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If you have been lucky enough to have seen one of Andy Butler’s drawings of cars, locomotives or hedgerows close up, you might mutter to yourself: “How does that man do that?” and be tempted to throw your own pencils and brushes away. It’s all down to being born in the engineering town of Burton upon Trent, a little stroke of luck and of course oodles of ability.
“Head always over the drawing board”
The foundations were laid at secondary school where Andy says he and the art teacher just clicked. He had never thought of drawing saucepans but took to it like a duck to water – trying to bring out the texture of an item and to master the treatment of light and shade. Technical Drawing was also on the curriculum, even more enjoyable than Art. The drawing board and tee square soon became Andy’s favourite pieces of equipment – to construct a helix or draw a screw thread or produce orthographic projection and surface areas of complicated shapes. In the evening, while the rest of the family was watching TV, Andy kept them company with his drawing board on his lap but in his head was miles away drawing a car or a lorry or a cross section through a car’s gearbox. Andy says his relationship with pencils stems from this time – it is the reason why he finds it so important to begin all his work with a pencil.
DESIGN AND ENGINEERING
It comes as no surprise then that Andy wanted to be a car designer but here that little stroke of luck comes in – instead of going down that route he was one of just a few who were taken on as an engineering apprentice in a company that built locomotives. After a five-year apprenticeship there was little that Andy did not know about locomotives and he then spread his professional wings, working for big names like British Rail, Eurotunnel, Alsthom and Bombardier, to mention just a few.
THE JOY OF WATERCOLOUR
While Andy’s expertise on rolling stock kept the family fed, drawing and painting fed his soul. He experimented with lines, shapes and abstract images, used spray cans, poster paints. He admits that he did not make much use of an oil painting set given to him by his mother but in 1998 came the big turning point: ‘Watercolour Challenge’ had aired on Channel 4 and Andy had watched it with enthusiasm. Another gift arrived: this time a W H Smith set of watercolours from his wife. Soon Andy got hooked on what watercolour can do – the way the colour spreads, predictable and yet not wholly predictable. Andy says he always has an idea in his mind of what he wants to achieve but it nearly always comes out differently. That is the joy.
“Predictable and yet not
Watercolour is the firm favourite now as Andy’s medium. Often when you put colour on the paper with the intention to blend it, as you concentrate on one part of the painting at the same time on the other side an area of paint dries with a hard edge. But Andy says over time he’s found a way to minimise errors and mishaps. There has definitely been an evolution in his style: now that he is able to use watercolour in a more precise way he can take bigger risks.
Andy loves detail, in architecture and people. So everything is fully drawn – people’s faces, the correct number of window panes in a building. What is noticeable is that there is almost a compulsion to come back to straight lines. And it’s equally noticeable that Andy does not change the motif to suit the paper, no, instead he makes the paper larger, wider by using a panoramic format. His paintings are based on his photographs – always several photos so that he can build his composition and then decide how big to go.
“Detail and panoramic format”
At the WOKAS Autumn 2022 exhibition Andy’s painting ‘Folkestone’ was chosen for the NFU Mutual Ashford, Tenterden and Whitfield Art Prize. Andy recalls feeling pleased, elated and quite emotional. He joined WOKAS two years ago, on moving to Tenterden, and values the fact that the society provides a platform for artists to exhibit. At the May 2023 WOKAS exhibition his painting ‘Hedgerow’ came second favourite in the people’s vote – that also means a great deal to him, to have that connection with the observer.
With its botanical theme, ‘Hedgerow’ is a new departure for Andy. He had taken photos of a hedge on a walk, then drew the outlines of the greenery and fruit with a pencil in great detail, started applying a light green and then darker shades where necessary. He uses Schmincke watercolours now after trying several other makes. How long did he work on the painting? The answer: about 120 hours. Andy is entirely self-taught, there are no courses on his CV. He mentions Edward Wesson and the contemporary painter David Curtis as influences whose work speaks to him, as well as the watercolourist Judi Whitton and Fabrice Moireau who keeps architectural sketchbooks on his travels.
The prospect of selling a piece of work is a motivator, Andy admits. His sales outlets are galleries and exhibitions. There is only one snag: potential buyers are not likely to have space on their walls for the large, panoramic formats he likes to use – so with that in mind he has to force himself to stay small on occasion. The ‘Hedgerow’ painting, he says with a laugh, would have been much larger if his wife had not convinced him otherwise.
“Finding subjects that inspire
is a constant challenge”
Before we leave Andy we have to briefly mention his double life, one where he is also successful at selling. During the seven years that he worked for Eurotunnel, Andy travelled through the tunnel every day to go to work on the French side. In his lunch hour he used to draw – racing cars in coloured pencil. Later, when he was working on contract abroad and living in hotel rooms, drawing was a highlight in the evening. And this is how Andy’s journey into illustrating began. He now takes commissions only and feels slightly ambivalent about the illustrating business, having been told that it devalues your art if you also work as an illustrator. It is difficult to see how that could be, as both lines – paintings and illustrations – exist in their own right and are testament to Andy’s skills.
MORE THAN A PASTIME
When you ask Andy how important art is in his life, he gives an interesting answer. Art started off as a pastime in parallel with his working life. He has always been interested in motorsport and when he started drawing pictures of racing cars his boys also got interested – with the result that they picked up their pencils. That was extremely gratifying, says Andy. Painting and drawing brought the family together and its influence was such that one of his sons went on to become an art director. So what does art give Andy now? Relaxation, he says without hesitation. To find some free time to paint is really precious.
Andy feels the best advice he could give anyone is to follow your own style as it is an extension of yourself. If you are true to yourself your artistic output will come naturally. If you are happy with what you are doing you will produce your best work. Develop your style, have a goal, keep working at your craft. Decide whether you want to make a living out of it or not. And importantly: you can have aspirations but it is important to be grounded.
There is no wish for the Painting Fairy from Andy. He feels that he is in a privileged position in that he does not have to sell his work to survive. So his constant challenge and joy is to be on the lookout for subjects that inspire him. And sometimes he surprises himself: who would have thought a while ago that a mere hedgerow could trump racing cars and locomotives.
Andy Butler is based in Tenterden.
Gunda Cannon was in conversation with him in June 2023.
Andy Butler, June 2023
Ivatt Class 4 locomotive - it's owned and operated by the Severn Valley Railway and known affectionately as the Flying Pig
Racing car - black fineliner pen and ink markers
Hedgerow - watercolour
Rye fishing boats
Hedgerow - watercolour