DRAWN TO A 'WILD' LIFE - A POTTED HISTORY
I haven't written a blog for absolutely ages... so for your delectation (hehe), here are some key points in my career that I've written especially for newer people discovering my drawings. If you are intrigued and want to delve deeper into my life, you can buy my limited edition, lavishly illustrated autobiography book (1000 signed & numbered copies). I published the huge tome in 2013 and it is now at £35 plus P/P.
My childhood was filled with love, animals and art, but also heartbreak. But let's skip to my attempts at being a fully fledged adult...
In 1978, at the tender age of 23, I found my soulmate. A domino effect tumbled around me and life changed in many ways. Dave had just returned to the UK after trekking across three states in the USA to raise money for WWF. He was inspirational and full of enthusiasm... and I was hooked at hello. We quickly became best friends, sharing numerous passions, and right at the very heart was our deep love for wildlife.
'Before Dave', I was sketching anything but wildlife; superheroes, portraits, architecture, cauliflowers, skulls, even dress design. I loved the art of drawing but I didn't feel I could do justice to the creatures I loved even more. It was simply Dave's physical presence that was the catalyst needed. I practiced and practiced, alternating between wild animals and pet commissions, where capturing their individuality was absolutely key. I started making money from my art but nowhere near enough to support myself long-term. But I felt overwhelming joy, giving birth to these 'lives' appearing on paper before me. When everything's going right, little else matches that feeling.
In the autumn of 1988 my gregarious dad died of the cruelest of throat cancers and it was the posterior push I needed. Soon after the funeral, I departed from my comfort zone to try finding my real purpose in life. I'd spent over ten years honing my art towards the direction I imagined. The time felt right.
COME THE SPRING OF 1989, I BECAME A FULL TIME WILDLIFE ARTIST. Right from the start, my career seemed charmed and sprinkled with success; a solo show in Paris, many group exhibitions for major charities like FRIENDS OF THE EARTH and the RSPB, at the Natural History Museum, The Barbican, Sotheby's and Bonhams Auction Houses, The Museum of Natural History in Venezuela... and more. GREENPEACE and WWF were selling prints, calendars and greetings cards from my drawings.
For the wildlife art market that had been focused on grand oil paintings by David Shepherd and Sir Peter Scott, my pencil art in shades of grey were distinctly different. I think that's why my career took off so brilliantly. It was the right time, the right place, with the right people championing me.
I was so fortunate to be the first pencil wildlife artist widely seen in the public eye, on many high street framing shops and galleries. From the start, I made the decision to price my art competitively for working class people like myself. Through that open, honest agenda, I managed to build a loyal fan-base of collectors across the UK and further afield too.
A fact; I am by no means the technically best pencil artist around. Since I started, there have been many shining examples out there who are far superior, with more skill, patience and focus. But I do think one of my main strengths is my eye for simple, unusual compositions. I'm often paid the compliment "your art clearly shows your love of animals". That makes me very happy.
Through my talent for drawing, I have met amazing, inspirational people who have changed my perspective on life, people who, through kindness, have helped my career. That's definitely the case with the star of my next paragraph.
I MET (DAME) VIRGINIA MCKENNA at the Society of Wildlife Artists annual exhibition at Mall Galleries. This was also in 1989 and I had only been a full time artist for a couple of months. Virginia and the late BILL TRAVERS fell in love with my huge 'Elephants Africains' drawing and so in their words they "had to buy it"... It still hangs in their family home.
A few months later they commissioned me to create a tribute to their great friend GEORGE ADAMSON, who had just been murdered. What a huge honour to draw 'The Lord of the Lions'. Here were compassionate people who were an important part of my youth, through the story and film BORN FREE. What a long and lasting legacy it has etched onto the world's moral compass.
A friendship blossomed with Virginia (and Bill), filled with a mutual respect that is even stronger now.
