A brush with success

WATERCOLOURIST Richard Taylor is a prolific author of books on how to paint and draw. He's also gone down a storm in Japan. In fact artist and art tutor Richard Taylor from Essex has an entire shelf of books to his credit.

Victoria Hawkins

WATERCOLOURIST Richard Taylor is a prolific author of books on how to paint and draw. He's also gone down a storm in Japan. In fact artist and art tutor Richard Taylor from Essex has an entire shelf of books to his credit. To date he's had 15 published from the first, Drawing Traditional Buildings, which was published in black and white, right through to full-colour step-by-step instructional volumes on everything from Learn to Paint Buildings in Watercolour and Painting the Great Outdoors.

And, since the first moment he first stepped off the train at Clacton-on-Sea as a teenager, East Anglia has became his adopted home and an inspiration for much of his work.

He arrived here in the 70s from Enfield where he was brought up, armed with O-levels and place to study to be an art teacher at the former St Osyth training college.

“In London, places that had once felt safe to walk in just didn't any more. When I first arrived in Clacton it was a very dull, grey February morning and I walked from the station to the seafront and there wasn't a soul in sight apart from a monk in a brown habit with bare feet walking along the seafront!

“There was no-one else around nor a car on the road. The wind was screaming off the North Sea, it was dull and it was wet and I looked at the main building and thought whoa, I just love this building. It was such a change. I thought, this is calm, this is quiet and it was a period to really concentrate on the art. There were no distractions, nothing was going on.”

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Nothing much has distracted him since. Today he lives with his wife, Debbie, and their son Edward, 18, in the same little house just off the seafront in Clacton, where they have lived happily since Ed was born.

While his books have taken up a great chunk of his time, he also teaches amateurs at weekend workshops and helps train teachers throughout Essex, passing on his myriad skills.

“I have worked with the OU supporting their trainee teachers, and with Anglia Ruskin University, again, just keeping an eye on their art trainees and offering my experience where appropriate.”

And while the books he's published over the years have brought their financial rewards, Richard has never lost his own passion for paint - mostly watercolour - nor the art of drawing and teaching others how to draw and paint. Having started his art career as a teacher at Brightlingsea Secondary Modern (now the Colne Community School and College), 30-odd years later he is now running a series of weekend courses for adults at the Watershed Studio in St Osyth, five miles away from his home.

The studio is a haven for keen amateurs who come to what was once a cowshed and is now a light and airy space, nestling in a rolling landscape with gardens and a lake beyond and wonderful things to paint all around - such as a rusty old tractor. “We'll go out and paint in the gardens here, all of this stuff has been planted on purpose.”

Was he classically trained? “No I sort of made it up as I went along, my actual qualifications are History and Art and Art History but painting came along as a sideline. I cannot pinpoint one place where it all started. I drew and painted at junior school and was aware in the 1950s that there were people who wore floppy jumpers which had paint on them. I can remember I was just intrigued by that whole concept and started to try and pick up what I saw and felt was going on with creative people.

“I went to a traditional grammar school where art was very much something you did if you couldn't do anything else. You were shoved off in a corner somewhere but I was really quite happy because it meant I could really concentrate on my drawing and painting and I just drew and drew and drew.”

After training college he became an art master before he started writing (and drawing and painting) his books. His first one, Drawing Traditional Buildings, came about by chance when he was leafing through one of the artists' magazines that were around at the time.

“I thought, hold on I can do this, but how do you break into the industry? So I just took some photos of my pictures and sent them in and said, look I am qualified as a teacher, can I write something. They said okay then, let's have an article on how to draw buildings.”

He had an instinctive knack and affinity with drawing buildings. “During my early days in Suffolk, through a friend in Woolpit, I discovered Bill Wyman's house and sent some examples of my work and was commissioned within a few weeks to produce a large pencil drawing of his home. He was very appreciative of the work and the sensitivity shown to something that clearly really matters to him.

Buoyed up by his first article appearing in print, he simply photocopied it and touted it round to some publishers. “By pure luck it ended up on the desk of someone who said they were interested in doing a book. At the time I was an art teacher in my late twenties and since then I have done 15 books. My best seller, which only went out of print about three years ago had a life of 15/16 years.”

Each book has taken from about nine months to a year to complete. “In terms of painting I aim to do the equivalent of a double page spread in a day. I just got into what I think was a really lucky circle from then on. I'd sent it in purely on spec. It was just being in the right place at the right time. Oil painting was on its way out, there was a huge sea change movement from oils to watercolour, small scale stuff was on its way and I just happened to be in on it.”

While his early books were black and white, colour commissions started to come up. “That called for slightly different approach. There are some people who will write a book like this first and clarify the teaching points they want to make. I know the points I want to make so I start off with the pictures. That's the exciting part for me.”

Basically he'd deconstruct each picture, demonstrating how it built up in layers from blank paper to the finished work - which he achieved by literally photocopying them at stages as he did the painting. “This was of course before digital applications came along, you could do a basic line drawing and put it on photocopier and run watercolour paper through it.

“You used to have to make sure the content was national so you had to have Scotland, Wales and Ireland represented. Then we had another very clear mandate - it had to sell in America, no question whatsoever. It's the biggest market but I always made sure we were well represented, by which I mean East Anglia. It appears in every one of my books!”

