An Artist's Life
PEOPLE: JAMES WILKINSON
He's a self-confessed sci-fi nerd, aspiring author, clothes-maker and loves dancing. Q&C speaks to talented crafter and illustrator Neal Clewes about moving from canvas painting to using digital platforms, and the TV personalities and pop stars behind his inspiration.
Neal Clewes, aged 40, grew up near Shrewsbury in North Shropshire. He studied at Stoke on Trent college and Yorkshire Coast college, and graduated from Liverpool John Moors University. Neal now divides his time between working in the food retail industry and, when time allows, fires up the iPad for some creative alone time.
Tell us a little about your background and how you came to illustrate?
NC: I’m a creative hobbyist. In my free time I have many creative outlets to keep my skills fresh and to ensure I learn new things along the way. I’ve always been a creative type and remember making cardboard models of spaceships when I was a young lad. I once made the ship from the TV series Lost In Space. I got through many a role of sticky tape and cardboard in my early years. Gaining my confidence from completing a fashion course in the 90s, I enrolled in an art foundation course to further my skills which developed into many aspects of creative design, from screen printing, life model painting to textile craft. Seven years later I'm proud to have finished with a Fashion/Textiles BA (Hons) Degree.
Is illustration your only line of work?
NC: No I work full time in the food retail industry. I will be completing my 24th year shortly there, a very challenging and fast paced area of work. My art illustration work is something I do to pass the time when I’m relaxing at home or on holiday away from my busy work life.
(Left-right) Tom Daley and Zachary Quinto
What are the integral qualities to approaching your work?
NC: I always strive to make my art and crafts unique and true to my own creative style, in particular with my digital work, with its bold shapes and colours. My craft-work is more based on natural elements.
What motivates you and your interest in art and craft?
NC: I’ve always been interested in science, the stars and space in general. I guess that’s why science fiction has always been an interest to me. It transports you to another world or place and away from the goings-on in the real world. I guess that’s why I like art, as it allows you to stop for a moment and think about what’s in front of you.
How has your practice changed over time?
NC: I used to do most if not all of my work on canvas painting in acrylic. This ranged from portrait work to mostly abstract pieces, using different textures and brush strokes. Now I tend to focus more on my digital work either on my Macbook or on a creative drawing app on my iPad Pro. My work on the iPad is relatively new and I’m still learning. I guess it's a new way to challenge myself.
(Above) Boy George
Your art seems to focus mainly on celebrity, can you tell us more?
NC: I like to challenge myself by choosing a celebrity I’ve been following such as Joe McFadden who did Strictly last December. I tweeted him the piece and got a positive tweet back from him, which pleased me as it's great to get encouraging feedback. I like to do iconic or current TV stars that interest me as an individual, as well pop stars old and new.
Is there anywhere at the moment where we can see your work?
NC: I used to exhibit now and again at local venues. I tend to post more online nowadays including Twitter. I also regularly post on Instagram. @ArtOfNeal is my tag name for both.
You have written a two-part book series, what was your inspiration?
NC: They were a huge challenge to myself. As a person who suffers with dyslexia I wanted to push myself in an area that I knew I’d find difficult. I chose the sci-fi theme to get me started, making it an easier but still daunting project. I had a basic idea in my head that I thought up years ago, based around equality. I’d originally wrote a short passage back then and knew I wanted to get the story down on paper. So three years ago I full on went for it and wrote my first ever book, all 72,000 words of it. My friends and work colleagues loved it so much they cheekily demanded a second book to continue my story. So after a few short months I started the second part to the story and a few months ago I completed it. So far it seems to be a hit with people who've read it.
(Above) Russell Tovey
Who is your greatest art inspiration and why?
NC: I don’t have one all time greatest inspiration, for me I take pleasure and inspiration from many artists. For me variety is key but if I had to pick artists that stand out for their prolific art pieces it would be Gilbert And George. Their art is striking and visually hits you when you come into contact with it. I remember seeing their work for the first time by chance at the Tate in London a few years back. It blew me away and has stuck in my mind ever since. I’m glad my old college lecturer directed me to them.
The million dollar question: Why illustration?
NC: I’ve always believed that art in whatever form should be in people's lives. Whether it's stock art from a cheap outlet, or something more original, art fires the brain, and makes you wonder about the piece itself and who painted it.
What memorable responses have you had to your work?
I did a portrait of a good friend of mine who had no idea I was doing it. He has a striking look and I wanted to capture it. When I showed him he was very overwhelmed. To this day I have that piece up in my house and I still get a thrill looking at it, its one of my favourite works.
Queen and Country magazine recently launched its Men in the Wild campaign which aims to continue the conversation about mental health, and find solutions to improve it. Some say the artistic life is a lonely one, while others extol the therapeutic benefits of creating art. What do you do to ensure you maintain good mental health?
NC: For me my art is something I do for myself to develop my skills. It’s solitary work, as I need my home environment to relax in and do the work. The knock-on effect is that my mental health is enhanced when a piece comes together and puts a smile on my face. It's magical.
In regards to mental health more generally, I have a fun outlook at life. When I’m away from work and my art, I do dance classes with a friend. It’s a fun outlet and we both get a kick out of learning something new, whether we're good at it or not. Its a giggle, and that’s what counts.
(Above) Will Young
What do you dislike about the art world?
NC: For me getting yourself out there and noticed is the hardest thing to do. You have to be in the right place at the right time. That’s the harsh reality of the art world, despite how wonderful it can be. You have to be on your A-game to make a name for yourself out there. I’m still unknown but when I’ve exhibited my work I’ve had great feedback. Also people have to be willing to pay for your art. Creativity takes time and that’s what costs. The love and hours that go into a work should be rewarded.
Is there a need for more of it?
NC: Absolutely. I cant imagine a world without art in it. That to me would be a sad place without soul.
Who has been your most memorable client and why?
NC: All of them. Everyone who has one of my art or craft pieces has made me a happy man. Just seeing their faces light up when I’ve created something for them is enough for me. Giving them a home-made gift means far more to them than something bought off of the shelf.
What is your dream project?
NC: The geek in me would have to say doing an art piece of the cast of Star Trek: The New Generation. It's my all-time favourite show and to produce an art work of them in my style and have it be seen would be a dream come true.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
NC: That’s simple, it's to be yourself and do what makes you happy in whatever creative outlet you choose. Find your style and go with it. Be true to yourself.
What’s next for Neal Clewes?
NC: I’ve got two projects on the go right now. I have started another book. I think I’m getting addicted to creative writing. This one is based in the present day and is written in the first person which will be another new challenge for me. It’s a love story between two men. So far it's just experimental dialogue and passage ideas that I need to take time to develop. The other project I’ve been doing is revamping a very old project I did years ago. I invented a board game. I made a fully functioning prototype, which has been lovingly played so many times over the years. I want to update it and see about actually getting it out there for real this time to be enjoyed by the public rather than just me, family and friends.
Follow Neal on Instagram: @ArtOfNeal