In conversation with James Sweetman
Padraig thank you for agreeing to be part of my ‘In Conversation with’ series, where I’m interviewing a range of people who have aligned their ‘passion with their profession.’
You are a well-known artist specialising in landscape painting, were you always interested in art, how did it all start?
Actually, I came pretty late to art and painting. As a child I used to love painting. Aged eight or nine I went to a local art class in Dun Laoghaire but I got little or no encouragement from the teacher so that didn’t last too long! I also had a friend at the time who was gifted at drawing and made my attempts look pretty basic. Neither experience did my confidence any good but I kept doodling away on my own. There wasn’t an option to study art at secondary school, so I took up music which became my first real passion. That continued into college where I took music as part of an Arts degree. Other than some sketching I had very little involvement or even interest in art.
So when did that change, when was your interest rekindled?
In the late 1990s I started to develop an interest in contemporary Irish art. I was working in the software localisation industry at the time and started to collect some work by living artists such as James English and Brian Smyth. But it was after I picked up a piece by French artist Claude Idlas that I started to realise I wanted to paint myself. There was a simplicity and boldness about her painting that I just loved, and of course I thought, I can do that! So I started to teach myself to paint at the weekends. I would take trips to galleries, or look at the art showing on the railings of Stephen’s Green in order to get some inspiration and ideas. Then I’d go home, set up, open a bottle of wine and spend the rest of the weekend painting! And it has just grown from there.
You are living many artists’ dream, living on Achill Island, painting, exhibiting, running workshops, tell me more about your career as an artist.
Yes, it’s amazing how life turns out. This was never part of the plan when I was day-dreaming at the back of the class in school! But from the moment I sold my first painting I knew this was the only thing I wanted to do. It was the first time I had real belief in myself and in what I was capable of doing. It took me forty years to get to that point, but all of the experience I gained during that time is what has allowed me to turn what was a hobby into my livelihood.
Was there one moment when you decided ‘right I’m giving this a go, I’m going to be a full-time artist?’ What was that like?
From the moment I sold my first painting – to a total stranger, not a family member or a friend – I knew that I wanted to make my living as an artist. The knowledge that I had the ability to create something that other people not only enjoyed but were willing to invest in was just incredible. It was a ‘eureka’ moment and it gave me a self belief that I never really had before. So from that moment I began planning how I would develop my career as an artist to the point that I could take it full time.
After two years of exhibiting my work at Art Ireland fairs, galleries started to show an interest. My client list was growing too. I was able to put together a business plan, with projected cashflows based on data I had built up from my exhibitions and sales. I was in a position to say, ‘well if I can produce this amount of work and make this amount of income from it on a part-time basis, what would happen if I went full time, produced more work and took on some more galleries’. So at the end of 2006, after going through the business plan with my wife Anne, I made the move and became a fulltime artist.
It’s not the ‘drop everything and follow your passion’ story! Business plans and cashflows don’t usually feature in those, but I wanted this to work and I wanted to be as sure as I could that it had a chance of succeeding.
At the time I was working as a manager in a software development company but I had lost all interest in it, and had grown to resent it. I had grown tired of it all. I was in someone else’s dream job, it wasn’t mine! So when I finished in software development and became a full time artist, the timing was just right. And it was an incredible feeling, because I really believed I could make it work.
How did you go about growing your business as an artist?
From the outset I decided to go directly to the general public to show my work. I started by taking a pitch on Stephen’s Green, showing on the railings. That went well; I sold some paintings, got great feedback. So I did another weekend that same year on the railings, and that went well too. I decided to take the money I had made from the sales over those two weekends and put it towards taking a stand at the Art Ireland fair that year. That was 2004 and the art fair (Art Source as it is now called) has remained one of the key weekends in my calendar.
Over the years I have built up a steady following of collectors and I my work is now represented in eight galleries in Ireland, all which approached me at the Art Fair. The Doorway Gallery in Dublin is my main representative in Ireland and they host a solo exhibition of mine every two years.
I’m a firm believer that in order to make a living as an artist you have to run two strategies in parallel – exhibiting with galleries and showing directly at some of the art fairs. Each of the big fairs that I exhibit at have their own core following, so you are getting the opportunity to exhibit to a new market each time, while the galleries will also have their own core following and client list.