From the Market Square in Bury St Edmunds, to the Water Pump at Westleton he's drawn and painted them all. “Woolpit was always a favourite place of mine, so that has done rather well, as has Lavenham.”

By this time, the amateur art market was in full flow as was the publication of Richard's books.

“I couldn't really do enough, I was working with three different publishers at one time but that's changed now. We are coming to the end of that style though something else will come along but I am not sure what yet. Fortunately I did have my time.

“My main income is from the books still and from teaching courses. The other thing I have done is consultancy work and the Art Course magazine with de Agostini, who do the bit part magazines. The Art Course one bordered on being one of their best sellers.

“When they launched that they didn't have anyone in-house who knew the amateur art world and who had the skills and knowledge about constructing courses and teaching. So, again through various contacts, I got a phone call and did that for about three years.

“I did issues number 1 to 99 and to go with that were videos because it went international. It was quite big in Germany and massive in Japan, they loved it, so yes, I am probably very well known in Japan, I have got the dubbed videos to prove it and they are comical! Some of videos were shot in this region too. They would come here to film a lot of the outdoor shots and we filmed at Dedham and on Walton beach.”

Richard said that during the 80s and 90s: “People couldn't get enough of watercolour and this type of amateur art was such a big thing, for me it was a matter of being in the right place at the right time.”

He was beetling all over the country running courses at art centres and various workshops, which included Heatherley's School of Art in Chelsea, but it was all getting a bit wearing. “It wasn't quite where I wanted to be and then Alison Bond, whose family farm in St Osyth, wanted to diversify a bit as farming is in decline and decided to convert a redundant cow shed into a teaching studio.

“So about two years ago, I came over to meet her. It was again another very dull, dark February day and when I came back a few months later the shell of this building was here.” And so he became one of the founding tutors and is teaching at Watershed Studio five weekends this year.

When he met Debbie (with whom he is about to celebrate his 21st wedding anniversary) at a friend's wedding, she was lecturing in law at Essex University. “Seemingly we had no common ground whatsoever - I was a probably quite underpaid and maybe over-adventurous artist and she was a highly academically qualified law graduate.

“We instantly formed a remarkable working partnership with the books. I would paint the pictures, get them all laid out and start to write and she could read through and pick me up on things like 'on p73 you said use Burnt Umber and here you are saying use Burnt Siena' - I would have missed it completely. So she took on an editorial role for me with publishers. She's very good at proofreading and she also does all the admin for all the courses I do. It is almost like having a manager.”

His last book to date was Painting the Great Outdoors, which was aimed firmly at the US market. “Luckily I had been there and had enough references because I've spent time in Denver in the Rocky Mountains - I once thought about the possibility of living there but I decided it was not for me.”

Leafing through this book, Richard has moved a million miles away from the buildings he used to draw. “It had to feature woodlands, boulders and mountains but this is actually Elveden Forest,” he said pointing to one spread. “So though it was aimed at the American market, they got Elveden! The grey wolf I painted is actually at Colchester Zoo.”

Another recent book of his is Learn to Draw in a Weekend, “I didn't really want to call it that though. Being realistic it should say weekends with an 's' - I was always reluctant to dive headlong into 'I can show you how to paint in a weekend' because I never really believed you could but there are things you can learn in a weekend and it builds up.”

If you follow the step-by-step instructions and practise you should be able to master drawing, perspective, shading, colour as well as master distortions through glass. He makes it look very easy! “Everything comes full circle. I started off teaching children to draw with silly little things like showing them how to draw a circle but we try and do something a little more adult and step by step it takes you through that. I genuinely believe it can be done if you follow this book.”

Of his weekend courses he said: “People come here to work with me to learn. I only have one style of painting and that's very simple. It's just that it takes an awful lot of confidence, washing a lot of water on paper, putting a lot of paint on and never letting it dry and then putting on more paint and then more paint.

“With this picture of irises I started with a green wash, then I then dropped more paint on and started to build up. The tones are created almost by throwing really wet paint on and letting it make its own way across the paper. Only when it is dry will I then start to clarify the shapes.”

He learnt his technique by pure experimentation. “I knew watercolour was what I wanted to do. I trained in oils but I couldn't get it to do what I wanted it to do, I couldn't get the texture.

“And I still paint for pleasure not just as a means to an end. Funnily enough I am going to paint this week and it's going to be in oils again after 20 odd years.

“My teacher said as I left college, all of your work will go round in circles and you will end up where you first started but each time you will expand a little bit and take it a bit further.

“I love my adopted home here. Debbie and I have a good circle of friends, we live near the sea and I can quite happily walk into the fish merchant down the road and say I want a couple of fish heads please. He'll say 'for another painting?' and I'll say 'yup' or I'll ask for an attractive looking lobster. They know me.

“This is very much my painting now, fish and iris! The fish are straight out of the North Sea and that's the subject of my this year's Royal Academy entry for the summer show. We will see what happens!”

Richard's telephone number is 01255 221511 and his website is www.richardtaylor.co.art

Watershed Studio has over 60 art courses arranged this year. To contact them ring Allison Bond on 01255 820466 or see www.watershedstudio.co.uk

Turn to this week's Gallery on p30 to see an example of his work.

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