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Stephen Richardson - The Artist Interviews

This is the first in a series of interviews to be published monthly via my blog page, with a selection of Artists & Artisans based in the North East of England. The series is scheduled to run for the next year and I hope you enjoy the content and find inspiration and information in equal measure.

First up is Artist Stephen Richardson! He’s a Gateshead lad, so it’s fitting that we hold the interview in a Costa Coffee in the redeveloped Trinity Square in Gateshead’s town centre, a stone’s throw from where the once iconic multi-storey car-park made famous by its appearance in Mike Hodges 1971 film Get Carter, used to tower over the Gateshead skyline. That cold, grey and decaying monolith is gone, but today’s North Eastern weather harks back to it - It’s grey, dank, cold and blustery.

Much like the changing face of Gateshead and that of the Newcastle Quayside only a few minutes’ walk from Trinity Square, Steve’s career stretching back to the early 80’s has seen significant change. From his early days working in advertising studios, to his freelance graphic design and illustration business, through a 10-year self-enforced exile from the art-scene, to his current ‘super-realistic’ artwork, he has had to change and adapt and show remarkable resilience over the years.

Steve's 'Desert Rats' piece

Stephen’s body of artwork is wide-ranging and demonstrates diverse artistic skills, which are underpinned by an early career in advertising – and that’s where our conversation begins.

The early Days

Steve started out at Whickham Comprehensive School gaining an A-level in Art and being accepted for a place at Bath Lane School of Arts & Culture at Newcastle University. However, he decided against taking the university route, heading straight into work at a local Advertising Agency. A decision prompted by the low opinion of Art as a career choice in the North East in the late 70’s; ‘In those days, experience was everything. Folk would say that a career in Art was nonsense and the factories were the place to go for work’ says Steve.

Steve is also a self-confessed ‘home-bird who has never wanted to wander far from the nest’ and so he steered away from the London-centric art-scene as it was then and took up a position at Tony Harrison Advertising Limited putting his Artistic talents to use producing advertisements, posters, flyers and logo-designs for various clients.

An example of Stephen's early work - ’Brian Johnson , ACDC’ (1983 - Rotring ink pen on paper, aged 18)

‘I have fond memories of my time there’ says Steve, ‘I actually got a ‘U’ in Graphic Design at ‘A-Level’, but thankfully I had been working for several weeks at Harrisons and ironically they had hired me on the strength of my design work produced for this course rather than the academic grading I had actually been awarded.

His 10-years at the agency introduced him to many and varied technical skills : ‘When I started everything was done on a drawing board. It was all ‘cut & paste’, we used scalpel blades to carve everything up and then physically paste it all together. There were no computers. No Photoshop. The whole design process was run out of separate departments. You had photographers, type-setters, illustrators, copy-writers and, to produce the final piece, each department had to physically come together and contribute.’

Indeed this initial training bred an incredible attention to detail which manifests itself in the artwork Steve has produced of late. His stunning piece ‘No Words’ capturing the poignant moment a New York Fireman kneels clutching his Axe in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks illustrates this perfectly:

'No Words' Steve's iconic 9/11 inspired piece (2018 - Pastel on card, aged 52)

Going it Alone

Though the graphic design work was of interest to Steve, his desire to create his own artwork still burned and so after 10 years at Harrisons he stepped out into the unknown, setting up on his own as a freelance artist, illustrator and graphic designer, with the aim of freeing up time to focus on his own artwork. Many artists adopt this ‘portfolio career approach’, indeed there are similarities here with such a luminary as Andy Warhol who before his phenomenal ‘pop art’ success was a commercial illustrator and graphic designer.

This proved to be a time of great variety for Steve; ‘I got involved in an incredibly broad range of things. I did ‘blackboard’ signage for a local catering company. Traditionally chalked blackboards are a very fragile and easily damaged medium and not ideal for the adverse atmospheric heat and steamy conditions of busy restaurant environments, but that was the style they wanted me to retain, so I would actually paint the signage white first and then apply pastel and chalk so that it looked like a traditional blackboard whilst offering longevity. I produced designs for the Nike Catalogue and for Sky’s Christmas promotions. I designed silk ties for casinos and even designed a range of rugby and football strips for a company based down in Leamington, which resulted in my design appearing on the Moroccan International Football Team’s strip’.

