Name: Jeremy Paul
Job: Wildlife painter
Where: Isle of Man
Hi Jeremy. What do you do?
I’m a painter, but I specialise in wildlife. I paint birds and animals around the world. I’ve been doing it for getting on for 30 years and it’s taken me to all sorts of places, doing what I love doing.
I manage to sell pretty well everything I do. My main business is the original paintings, I do a few commissions but I prefer to paint what I want to paint. I live on the Isle of Man, and I have one exhibition there every two years, and one every other year in Guernsey. I also deal with one or two galleries in the UK.
Were you always an artist?
I originally trained as a marine biologist. I had a degree and a PhD in Marine Science, and I never set out to be an artist at all. I was always interested in science, and whilst I was one of those kids who could draw and enjoyed it, I never did it seriously. My only art qualification is a Grade 3 O-Level.
Marine biology took me to live in some fairly wild places, particularly the West coast of Scotland. I spent a while living on an island off the coast of Skye, helping the island owners develop a shellfish farm. Shellfish was my specialism. When I set out to be a marine biologist I had visions of Jacques Cousteau swanning around the Carribbean but it never worked out like that. There was no television on this little island, so I started painting birds. As with most marine biologists, that job was a short term thing, and I ended up unemployed. I was unemployed for two years, during which time I decided I was going to start painting more seriously. At the end of that time, I had my first exhibition at Ashford Public Library in Kent, and ended up selling quite a lot of paintings. It gave me such a buzz, I wanted to carry on. I ended up working again on marine biology on the West Coast of Scotland, but I carried on painting.
I was then working for the government seafish industry authority on the West Coast of Scotland. The job entailed travelling around the highlands and islands of Scotland, and there was so much wildlife, so I did a lot of drawing and painting. After a couple of years I moved back to the Isle of Man again to continue working in marine science, but I carried on with the painting and when the marine science job didn’t work out, my only alternative was to work in London for the Fisheries Ministry. There’s no way I would ever go and work in a city, so I said ‘oh well I’ll see if I can make a living out of painting’. This was 1989, the mortgage rate was 15%, my second child had just been born, and I was going to be an artist.
I’ve been painting for a living ever since. It’s just one of those things being an artist, the more you practice the better you get. It’s embarrassing now when I see some of my really early work. They come up in auction occasionally and people contact me about them. You do the best you can at the time I suppose!
How has your background influenced what you do now?
I wouldn't have been an artist if I hadn’t been a marine biologist. My work is very detailed and correct, and it definitely comes from science background. I wouldn't paint the way I do, I don't think, although it's hard to say. Education is something everyone should cherish. It’s the one thing you can get as much as you can out of and no-one can take away from you. I loved being a marine biologist and I love being an artist. I can't separate the two.
What's your process of completing a painting from start to finish?
I’m very much a studio painter. I don’t do any painting out in the wilderness, but I do spend a lot of time out there. I take photographs and work from them. When I’m planning a painting (depending on the subject) I’ll look through all the photos I’ve got and pull out half a dozen, then create the painting in my mind from different elements, rather than just reproducing the picture. Photographs are a reference and an aid, like having a model in front of you.
On my last trip to Botswana, I came back with full photo records, not just wildlife, but dead trees, rocks, sky, everything and anything – a full photo record of the place. With wildlife art once you’re established in it, you can look at someone’s paintings and tell if they’ve been there or not, because of the light and the environment. I try and get that in there. It all has to come together and be right, bringing all those elements together and creating the final composition you want. I don’t do any preliminary sketching, I just tend to get on with the painting. It looks an unholy mess to start with. I just refine and refine it until it’s done. I keep working on the one painting and keep at it and just batter it into submission.
How long does it take to finish a painting?
That’s a question I’m asked more than any other. It’s very hard to say. A small painting I can do in a couple of days, a bigger one might take 2 or 3 weeks. I do get bored after a while and want to move on. The more you do the quicker you get at painting. I can produce an effect now a lot quicker than 10-15 years ago. When you start out if you do realistic work you can become obsessed with detail. I’ve gotten over that, so now I don’t obsess about getting everything exactly perfect.
Do you have a lot of your own art on the walls at home?
Yes my home is full, it’s a bit of a gallery I suppose. They’re mostly ones I’ve shown somewhere and not sold and thought ‘I’ll keep that’, but there are one or two special ones that have won awards and things. There are some I secretly hope won’t sell, but it’s the way I make my living. But yes occasionally I’m almost disappointed when one sells.
What takes up most of your time?
Watching paint dry. Which is true in effect. Most of my day is spent in the studio painting. I tend to work a 9-6ish day, mostly just getting on with the laborious part of the painting. Just me and Radio 4. If the weather’s particularly good or there’s something interesting I want to do, I can drop everything and go. Living where I do on the Isle of Man, it’s a bit isolated but within ten minutes I can be watching seabirds nesting on the cliffs, or up in the hills. I do spend the odd day or so disappearing into the countryside and pretending I’m working. But you never know what you’re going to see and what might spark the idea for a painting. Something you might have passed umpteen times, you can see it literally in a different light and it gives you an idea for a painting.
Ever been tempted to paint anything other than wildlife?