Backtracking to 1980, a little more than two years into our relationship, Dave and I had escaped the mad rush of city life and spent three months in the western United States. At a leisurely pace, we experienced one wilderness area to another, soaking up everything we saw. It even included a seven day whale watching adventure on the Sea of Cortez. We returned to the UK drenched in awesome experiences and memories deeply imprinted.
Adventurous Dave had been on safari to East Africa when he was a 16 year old, budding naturalist/photographer... I could only daydream of that. But in 1990, after furiously saving up, I traveled with him and his 78 year old Mum to Kenya and Tanzania. We spent 3 weeks on safari with her, then another three weeks, just the two of us exploring the national parks even deeper. It was our utopia.
My career was positively blooming, but of course there were plenty of rejections too. After five sold out editions pioneered by GREENPEACE I had many more unsuccessful attempts to entice fine art publishers including all the big flyers. I got great reactions but they didn't feel pencil drawings were commercial enough. I took that risk and started self publishing my art. It was costly but one of my best decisions ever!
I had control over my pencils but also the direction my career was heading. If I wanted to donate prints to charity, I could, no questions asked.
For about six months my limited editions sold through various charity shows. Then, serendipity, the first commercial shop to stock my prints, was FastFrame in Croydon, a stone's throw away from the chestnut trees I scaled as a child. This modest shop was part of the FastFame franchise. Word spread and more and more shops began promoting my prints with invaluable window displays, garnering fantastic sales.
My drawings also featured in numerous shows at the Medici Gallery, just off Bond street and my originals were flying out to high flyers in the city. Then after much badgering by me, I was granted my first solo show there in 1991. At the packed private view, on the wettest of nights, I MET ACTOR RULA LENSKA. She has since become one of my closest friends; wild adventures together across the globe and she has also been a bright star at many of my charity shows, hosting them with panache.
In 1992, in association with FastFrame, we published THE FIRST EVER ITV TELETHON PRINT. The signed Bengal Tigress & Cub picture sold in over 100 major high street shops throughout the UK and raised more than £20,000 for the charity. It also resulted in a dire National TV appearance by yours truly. I literally dried up during a live interview with Michael Aspel, in front of millions of eyes and ears! I MUCH PREFER MY PENCILS TO DO THE TALKING.
Everything was speeding by so fast and I was swept up in a whirlwind of work. Within a few years, constant drawing and admin took its toll. I was being consumed by up to 60 intense hours each week and knew I couldn't keep up that sheer volume. The fear of burnout and the fear of not drawing at my best took hold. So for quality and sanity's sake, I cut right on creating.
The dynamics shifted and much of my time became spent promoting my expanding portfolio of prints, visiting shops/galleries, signing and numbering the prints, packaging and posting them out. Before each new edition was published I had days with the phone glued tight to my ear, making up to seventy calls. I became a one man (often hoarse) band and an occasional artist for years.
All this success with prints was fabulous on my ego but I wanted to have more control to work even closer still with animal charities so in 1994 I HAD MY 1ST SOLO CHARITY SHOW AT AN INDEPENDENT GALLERY THAT WAS A CHARITY TOO... MALL GALLERIES. The exhibition was in aid of BORN FREE and EIA (Environmental Investigation Agency) and it was a great success for them. Over 900 limited edition prints sold during the week and all the originals exhibited too. Boom... It became evident that my drawings could raise heaps of money for animals... and my destiny was determined.
IN 1997 & 1998, I WON THREE MAJOR ART INDUSTRY AWARDS. I was in great company as previous winners included towering giants, David Shepherd and Jack Vettriano. My limited edition prints were selling in around 270 galleries and framing shops throughout the UK. On the secondary market, my prints were changing hands for up to £3,500, for both 'Snow Leopard' and 'Green Turtle'. Editions sold out prior to their release.
My first foray into the world of limited editions was in 1987. 'Green Turtle' sold in aid of GREENPEACE and just 13 years later the landmark 100th one I published was called 'Serenity' (a curled up clouded leopard). That became the last drawing I created in the UK as we moved to Ibiza in the winter of 2000.