An example of Steve's early freelance design work - a far cry from the artwork he now produces

However, despite this success in graphic design and illustration Steve’s own artwork was hitting a brick wall. ‘Remember that this was pre-Social Media, which today provides such a great platform to promote and publicise art to a global audience at the press of a button. Now, you can produce fine art anywhere you like - instant access and the marketplace at your fingertips – you have a much broader audience’. In the absence of such a platform, Steve sought recognition via entering art competitions but found the going tough.

‘I would pay £70 to enter a competition (which was a fair chunk of money back then) but got absolutely nowhere. I entered time and time again, and each time I would walk around the venue and look at the successful exhibits and was nearly always disappointed by the standard. It felt like my face just didn’t fit. It was a very frustrating time and after one particular competition down in York, I went to pick up my rejected artwork and it had been badly damaged, and I just couldn’t take anymore. I packed it in. For 10 years I didn’t produce a single drawing of my own. I look back on that time with huge regret. It feels like 10 lost years. I’m actually ashamed of it’.

Given Steve’s passion for his craft, the frustration and regret is understandable and highlights quite starkly the challenges of running a financially sustainable business in the creative industries. Especially as an artist. It wasn’t just that Steve struggled to make an impact via the art competitions, it was also the difficulty he had (and still has) in setting a price for his artwork which accurately reflects the time taken to produce it. He’s not alone here of course as this links to a broader point which plagues artists; How do you value your work?

The Value of Art

The value of art doesn’t seem to be measured in the same way as time equates to price and is valued as such in other industries.

‘Art is very odd in that value isn’t measured’ Steve explains, ‘If you are a Project Manager and you carry out work for a client or a customer, you charge an agreed, and often standard, hourly or daily rate as part of your fee, but Art doesn’t fit those parameters. For instance, you can take a pile of clothes and present it as artwork and value it at £200,000. How long did it take to do that? What level of detail has the artist gone into? What level of technical skill and ability? And yet people will pay that price. It is a very frustrating process. It’s not necessarily measured by skill or ability’.

This absence of a standard or recognised measure of valuing an artist’s time on a reasonable cost per hour based on technical ability and quality contributes to the wide variety of prices charged for often similar work. It also contributes to what seems to be a perception that art is expensive or an ‘unaffordable luxury’ for many, and consequently artists will often under-sell their work.

Steve explains; ‘My rough rule of thumb for my Fine Art is £30 per hour, but that can go out of the window depending on the piece that I am producing or the medium I’m working in. For instance, a standard sized pastel drawing will take me on average 3 to 4 weeks to complete and I won’t compromise on quality to make sure that I hit my hourly rate. I’m passionate about producing the best that I can in whatever medium I’m working in. I’ve tried to reduce my involvement in the piece – and it just doesn’t work for me.’

And when time is money, the consequences for an artist can be exceptionally harsh.

‘When I packed it in it was partially because I felt like I was going to have to change everything to achieve what I wanted. I was going to have to compromise the art that I was passionate about. I felt then, and still feel now, that the more you move away from the work you love (often for commercial reasons to make your business viable) the worse your work is.’

Steves change in direction also coincided with the dawn of the digital revolution and precipitated a period of retraining in computer graphic design facilitated by working nights at Boots for 5 years. Freshly ‘I.T.’d up’, Steve applied for a job at a local College for whom he had carried out previous illustration work and so started another chapter in his life. A highly successful 15-year chapter as it happens.

‘I ended up running the Audio Visual Department at the College with a staff of 4 working under me for 15 years’. That chapter ended with redundancy following a cost cutting exercise at the College, which brings us to present day! Steve is back where he is most comfortable, producing his own artwork.

Super-Realistic Art…Or is it

Steve classes the American artist of the last century, Norman Rockwell, as an early inspiration and you can certainly see his influence particularly in some of Steve’s military pieces including a colour interpretation of his Grandfather’s World War II black & white portrait and the similar ‘Desert Rats’ piece.

World War II Portrait of Steve's Grandfather

Interestingly, Steve’s other inspirations hail from the world of film direction; ‘I love my films and I love the guys who create films. Their skills are a combination of all aspects of creativity. To me it’s art on the highest scale. It’s using storytelling, music, acting, drama, graphics and art all in one. It is a remarkable skill to be able to take something that is in your mind and replicate it on screen.’

Steve points specifically to Ridley Scott (a local lad too), James Cameron, Christopher Nolan and Peter Jackson as inspirations.

