market. This pencil was a winner and within weeks I had moved on from Swan-Stabilo and over to Faber-Castell promoting the pencil for them. This move was to prove very lucrative as they wanted me to front a massive advertising promotion that was to last several years.
In 1998 I was approached by the Field Study Centre at Flatford Mill to run a workshop for them, I agreed and this was to be the start of many years of happy times with up to three visits per year. Around that time I was also asked to make several DVDs for Teaching Art and in turn these proved to be not only good sellers for them but I also promoted them through my mail order service. As I was fast approaching retirement age I decided to concentrate on setting up my business so that when I reached 65 I could drift into a stage of semi retirement and eventually full retirement with still a link to keeping in touch with the job I loved. The first step came in July 2005; I stopped all my private teaching classes having given everyone one years advance notice. In 2008 I stopped all my workshops and in 2009 I stopped all my demonstrating. This just left me with what I still have today that is my mail order service, my electronic download service, and my email consulting service. I also keep busy with youtube, twitter, facebook and this allows me to keep in touch with my many customers world wide.
This brings me to the end of my art story and I have been very lucky to have been allowed to realise such a fulfilling and satisfying career. Doing a job I love and being paid for doing it, surely that must be dream job it has certainly been that for me.