I’ve been running a series of summer painting workshops on Achill Island for the last four years. It is something I was slow to do as I am a self-taught painter but I was gently coaxed into doing it by the many requests and warm feedback I was getting! They run from May through to August and attract a great mix of painting enthusiasts from all over Europe and North America.
The final piece of the jigsaw is my website and blog, which pulls everything together, allows people to see my work, get information on the workshops and get in touch with me directly. It’s impossible to over emphasise the importance of having a good website to run a small business effectively.
Why did you decide to specialise in landscape painting, or was it just something that evolved?
That is something that has just evolved. At the start I tried copying paintings I liked, and painters whose work I like and these happened to be all landscapes. But it’s the west of Ireland landscapes in particular that I’m drawn to. To me they are what Ireland is all about, and there is an energy and a sense of timelessness in them that I try to get across in my paintings.
Have you had any formal training in art?
No, apart from four or five life drawing sessions I am pretty much self taught. I tended to collect discounted art instruction books and pick out snippets of information from each one that I could easily follow. But most of what I do now is based on the tried and trusted learning method of trial and error! And the beauty of working with oil paints is that once you follow a couple of basic fundamentals you can change, add and redo, until you are happy with the end result.
What was the biggest challenge you have overcome in your painting career to date?
The biggest challenge was and continues to be to keep the work at a consistent level and to keep it evolving and fresh. Unfortunately as an artist you can only sell a painting once! So it’s no good having one brilliant piece that appeals to everyone, and nine other pieces that no one wants. But equally you can’t keep reproducing the piece that everyone wants or variations of it, because then you quickly run down a creative cul-de-sac where you become known as a ‘one-trick pony’, which can be very hard to come back from. The challenge is to produce work that will allow you build a sustainable career over your lifetime. Work that will produce a relatively stable income, and yet continues to be seen by your existing collector base as being fresh, interesting and continually evolving. One of the biggest thrills I get is hearing the words ‘oh, this is different!’ as people come across my work. But it’s even better when some of my existing collectors say the same thing. Because that means I am keeping their attention, and surprising them.
To keep things evolving I’ve come up with a simple challenge for myself. I try to make sure I produce at least three paintings every year that move me forward in some way. It might seem like a small enough challenge to overcome, but it’s amazing how difficult it can be.
Are there themes that you explore in your work, or is there a particular message you aim to communicate through your work?
There are some recurring themes that inform my work – the quiet isolation and beauty that is found in parts of the west of Ireland, the timelessness of the landscape.
Old farmhouses, telegraph poles and out-buildings feature strongly in my work. I love the simplicity of some of the old Irish farmhouses, with their twin gable-end chimneys that have become part of the Irish landscape and hold generations of history. But my paintings are about not only what you see in the landscape but also about what that landscape makes you feel. I want to somehow get across the magic of a place that, if you manage to capture it in a painting, or a poem, or piece of music, will instantly bring you back there and recreate some of the feelings you get from being there.
But ultimately I leave it to the viewer to take what they want my paintings. And the only message I want to communicate is: ‘look at this amazing landscape, this is Ireland’.
Who are your influences? What artists inspire you?
When I started to paint I began by copying paintings by Paul Henry and Markey Robinson and others, and I can see those influences in my work now. I love Donald Teskey’s work, particularly his large seascapes and coastal scenes. And I love the way French painters are not afraid to use bold, strong colour. Cezanne and Monet would be my favourites.
I am inspired by the small number of independent artists in Ireland who are managing to build a sustainable and financially viable career for themselves from their art and are making work that is interesting and fresh. Artists that look to do their own thing and find their own path are inspiring; Gerard McGourty is someone that comes to mind.
How do you balance the creative side of your work with the reality of running a business?
I keep them completely separate. When I’m in the studio all I do is paint. My studio is at the foot of Slievemore Mountain on Achill Island where there is no broadband signal, so I don’t have the distraction of constantly looking at my email and facebook.
There are times when I will spend less time in the studio and more time at my laptop working on my website, updating images, planning exhibitions, running workshops. I find that I spend about 40% of my time in the studio and the rest exhibiting and managing the business and marketing side of things.
What do you enjoy most about what you do?
The time it allows me to spend with my family. I have three children under five and I get to plan my workday around their schedule. We get to have lunch together when the twins come home from school and some mornings Anne and I go to the nearby swimming pool with Tom and on Thursdays I get to mind Tom for the whole morning and so we spend some time on the beach, or go for a walk and head for a coffee somewhere. I suppose it’s what you called quality of life.
