This is the full text of an article that I wrote for The Artist magazine August 2009 edition.
TAKING THE PLUNGE
Four years ago my wife and I (both in our mid 40s) took the decision to upsticks from our “comfortable” lifestyle in north Oxfordshire, pack our labrador and 3 children into a campervan and set off in search of an adventure.
We ended up here in Revel, a small very French market town halfway between Toulouse and Carcassonne where our 3 sons (now 15, 14 and 12 years old) attend the local schools and my wife teaches English to the local saucisson maker (amongst others!).
One of the driving forces behind the move was my life-long ambition to study and develop my love of painting – although I had exhibited pictures when I was at school, my life as a professional consultant over the past 30 years provided few opportunities for anything much more than Saturday life classes and holiday watercolours.
I remember several people suggesting that if I waited 10 or 15 years I could hopefully retire and enjoy painting without needing to sell my work. But this was missing the point. For me, one of the key drivers would be the excitement and challenge of selling my work – and if no-one bought my pictures then either I wasn’t cut out to be an artist or I just had to improve! And I knew that I would always regret it if I never tried.
So we broke the shackles and the last 4 years has been a fascinating and exhilarating journey of re-discovery and development that has undoubtedly been the most enjoyable and rewarding time of my life.
Looking back, the hardest part was getting going. Men are naturally conditioned to be breadwinners and, whilst we were fortunate to have some money in the bank from the sale of our house, I felt a strong sense of guilt if I was not earning enough money to at least cover our day-to-day living expenses. So whilst our kids were quickly becoming fluent in French I found myself spending most of the first year flying back and forth to the UK to carry on my consultancy business.
And when I did finally pluck up the courage to buy some oil paints and set up my easel in the middle of Albi the result was a total disaster – my shadows were black, my palette turned brown and I quickly became paranoid about the people looking over my shoulder. Quelle catastrophe!
Recognising that any talent that I might once have had was deeper buried than I had thought, I enrolled in the local art class where the teacher kindly reacquainted me with the basics of oil painting and guided me through some still lifes (“les natures mortes”). The only problem was that every week seemed to be somebody’s birthday and the lovely French ladies who welcomed me so kindly into their group were upset if I declined their lovingly-made cakes and a glass of something bubbly – which did little for the concentration that I have increasingly realised is so important to figurative painting.
One of the wonderful things about living in Revel is that the town is home to one of France’s most attractive and authentic markets, which takes over the 14th century central square every Saturday. What better inspiration could an artist want than the light, atmosphere and characters of the market and surrounding arcades?
At the end of 2006 I painted a picture of a market scene which I took to the local art gallery where the owner kindly placed it in his front window over Christmas. I remember being in England a couple of months later when my wife called to say that it had sold – the dream was back on track!
Over the coming months I was delighted to have my work accepted by a number of other galleries in the area and by the end of the year I had sold a total of 10 paintings. That meant that, after the galleries had taken their 30-50% commissions, I had earned the princely sum of around 4,000 euros – but there is more to life than money, as my wife and I kept bravely proclaiming!
However hard one may work at a subject everyone needs some good fortune. Mine came when I was introduced to the figurative and portrait artist Aldo Balding on a flight back to the UK. It turned out that Aldo and his family had moved to France about the same time as us and were now living only a few kilometres away.
Following a bit of gentle persuasion Aldo kindly agreed to give me some lessons, which have proved invaluable in honing my technique and directing my enthusiasm. After reducing my palette from an unwieldy 18 colours to 10 colours and helping me set up my studio properly (including positioning a mirror behind my standing position to provide a more objective view of my painting), Aldo has shown me how to think in terms of warms and cools, demonstrated the importance of “edges” (both in sharpness and colour) and taught me how to “squint” (to better see tones).
And the wonderful thing is that it all seems to be working – during 2008 I sold over 30 paintings and even won a couple of prizes in competitions.
I do work hard, whenever possible painting 8 hours a day, 6 or 7 days a week, and I attend a 3 hour life class every fortnight to keep up my drawing. I read a lot (currently lying next to my bed is a book on Joaquin Sorolla (my favourite artist), Richard Schmidt’s “Alla Prima: Everything I know about Painting”, Ken Howard’s “Inspired by Light” and a stack of The Artist magazines) and I attend exhibitions whenever possible – as well as regular trips to London’s Mayfair galleries I am determined to get to the Sorolla exhibition in Madrid before it closes in early September.[See blog posts]
In tandem with the improvements in my technique I have been looking to develop the business side of being an artist. Initially this was limited to handing out business cards directing people to my paintings web site but this year I have been concentrating on identifying good quality UK galleries to represent me. I am also researching the possibility of producing cards and posters.
Looking ahead I can’t remember a time when I have been so excited about the future. I have my first major solo exhibition coming up in 2010 as well as a number of other exhibitions, both in France and the UK. I am also really looking forward to seeing where my painting takes me over the coming years.
If I had to point to one single factor that has helped transform me into a professional artist the most important has undoubtedly been the support and encouragement that I have received from my wife and children who have not only accepted the marked reduction in our income but who have also become incisive art critics. I have no doubt that without them I would still be sitting on the M25 every morning rushing to a meeting. And the fact that I might be driving an Aston Martin would be scant consolation for the excitement of life that I would be missing.