We lived on the white isle for 19 sunshine filled years where the pace of life was more relaxed.
There, another first happened in the most unlikely of venues there. I was the first artist to exhibit at the world famous Pacha nightclub! Flashing lights aren't really conducive to viewing art but I did sell a few prints, including Gorgeous to the owner of the wild club night 'Gorgeous'.
There are no guarantees in life and in 2007 the economic crash reaped havoc onto the World proving the point. It changed the art market pretty much overnight. Like I imagine most artists, I struggled to keep afloat. My annual income plummeted from a very respectable £50,000 to £7,000. My edition sizes went from a record 1950 right down to 195. By the winter of 2008, nearly all the shops I had spent years building strong friendly relationships with, disappeared, either going bankrupt or the owners retiring. Many of my collectors tightened their belts too. After all, art isn't a necessity, just an embellishment to life.
Dave, the supportive partner, sensible head and by the way, the co-founder of the amazing ENVIRONMENTAL INVESTIGATION AGENCY, persuaded me that an online presence was now a necessity, so he ingeniously created my OFFICIAL WEBSITE from scratch. After so many years of my art being seen in the flesh on so many high streets, I was skeptical, but it worked.
IN 2010 I HAD THE HUGE HONOUR OF A RETROSPECTIVE OF MY DRAWINGS AT NATURE IN ART. It came as a great boost to my morale and a well timed surprise. Nature in Art is the World's first museum whose focus is solely on art inspired by nature. Then three years later, they staged 'Master Artists', a group exhibition with painters David Shepherd, Simon Combes, Anthony Gibbs, sculptor Geoffrey Dashwood... and me. What esteemed company!
IN 2015 I HAD A 'LIGHTBULB MOMENT'. I BEGAN EMBELLISHING RARE L/E PRINTS for my next solo show at Mall Galleries in aid of BORN FREE and EIA. Thankfully collectors embraced them with open arms... 'Snow Leopard' sold during the live auction, conducted by BBC TVs JAMES LEWIS, for £6,700 and many others went for over four figures. Since then, I've created more than 300 embellished prints... and rising. Each one is unique and far more valuable than a standard print as it has my actual drawing on each one.. I draw on top of the print with many thousands of new strokes mainly using Onyx pencils. They create an intense, darker range of tones. After many hours of drawing, the print transforms into something more dynamic and closer to an original.
THAT 2016 SOLO CHARITY SHOW PROVED TO BE A HUGE SUCCESS so two years later I followed on with another solo show, this time showcasing 60 embellished prints at NATURE IN ART. It was totally in aid of six charities; ANIMALS ASIA, SHELDRICK WILDLIFE TRUST, DAVID SHEPHERD WILDLIFE FOUNDATION, BORN FREE, EIA, and NATURE IN ART. £44,000 was raised.
AS YOU CAN SEE, MY HEART TRULY LIES WITH HELPING WILDLIFE. Over the years my drawings and prints have been in exhibitions and auctions and raised funds for over 60 charities. Together, with your help, they've RAISED MORE THAN ONE MILLION POUNDS. Strength in numbers.
My next show has been quite a few years in the making. In fact we were all set to exhibit in Brighton at the spectacular i360 in October 2021... and we all know what happened to stop that big gathering.
Once we felt it safe to imagine another show, BORN FREE and I started gathering ideas and drawings together. Our show is aptly titled DRAWN FROM THE HEART. I think it has a good ring to it. It's being held again at MALL GALLERIES from 2-5 October 2024. I hope you can attend the (ticketed) Private View Gala on 1st October or visit during the rest of the exhibition where it'll be free entry. Our host for the gala evening is my great friend/actor RULA LENSKA and our auctioneer, the fabulous award-winning JAMES LEWIS. The guest speaker is the charismatic and very chatty WILL TRAVERS OBE and an extra special guest of honour... DAME VIRGINIA MCKENNA
Together again, let's celebrate the wonderous world of wildlife. It'll be a fun-filled palooza (my favourite new word... I bet you have to google it!)