I also love the fact that there is no place to hide as a landscape artist. Your work speaks for itself. It either connects with people or it doesn’t. There is nothing you can do to try and make someone like it, or want to buy it. And that means there is no pressure to keep up a façade or pretend to be anything you’re not. You can just be yourself, which is incredibly liberating. And that feeds into my painting workshops, which are basically me showing people what I do and why I do things in a certain way.
I know many people out there would love to be earning their living by doing the work they love to do or by following their creative passion, from your experience what advice would you pass on to them?
You have to have a clear vision of what it is you want to do and where you see yourself in three – five years. I don’t believe in the romantic notion of giving up everything and following your dream on a whim. It rarely works like that. If you have that vision and you have something, or do something that connects with people, then seek as much help as you can to develop a plan to make it work.
Also find your own market, don’t expect it to find you, or for someone else to find it for you. The best way to do that is to put your work in front of as many like-minded people as possible. For me that means exhibiting at the art fairs such as Art Source, where you get the opportunity to show your work to up to 10,000 art enthusiasts.
What advice, hints or tips would you give to aspiring artists?
Forget about sales. Put all of your focus and energy into creating opportunities for people to see your work, both offline and online. Get that right, and if the work connects with people, the sales will follow.
Also, get a good website. But don’t pay for someone to build it for you. There are lots of portfolio website providers that offer fully functioning, professional template websites for artists. Some are free, some come with an annual fee. These websites have been built specifically for displaying art and photography and most offer a seven day trial. All you have to do is add the content.
Aspiring artists might be interested in my blog – ‘An Artist’s Business Guide’ (www.artistbusinessguide.com) which is based on my own experience of starting out as an artist and features posts on some of the challenges faced by all artists who want to earn their living from their work.
What’s next for Padraig McCaul? What are your dreams or aspirations as an artist?
Well, the Doorway Gallery (www.thedoorwaygallery.com) will be showing my work in London at the affordable art fair, which takes place in Battersea from the 7th to 10th of March. The plan for the next couple of years is to continue to show my work abroad and to eventually get gallery representation in the US. As it stands about 60% of my sales are going abroad, to the UK , US and Canada. So it’s a question of just building on that.
I suppose the dream is to get to a certain level of public recognition and to have my work shown in some major public galleries.
Padraig, here are some questions I think you will find interesting. My aim is to ask everyone I interview the same questions.
What’s your most cherished possession?
It used to be my wedding ring until I lost it. Then it was my replacement ring until I lost that and the next one too! But my dad’s watch would be the thing I cherish most now. I’ve always felt he’s been looking over me and looking out for me as I was starting out as an artist. Unfortunately he never got the chance to know me as a painter or see my paintings as he died before I started to paint. So his watch is a nice way of keeping him close.
What are you currently reading (or learning)?
I’m not a great reader, I don’t make the time. But I am half way through Kevin Barry’s ‘City of Bohane’ and I have his most recent collection of short stories waiting in the wings. I love his writing, it is so visual and has so much life and energy in it.
What’s your idea of happiness?
Having a lazy morning at home with my family, after a successful exhibition and there’s money in the bank again to cover the next couple of months!
Who or what inspires you?
Music is my other passion and I get great inspiration from it. I spent 15 years playing with Dublin band the Harvest Ministers on a part time basis. I have music playing in the studio all the time and it varies according to my mood. Recently I’ve been listening to Irish band My Bloody Valentine who have just released their first album in 22 years! Their music is inspirational, they are innovators in what they do and it’s inspiring to see a band so dedicated to constantly pushing their own boundaries. David Bowie is someone else who has continuously moved his music forward, rarely content to fall back on past glories.
What character trait do you most admire?
Integrity. I think people who really believe in what they do and do it with integrity are very inspiring.
If you could send some advice back in time to your twenty-year-old self, what wisdom would you share?
Always believe in yourself and your own judgement. Don’t allow yourself to defer to the loudest voice in the group, because your ideas and opinions are pretty good too!
If you had a motto what would it be?
Only create work that excites you.
Padraig, it has been a pleasure speaking with you.
James Sweetman is a highly-rated and well-respected Executive and Personal Coach, Trainer, Keynote Speaker, Author and Columnist