How I learned it’s never too late to follow your passion
From a young age I always loved to draw and paint. I always assumed that I’d study art at college, then university.
But my father had very different ideas. Despite me having no aptitude for, or interest in, the sciences or languages, at 15 he informed me that if I wanted to stay in school post-16, that’s what I’d have to do – because “that’s where the money was”. These were the subjects he said would give me ‘a future’; in his worldview there was no future (that is to say, money) in the arts.
The alternative was to get a job and start paying my way, or leave home.
An early passion for art
My talent and passion had always been for art. Even as a tiny child, my teacher commented on my stubborn preference for drawing over doing any other activity. By my teen years, I had it all planned out: I was going to go to college to get my art and art history A levels, and then go on to art school.
I’d always wanted to be an artist. From a very young age I was ‘Taking Hart’ with Tony Hart, painting along with the fabulous Nancy Kominsky, and feeling the joy of painting with Bob Ross. At 13 I began collecting the Marshall Cavendish Great Artists magazines (this was in the mid 1980s). Each week you got a magazine featuring one of the Great Artists, and once you’d collected enough of them you could stow them safely in a swanky vinyl binder. There were 96 to collect, and by the end I had them all. I would spend hours pouring over every word and illustration.
This was where the development of my artistic style began. I would copy artworks from the magazines, trying out different media (I got through a LOT of pastels after the Degas edition, let me tell you!). I began painting with real purpose.
Developing my style
I gradually progressed from copying famous paintings to drawing and painting from photographs and life. I had a 50th anniversary edition of The Picture Post album, and was fascinated by the images and the stories behind them and used the people in those photos as my models.
Still life was the easiest to do if I wanted to paint or draw something from life, as I could never get anyone to sit still long enough, their patience being no match for my hyperfocus.
Later I started to draw and paint from memory and imagination. The trouble I had with this though was that I could paint anything I wanted – literally anything. I’m apparently overwhelmed by too many options and, in the same way as I don’t know where to put the car when faced with an empty car park, I could never decide what I wanted to draw or paint.
I also understood on some level that the kind of artwork I wanted to create wasn’t realism – but it wasn’t surrealism either.
Then I discovered abstract art, and everything changed.
Now I was not only enjoying the physical act of painting or drawing, but I was loving the creative and expressive freedom.
And so I spent my teen years learning my craft and developing my style, anticipating the heady days of art college and total immersion in my passion.
Settling for a different future
But of course I wasn’t able to go to art school, despite wanting to so badly.
I wasn’t a confident teenager, and I’ve always struggled with any kind of confrontation, so I wasn’t able to argue my case with my father.
I now realise just how wrong he was. Allowing young people to choose subjects according to their interests and passions has far better outcomes than forcing them down paths that aren’t aligned with their passions or strengths. Interest motivates and engages; we are drawn to certain things for a reason. At the very least, we should study something we enjoy and that we will be happy to take a deep-dive into for years!
Even at 16 I understood this. And so when confronted with his ultimatum, I chose to go out to work, rather than condemn myself to years of studying subjects I had no aptitude for, and the prospect of a career in some field I had no interest in.
Over the next ten years I drifted from one job to another. Some of them sounded fairly impressive, and they were occasionally interesting, but all were poorly paid (pharmaceutical technician; forensic lab technician to name a couple).
But I kept on painting in my spare time.
And when I was 21, I sold my first painting, and received my first commission later that same year. But despite this, I still never thought that being an artist could be a viable thing, something more than a hobby. When it’s been drilled into you from a very young age that being an artist will only lead to poverty and misery (and you’d probably not be very good anyway), letting go of that is HARD.
Which is why when I was finally able to go to university as a mature student, aged 24, I didn’t (mic drop!) actually choose to study art. I think by then that dream felt so far removed from reality, and I’d had years to assimilate the idea that art wasn’t a career.
Art world / ‘real world’
Despite not choosing to do an art degree, art and painting were still so embedded in me that they had to come out somewhere. Throughout the three years of my uni course I supported myself by working as a bespoke picture framer at a local antiques and framing shop. I loved it there, and it was one of the very happiest periods of my life.
As well as framing artworks for clients, I helped curate collections of works by local artists that were on display in the gallery area. The proprietor was a member of NAVA, and would regularly rustle up a cooked lunch like a champion TV chef, critique my paintings and provide advice, as well as introducing me to works by artists who were new to me. I also sold several of my own paintings during that time.
After immersing myself in the art world as much as possible while doing my degree, you could be forgiven for thinking that graduating would have been the perfect opportunity to finally properly pursue painting – or at least something art adjacent. But unfortunately, my romantic partner at the time held a pretty similar viewpoint to my father. Art was a hobby, from which I occasionally made a little pocket money. It was not a concrete career prospect.
And so I became a paralegal instead.
This was a mistake.
And as a 13 year career goes, a long mistake.
Caught up in the daily grind of a sector I had no passion for, and increasing responsibilities of promotions and becoming a team leader, I gradually stopped painting. I was fully immersed in The Real World.
Until one day, utterly depressed and desperate to escape, I worked out that I had as many years left to work as I had already worked. And that thought terrified me into action.
By then I was married – and my wife operates from a very different value system to my father and my ex. Knowing how much I’d enjoyed my Saturday job at uni, she encouraged me to quit the law and set myself up in business as a bespoke picture framer. She not only understood my love of all things art, she accepted that it was real and valid and worthy of pursuing. (It was also her that got me to write this blog post, if you’re looking for who to blame!)
I was finally able to let rip with the creativity that’s been in me since I was a teenager at the mercy of my father’s whims
As a picture framer I was delighted to have access to a whole world of art and artists, people who make and collect art and love it as much as I do. It’s the most purposeful and rewarding job I’ve ever done.
Then Covid-19 hit and put a temporary stop to my business.
Things were tough for a while, but the silver lining was that I started to paint again. Over thirty years on from that devastating conversation with my father, I was finally able to let rip with the creativity that’s been in me since I was a teenager at the mercy of a parent’s whims. And having a workshop gave me the space to paint freely.
Full circle: my first exhibition at 52
I’ve since sold many more of my original paintings and prints, mainly to framing clients who have seen and admired them in the workshop.
And, very excitingly, I’ve had support and advice from several of my artist clients, several of whom on seeing my work have pressed me to enter calls to exhibit. In trepidation and hope, I did so, and as a result, from 14 September to 15 October 2023 one of my paintings will be exhibited at the Turner House Exhibition in Penarth, Cardiff.
As you can imagine, given my history, this is SUCH a big deal for me. I’m absolutely thrilled and delighted and excited, and brim full of painting ideas and enthusiasm.
And I can’t wait to find out where I go next with this.
I do wish it hadn’t taken over 30 years to get here. But if nothing else this shows that is truly is ‘never too late’.
But parents, let your kids choose their own paths and follow their passions, interests and dreams. They’re going to anyway; you can’t control what happens in their futures, but you can choose to make it harder for them, or smooth their way.
Want to see more of my work? View my gallery page and shop here.