‘They can see what others could not and have the self-belief to keep going when others doubted them’. He points to Scott’s choice of location for filming elements of the epic 80’s Sci-Fi movie Blade Runner; ‘Scott wanted to film at the Bradbury Building, a hotel built in the 50’s in Los Angeles. People were amazed. This was a science fiction movie and the Bradbury building seemed the most unlikely place. Yet, his vision was to film there at night, which transformed the look of the building - and it worked. Where others doubted, Scott could see it in his mind’.

Scott’s work is highly stylistic. However, when I ask Steve to describe the style of his artwork, he’s reticent to be tied down.

‘I don’t really think I have a style and I’ve never worked at a style. You may get artists who have a signature style and produce lots of similar drawings. I have never wanted to work that way. I’m not saying that’s wrong, not at all, it’s just not the way I work. I have a passion to produce the best artwork I can in whatever medium I’m working in.’

And talking of mediums, Steve’s preferred medium is colour pencil but latterly he has worked extensively in pastel and acrylic. His preferred pencils are Faber Castel’s range; ‘they are softer, last longer and produce a more consistent finish. But he will often invest in packs of less expensive pencils so that he can find the widest range of colours and therefore the subtlest of colour difference in his work. When working in pencil he prefers working with thick card and 700g board and he avoids using paper which is susceptible to warping given the layering and heavy application process.

Returning to his style, Steve remarks, ‘People have called my style ‘super-realism’ – but it’s not really that. I don’t want to just replicate. I want people to get lost in the image. To look, and look again, and each time find something different. That, for me, is what artwork is all about – it makes you look at something in a different light. It is a moment. It’s a snapshot. It draws your attention.

A lot of good artwork – you go back to it – you miss things the first time you look at it and you go back and find something new. It moves you and makes you want to return to it and look at it again.

I put my skill, my heart my soul into my artwork so that people can experience that.’

And here I feel we are getting to the essence of what Steve and his artwork is all about. Earlier, we alluded to the ‘value’ of artwork in a monetary sense, but in getting to the crux of what it is that motivates Steve, myself and, I dare say, most artists to produce the work we do, we begin to reveal the true value of artwork.

‘A chap who works at the market with me bought my Clint Eastwood piece – his reason ‘because it made me smile’ – that’s a result for me! That works for me.’

Steve's ability to bring old treasured photograph's to life is demonstrated by this piece.

And that’s it, isn’t it. Art makes you smile. It makes you remember. It makes you re-visit.

‘I remember a picture in my auntie’s house – a lake district night-scape with lights in houses and sheep in a field - it’s beautiful. I love that picture – and every time I go I revisit that picture and re-look at it, even though I’ve seen it countless times before.’

It’s a sentiment I share entirely. There is a moment when I watch people looking at my artwork and I can see in their eyes that they aren’t actually standing in front of my drawing, but that they are away in their memory in another place entirely, conjured up by the drawing. That’s my inspiration – and what ‘value’ can you put on that?

There is such a startling poignance when artwork provides a link to the past. Steve remembers drawing his labrador Monty before he died; ‘I knew I had to draw Monty before he went. It is the best thing I have to remember him by. It’s a very personal link to him’.

And the future...

So, what does the next chapter have in store I wonder. Well it strikes me, sat here chatting to Steve, that this is a man comfortable in his own skin and with his own position in life. There is a confidence born, I think, out of having traversed the long and winding road that has brought him to this point.

‘I’ve learned from past difficulties. This time round my art work will take priority. It may be that I need to supplement it with other paid work, like the T-shirts I produce, or using my graphic design skills. But I’m clear that my art comes first.’

There will be no more dancing to another’s tune, ‘I’m 52 and it’s taken me to this point in my life to be comfortable with my art – and I will now say ‘no’ if a proposed commission doesn’t fit with my process. Whereas, previously, I would have a go at anything and everything. It must be something that I buy into and believe in.’

And as we draw our conversation to a conclusion, I ask Steve, with 52 years of wisdom in the bank, what advice he would have for those starting a small, creative business?

‘Just go for it! Do what you love. I have done all sorts of jobs in my time, some of them mind numbing, and I look back and can’t believe I did them. So, if you have a creative skill - if you are good at it, and it brings enjoyment…then pursue it!’

If you like Steve’s work…

You can get in touch with Steve via his Facebook Page - SPQR Design - and he is open for commissions of all types including paintwork direct onto leather-jackets using enamel paint. You’ll also find him at Tynemouth Market every weekend. His website is due for launch later this year.

Up Next

Next up I'll be heading up to the wilds of Northumberland to catch up with Driftworks Tidal Art who work with reclaimed materials and driftwood to create unique pieces packed full of character.

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