From Graphic Design to Fine Art
My mother and grandmother were practical, dextrous and creative New Zealand women. My granny enjoyed arts and crafts, and would spend some of her free time collecting coloured sands from around Waiotapu volcanic plateau, to make intricate landscapes (or 'sandscapes') within vintage bottles. She would feed the sand into the bottles with funnels and straws, and carefully position it in place with an assortment of tools. She created many stunning miniature scenes of Rainbow Mountain and Lady Knox Geyser at Waiotapu in the North Island. They were fascinating. Here's a photograph of one of them:
(photo courtesy Annie Middleton)
We spent many long weekends staying with my grandparents in Papamoa, and to the rear of their property were expanses of pasture with grazing cattle. We would jump the electric fences and lie down in the middle of the fields and wait. Eventually, the inquisitive herd would surround us; wet noses trying to pick up our scent and identify us. Even then, cattle intrigued me and I felt a strong affinity for them.
As I was growing up, my mother would sketch and doodle whenever she had a spare moment, then in later life, she began painting portraits and still life in oils. So it is no surprise then, that from an early age, I wanted to draw, and I was encouraged to do so by both of my parents.
There were a couple of farms in the North Island of New Zealand, that we visited on a regular basis during our summer holidays. One was my aunts dry stock farm, another was a holiday cottage on a small-holding that had sheep, pigs, horses and cattle, where we experienced sheep shearing, hay baling and milking the cows by hand. Those were some of the happiest days of my younger years - being with animals and beginning to draw and sketch them - in particular, the cattle. My love of art and the rallying of my parents, helped me to feel confident that I could study art at school and perhaps one day become a successful artist.
Practical art and art history became my favoured subjects, and I gained very high marks in them. Towards the end of my seventh form year, just before I was about to head off to university, I went to see the careers advisors and told them that I wanted to study fine art. Back then - and I am talking 30 years ago - I don't think "being an artist" was considered a wise career move. They strongly urged me to study graphic design instead of fine art, in the well-intentioned hope, that I would earn a reasonable living.
Young, easily swayed, and a little bit fearful, I followed their advice and spent three years studying Visual Communication and Graphic Design. I steered myself towards photography, illustration and printmaking (all of the image-making subjects), which I favoured more than the classes on logo design and typography.
I became particularly obsessed with mono-printing and spent hours drawing risqué nudes onto glass with oil colour. I would add linseed oil and turpentine mixes to the paint to create texture and patterns on the surface. Then, I would carefully place super-absorbent printing paper over the glass and put the lot through a high-pressure printing press. The resulting images were colourful, intense studies of figures in various stages of undress. The artists I held in high regard at the time, were two Austrian artists: Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, and you can see their influence in that early work. Here's a picture of one of those monoprints from my college days:
Upon graduating, I held my first solo exhibition of figurative mono-prints in a gallery on Ponsonby Road in Auckland in 1992. The show was a sellout and I got a short review in the New Zealand Herald! Still, I didn't contemplate painting full time - it seemed like too much of a risk as a newly graduated graphics student. Instead, I found a job as a graphic artist in an environmentally friendly clothing company. They printed designs onto garments, and my role was to generate new images and illustrations of flora and fauna for that purpose. It was imaginative work with a great team of people. Soon, however, I had a yearning to explore. So after a year, I left New Zealand to travel to the UK (via the States and Europe).
Fresh-off-the-boat and daunted by the prospect of applying to a design agency, I instead started to work for Bass Taverns in London, as a contract artist, painting murals, sign-writing and doing graphic design. During the mid to late 90’s, the trend for theme bars in the city started to grow. Each Bass venue had a theme: Paradise Bar, Theater Bar and Jungle Bar (to name a few) and after coming up with mural designs, I would spend days painting the colourful murals on their walls and windows. The Paradise Bar's function room became adorned with tropical plants and animals that I painstakingly painted using acrylics; The Circus Bar asked me to paint their ceiling with a view up into the big top at a circus. I painted clowns, trapeze artists, and other performers soaring high up in a colourful tent. It was hard work, lying flat on my back on scaffolding, but it was creative and fun – I loved it and got paid well for it. In my spare time, I continued to paint and draw and had private clients commissioning portraits along the way. I also took part-time courses in art history, sculpture and life drawing.
Around that time, I met my current partner. He had a background in interior design, and as a team, we started to do mini-refurbishments of bars and pubs in and around central London. After a while, we were asked to come up with interior schemes (including art) for a variety of venues. My partner would come up with the ideas for the decoration, fixtures and fittings, and I would produce any art that was specified. One of the many artistic challenges I agreed to, was a 12-foot x 4-foot replica of William Turner's The Slave Ship, as it fitted in with the history of that particular venue. Below is a photo of the one I painted. We did put a plaque next to the painting saying 'Ode to William Turner'!
In 2004, the client who had employed us on that project moved to Bath and bought a Country Inn in Monkton Combe. He asked us again to put together a proposal for the full refurbishment of the Inn which included a pub, restaurant and seven bedrooms, and for the branding and printing design for the site (logo, business cards, letterheads etc).
We specified 24 works of art for the interior, with a rural theme: landscapes, paintings of cattle, chickens, pigs and sheep. The main picture in the dining room was a large painting of a very handsome Charolais (see below). Charolais are one of my favourite breeds to paint. It was this painting that grabbed so much attention. I started to get calls from people wanting to commission something similar, and I was able to focus solely on painting cattle.
Since then I have included my portraits and paintings of cattle in numerous group and solo shows. I have shipped my work to Europe, the United States, Australasia and Asia. My passion for and appreciation of cattle has continued to grow, as has my knowledge of them. I have painted full-time now for over ten years, and my shows are near sell-outs every time.
Although I initially diverted and studied graphic design, my graphics background has been of enormous benefit to me over the years. I have designed my own print material; business cards, flyers, websites, exhibition posters and signage. I do believe that the skills I learnt during my studies helped me to live in London and earn a reasonable amount of money while I was making my way back to fine art. My images also have a stylish, striking, cinematic quality to them - which I can attribute to my early graphic design studies.
I often wonder what would have happened if I had ignored my careers advisor and studied fine art. Perhaps I would have graduated with a Master of Fine Arts, but I might not have been able to make a living and may have given up my artistic endeavours early on.
In hindsight, I love the way it has all panned out.