I’ve only ever seriously painted one other thing. That was racing cars, back in my youth. I used to do little drawings of racing cars and sell them to school friends. But no I’ve never really thought of doing anything else. It’s strange because so many people ask me why don’t I paint fish, considering my marine science background, but fish don’t inspire me to paint in the same way. I’m not sure why, it must be a different part of the brain.
Ever get lonely painting on your own?
Yes. I’m on my own most of the time, and I can go for days and not see anybody other than my wife, and my children when they were at home. That takes a bit of getting used to. Discipline’s a lot of it. A lot of people think I’ve got an idyllic existence, and I am very much my own boss, but I’ve also got to have my own motivation and my own discipline. No one tells me I have to work. Discipline is a very important part of being a professional artist. You can’t wait for news or motivation or inspiration, you’ve just got to get on with it. I have bad days, and sometimes I can end up painting over what I’ve done the next day.
What’s the hardest part?
Getting an image from my mind to the painting on the board. It’s hard producing what you’ve set out to do. When you set out, you have an image in your mind of what you want it to look like, and getting to that stage is the most challenging thing day to day. Sometimes it doesn’t work out. It’s a strange thing, painting. Some days everything you do is absolutely perfect and all works, other days you don’t seem to be able to do anything right. What makes the difference, I don’t know. As you perfect your technique, you have to challenge yourself to do more and more difficult paintings, using a difficult light or atmosphere, so you haven’t got a bland image.
Is painting still a hobby for you?
It stopped being a hobby for me a long time ago, even before I started earning a living from it. My idol is a painter called Robert Bateman, and when I first saw his work, it took my breath away. I thought ‘I want to be able to do that’. I still think that! I suppose it stopped being a hobby then because I set myself this goal. Even when I was working full time I would come home and paint for 2-3 hours each night, so it stopped being a hobby. A hobby is a class once a week, or painting once a year. Does it stop my enjoyment, no it doesn’t. It’s something I would do even if I didn’t need to make a living from it. It gives me a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction, and I still enjoy the challenges of creating a painting. Once you embark on the path of being an artist it becomes so much a part of you that you can’t stop it.
Is it difficult to make a living as an artist?
It’s not an easy way to make a living, and I know a lot of very good artists who struggle. You never know from one month to the next what sort of income you’ll have, if any. I can go for months with no income from paintings, and I just hope to get it all in one go when I have an exhibition. It’s a hard way to make a living but doing it while you’re doing another job would be equally difficult because you can’t put the time in, so you can get stuck between the two. It’s a big commitment to say ‘I’m going to make a living as an artist’. I know quite a few people who do illustration work as well for books and magazines. You’ve really just got to do it and try it because it’s one of those things, my wife said she always thought one day I would give it a go. There’s no point looking back on life and wondering if you could have done something. Once you get to a certain level of work, you just have to take the leap and try it.
What qualities do you need to survive as a painter?
A big part of being a professional painter is having discipline and self motivation. People do think ‘He does a few paintings and sells them’, but you’ve got to have that drive and motivation. That’s probably something a lot of would be artists fall down on. Nobody’s going to tell you what to do.
Where’s your studio?
I used to rent a studio, but now it’s in a converted garage at my home.
Do you find it hard to switch off from work?
No not really now. But at the end of the day the painting I’m working on gets put on an easel in the living room. I’ll be watching tv but still glancing at the painting looking at things to change. I never switch off and I always look at it, thinking ‘I need to change that tomorrow’. I would say always work from somewhere you’ve got your paints laid out, and you don’t have to pack them away then set them up again in the morning. I can do 5 mins on a painting if I see something that needs changing, then go back to doing something else, so having that space with everything set up really helps.
Doing what I love doing. There aren’t many people who get to do what their passion is for a living. I’m very lucky in that respect. I get great satisfaction from someone coming and buying my paintings. I also I get huge pleasure from just seeing what I’ve produced. I’ve travelled to Africa 4 times, India, both polar regions, and seen some amazing wildlife from around the world. All on the back of doing some paintings. Can’t be better.
I don’t think there’s anything, there’s no downside. Except – I’m used to it now but I suppose when I had small children and a mortgage, it was difficult not knowing whether I was going to make any money. That’s the only downside, it’s very precarious. But in terms of the work itself, there’s nothing not to like about making a living as an artist.
Any good advice?
You’ve got to have a thick skin. Galleries can be the most awful people to deal with, particularly in cities. You’ve got to have a thick skin and when they say they don’t want your work, you just have to think ‘well it’s your loss not mine’. You’ve got to keep at it, and have self belief in your work.
Anything you’d change?
No. The ultimate ambition is to get more money for fewer paintings, but right now I consider myself extremely lucky. That luck has come about from lots of hard work.
So you don’t think some are born artists?
I’m not convinced about natural artistic ability, and nor would you be if you saw some of my early paintings! People say ‘Oh what a talent, a gift’. It’s not. I’ve learnt how to do it. It’s a skill I’ve developed. If I did have any gift or talent, I’ve worked hard and put in thousands of hours. Like playing a musical instrument, most people can hammer out a tune on the piano, but if you want to be a professional, you have to practice and practice. Painting is exactly the same. I could teach somebody to paint a reasonable painting fairly quickly. To get to a level someone would buy, you’ve just got to practice and hone your skills. That’s what I’ve done. I’m a great believer in this ‘10,000 hours rule’ - to perfect a skill or talent that’s the time it takes and that’s what I’ve done.