I used to be a parcel courier. I got up each morning at 6:30am, did my shift then went home again. I drove many miles and delivered many parcels. It just about paid the bills but I wanted to make a change.
I knew I couldn’t do this all my life but I was struggling to find a way out, I was just caught in the endless cycle of it all.
It began on July 7th 2007 where I used to help run a ladies self-defence class with my school of martial arts. I was the human punchbag, spending most Saturday’s getting bruised, battered and thrown to the floor.
And I enjoyed every second of it.
One day though, the lady black-belts decided that the following week we should all stop, get in touch with the gentler side of ourselves and use our lesson to paint instead.
That £20 of materials was translated into the most profound five hours of my life. The turning point. The day it all began. I painted a pile of crap I know, but that’s missing the point.
I LOVED it.
Up until then I had never so much as taken a pencil in hand. Never drawn, never sketched and certainly never painted. I’d had a mild interest in the visual arts but it was never strong enough for me to go to a gallery or pick up a book.
I had no idea what any of the mediums were, what they did or how colour worked. I knew absolutely nothing about any of it. Absolutely bugger all.
At aged 38 I discovered I liked to paint; but it would take another 5 and a half years before I thought of myself as an artist.
Working my ass off
You spend 12 hours a day working to make ends meet. You have to feed yourself, shop, do laundry and fit in some time to sleep. So how do you begin to teach yourself to paint? For me the key to learning was time. And to find as much of it as I could.
I used to get home at around 6:30pm, cook my evening meal, shower and tidy up. Then I would put on some old clothes and head off to my spare bedroom to paint.
I spend the hours learning about acrylic paint – all by trial and error. I saved enough to buy a canvas and I moved the paint around. I tried to learn about what worked and what didn’t. I threw almost everything away. I spent all the spare money I had. But I wasn’t getting anywhere.
When I realised I needed more materials I took up a part-time job in a bar. It gave me a little extra income but cut down my time for practice to a few evenings and the weekends.
Every weekend I studied, practiced and learned as much as I could. My work was awful. Grey sludge with no thought. I never went out for a drink, couldn’t afford to eat out and at one point didn’t even have a car. I had to cycle everywhere and even that was borrowed!
No money, no car, no life.
But still I kept going.
I never put anything up for sale so never sold anything. This went on for years until I realised that if I was ever going to sell anything I needed to use the internet.
And I thought to myself ‘If I can make a good enough website I can sell my work’. A simple enough concept but the delivery was to be anything but. My first site was appalling, I mean, really, really bad. I gave myself a Mexican looking brand too, what was I thinking? I chose the name Swarez after a dear friend called me that one day, I didn’t take it too seriously (and still don’t). It stuck and has remained ever since.
So now, alongside the endless painting practice I found myself knee deep in learning HTML and PHP programming. My friend offered me a job as a web designer off the back of me telling him I could make a difference to his welding supplies business and that I could build websites (which I couldn’t). He listened, he took a chance and I gave up delivering parcels.
He stuck his neck out for me so I had to deliver. I basically blagged my way into a job I couldn’t do – anything to get away from driving a van.
My knowledge of how Google worked, and all the technical things that came with that, was awful, but I knew I had to learn – and fast. I began studying Search Engine Optimization along with everything else (I was also training for my Black Belt in Karate for over 18 months too).
I survived on four hours sleep a night, it was all I could spare. I refused to think about going to a gallery with my work – I was too naive to understand how it all worked anyway so I ignored it.
My friend told me they took 50% of your money too; you can imagine what my reaction was to that? Besides my work was still appalling.
And still I didn’t sell anything.
Persistence and discipline
So I worked. Hard.
Day in, day out for five and a half years.
In that time I gave away my work, I recycled it, I decommissioned and recommissioned paintings I had done. I painted over some and threw most in the bin.
I kept spending any spare or saved money on materials and, through much searching, managed to find some space to work in that wasn’t a shed in the garden or the bedroom I slept in. A small studio space to put all my stuff into. It was cold, had holes in the roof and pigeons nesting.
But at last I felt I was on to something. It took three years to get this far. It was at this point I discovered enamel paint.
Right from the start I was determined to do this alone. I never really thought to ask anyone for help to be honest because I didn’t know what questions to ask.
No tutors or college courses, no representation from galleries, no one to build my website, no one to teach me how to market myself, no experience of branding and no idea how to turn what was in my head into something someone would want to own.
These are the things I had to discover for myself – simply by trial and error. One painful mistake after another. Where others around me had a life I chose to focus everything on learning my craft. I lost friends because of that.
This is a tough gig at times but sacrifices had to be made. Perhaps I chose a very hard way to do things but I’m stubborn and belligerent and a nightmare to myself. Perhaps also my own worst enemy, but it’s the only way I know.
I painted furiously and often in a state of mania. The forms and colours would swell in my head until I couldn’t keep them in any longer. That made for some epic painting sessions. From the word go I had the desire to paint large paintings; can’t explain why I just felt I needed to go big to make them worthy of the effort that went in to them.
The ones I loved I kept. I carried on learning about website design, SEO and eCommerce through my day job and took that into the evenings where I could try things on my own site. I had some improvements but usually followed by catastrophic errors.
All the time though, every day, I made myself learn something new. It was, and still is, normal to finish work at 1am.
I borrowed equipment and persuaded people to lend me things I couldn’t afford. I got a mezzanine floor in my friend’s warehouse to use and this, in early 2011, was the breakthrough I needed. Here I could at least keep warm and dry.
I could make a proper mess if I wanted to and I was close to work and home. But it was hard, relentless graft.
Night after night.
Weekend after weekend.
Believing in Yourself
After another two years I found myself with a choice to make. Stay in the comfortable job with a good salary (and carry on just for fun) or take the gamble and quit. How far could this actually go?
From the start I had funded everything out of my wages but by now I was living on the breadline. Broke. I had no savings, no-one to borrow off and nothing to borrow against.
Painting had become like a drug and one that needed more and more input; nothing was ever good enough and I became frustrated that I wasn’t making the most of my opportunities. My only viable option was to resign from my day job and start my own art business.
Essentially just to go for it and hope for the best. I had to dedicate myself to this with everything I had. I once heard that fear is temporary but regret lasts a lifetime. Easy decision really.
I had enough money to last two months – bit of a problem as I was committed to a lease on my studio for three years. But I took the gamble. On a positive note though I had a usable inventory of paintings, quite a lot in fact. Probably at least a hundred I’d accumulated over the years, and decent ones at that.
It was important to start off strong by offering the widest choice I could. My business plan was essentially built on a little faith and a lot of hope.
March 4th 2013. Swarez was now a Limited Company. It had taken nearly six years to get to a point where I believed in what I was doing sufficiently enough to make it into a business. I’d done the best I could do with my website (the only place anyone would be able to find me), the best I could do with my paintings and the best I could do with my time. I now finally thought of myself as an artist.
With no enquiries, little money and no income I sat for two weeks in a severe state of panic. Then I got an email from a guy in Dubai who saw my website. Then I got approached by an ad agency for an ad campaign with Unilever. Then the really hard work began.
The Stroud Studio: 09.02.2013
“It’s not the amount of brick walls you encounter that matters – it’s how many you choose to break down that counts”