Like most children, I liked colouring books, finger painting and model making. If I drew lots of picture I don’t recall this and amongst my mountains of crap in the loft there isn’t any childhood master pieces. I certainly wasn’t like so many artist who were born with a burning desire to create and spent every free moment doing so. If I had, I would have paid more attention in art class at school, I would now have art a-levels, an art foundation, a degree, maybe even a masters and CV of artistic experiences and exhibitions. I would have a decent knowledge of fine art and the art world. But I wasn’t born an artist or even with a passion for art. That didn’t happen when I was at school, at college or at uni. For me my love of art for painting actually came overnight. I can probably pinpoint the exact day to May 26th 2004. As that is the day I had my first stroke.
In 2004 I spent months in the Princess Royal Hospital in Telford. Recovering from two strokes, a heart infection and an emergency open heart. The damage caused by my second stroke meant that I didn’t have the energy or concentration or skill for reading. Plus though it is hard to believe now, in 2004 I didn’t have a smart phones, a tablet or bedside internet and TV in hospital. In fact the TV was a small bulky thing that had to be wheeled into our bay by a nurse and could only be safely plug-in at the other end of the bay from my bed. So the days were long. Amongst the many lovely gifts visitors brought me, a friend from uni brought me a massive wooden box of watercolour pencils and sketch pad. Now to this day I don’t know if it was that gift or changes in my brain that ignited my love of painting and made me an artist, but it is definitely when it happened.
I have since watched a documentary about another stroke survivor, Tommy Hugh, who hadn’t been interested in painting prior to his stroke. Yet hadn’t been able to stop painting after. So much so, he covered every single inch of his house in his painting, walls, doors even ceilings.
I do sometimes think it was my stroke, as it felt like it was a talent that I hadn’t had prior to it. Especially as my first few paintings, completed at my parents dinning room table on cheap canvas board with cheap paints were to my surprise very good. Though its probably just a coincidence.
This Eagle – was one of my very first paintings and even now am still proud of. It still hung on the wall in my parents house.
My Art Therapy
Andrew Marr the presenter of the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 believes that his art and his paintings has improved as result of his strokes. Like Andrew Marr painting was a relaxing part of my recovery. Something I could do when there was so many basic things I couldn’t do and had to relearn. I could lose myself in a painting and forget everything. Like a meditation state painting became my calm place, my happy place and has remain so ever since.
I didn’t draw or sketch, I didn’t think about composition or art styles or processes, or fine art or the meaning behind pictures. I simply choose a picture from one of my mum’s nature magazines of something that I knew I could paint. Then painted it, until I was happy that my painting had a close resemblance to picture I was using. I restricted my subject choices to land and seascape without the intrusion of buildings. Animals or birds, definitely pictures without people, portraits or life drawing. I didn’t do anything that was difficult or challenging. I only ever painted a picture for the enjoyment of doing it and to create a picture. Nothing more nothing less. Bliss.
I was off work for a very long time and when I did return to work I only manage to get back three days because of fatigue (despite trying to get back to my full-time hours). Obviously that meant a cut in salary, so I would give my paintings as gifts and cards. In 2005 I even made a twelve painting calendar to give to my loved ones for Christmas. All of which was great from my well-being and mental health. Being able to create gifts I couldn’t otherwise afford, having a purpose beyond the difficulties of rebuilding my life and learning to live within my differently able body. It also had a very calming effect on me which due to cognitive changes was very much-needed. As the very raw feelings about being such a young stroke survivor with life changing effects, meant I was handling a lot of negative emotions and big fiery anger. So painting was definitely therapy for me in the early days.
Examples of early my early paintings.
Becoming an artist.
I never consider myself as an artist. This was a title I believed belong to art students, academic’s and people who made a living from their art. I was none of these. The fact I couldn’t draw and was only able to paint such a limited subject only reinforced this. Other people labelled me an artist but I thought they were crackers. It was only when I started to sell my paintings for our charity project (www.facebook.com/year10.avis.art). Then I cleared out my conservatory, furnished it with easel, art materials and caught myself calling it my studio that I started to consider that I maybe I was becoming an artist.
My processes didn’t change at first, I would find pictures of things I knew I could paint and paint them. Then sell them via the internet or craft fairs. I received requests for commissions, which always surprised me but I was grateful for. But I would never accept any that went outside my comfort zone.
However, I did start doing some abstracts as a vent for the emotional stresses I was feeling. So I did bright and colourful swirling paintings, which I loved. As these are the most relaxing and enjoyable things to paint. It was one of these that was the first of only a few of my paintings to make it on to my own lounge wall.
Once we had raised a decent amount of money for the Stroke Associations, Life After Stroke Centre in Bromsgrove UK. I decided that I was confident enough to walk into an art class and see whether with some instruction I could improve my art. I took a leisure class at the MAC (Midlands Art Centre) which was simply about using nature as your subject, so right up my comfy street. However, unexpectedly to me this course included portrait drawing and life drawing taster sessions. I didn’t run away, I gave it ago and to my utter surprise I loved both sessions. I wasn’t good at it but I loved it.
Until then like most people, I believed that you could or you couldn’t draw. You were born with the talent or you weren’t. Looking back now, that is just ridiculous. There is no other skill in the world you don’t need to learn and practise, Even if you are lucky enough to be born with a natural talent. This realisation changed my art mind-set in a blink of an eye. I realised that I might be crap at portraits, at drawing people at getting portion and the human form. But I could learn and I could get better at it with practise and most important I loved trying.
So when the nature course finished I signed up for a leisure life drawing course. Despite being nervous as hell, especially when I realised I was the only beginner in the class. I have loved every single class and and I am learning so much. It’s early days. I am practising, exploring different methods and styles and finding what suits me and what I enjoy doing.
It has opened my mind to look outside of my comfort zone, not just in my art. The biggest change in me is that not every piece of art I do now is not with the intention of producing a completed piece. I now draw, sketch and paint just for practise or to learn. So now I have a sketch book, filled with bits and bobs. Although I know I do not sketch enough and have to fight against my instinct to make a perfect completed picture. I am spending more time improving my skills rather than focusing on selling my art. Though I am obviously still available for commissions.
I am not sure where I am going with my art, I am definitely at a new chapter. I wonder if I should be being brave and apply to do a foundation or fine art degree. I have looked for local courses, but I haven’t found any that I could do around my job, which I am not ready or in a position to even consider giving up to follow my art. So my plan is to build a collection of landscapes and seascapes as I have not done that before. Whilst also dedicating lots time to exploring, practising and developing a style in portrait and life drawing and painting. All the time keeping an open mind and open eyes to art opportunities that come my way and that I can create.
I feel my painting does lack personal style. I am exploring avenues that may help me find this. As one day it will be lovely to exhibit my work and for people to easily recognise it as mine. So I am not completely sure where my art and I are going but the blank canvas really excites me.
Stroke survivor Tommy Hughs website
Interview with Andrew Marr
MAC – Birmingham www.macbirmingham.co.uk