Oil Painter Jeff Rowland

From film extra to oil rig contractor, Jeff Rowland has done it all, but he could never escape his passion for art. Now the North East painter is finally seeing his dream career take off with his first national tour.

Jeff Rowland Artist

As the acclaimed “king of cinematic romance”, Tyneside oil painter Jeff Rowland is taking the art world by storm. With a national tour underway and a contract with leading publishing group, Washington Green, he seems to have it made. But the 44-year-old remembers only too well the days when he contemplated giving up on his remarkable artistic talents for a “proper job” as he struggled to eke out a living.

Growing up in Percy Main, on the north bank of the Tyne, Rowland always knew he wanted to be an artist and when classmates from Norham High in North Shields drifted into the shipyards, he enrolled at North Tyneside College to hone his skills. Teacher Morris McPartlan was an encouraging mentor and Rowland was confident he could turn his talent into a career – after all, it was all he wanted to do. ‘Absolutely, without a shadow of a doubt, I always knew I wanted to work in art,’ he said. ‘I remember drawing a little Scottie dog at the age of four or five. My grandfather was quite good at art so everyone thought he had done it. ‘Art was all I was really interested in at school. I did a bit of swimming, but it was mainly art, art, art. ‘At college, I used to paint all the time, all through the night. I would only stop at about 7 o’ clock in the morning. I was just completely absorbed. ‘To me, it’s like when you read a book and get really involved and then the phone rings or the door goes and suddenly you’re back to real life. That’s how art is for me.’

In 1984 Rowland became a self-employed professional artist, but times were tough and the work didn’t pay. Every weekend, he would show his paintings at Tynemouth Station in the hope of making a breakthrough and even went door-to-door trying to find a route into the commercial market. ‘People used to ask me to do a portrait of their dog or child and I would do it, but I never knew where to turn to see if I could get a career out of it,’ he said. ‘I used to send off work to greetings card companies. I must have tried at least 100, but they all came back with the same standard letter – “sorry, not right now” and “we’ll keep your work on file”. ‘One summer, I put on a suit and took my folio around the shops, but they were just so cold towards me.’

Rowland took several jobs to pay the bills, including driving and topping cakes at Gosforth bakery, Greggs. He even became a film extra, with roles in Elizabeth, Catherine Cookson productions and Spender. When he turned up at the AMEC site to work on oil rigs, he finally found artistic acclaim, of a sort. ‘I was known as the “Toilet Artist”,’ he said. ‘It was a pretty grim job, with long hours in the freezing cold so I used to do these caricatures on the toilet wall. If I could make people smile by leaving a silly drawing I would do it. At the start, it was just a little doodle, but it became these big murals. ‘There were a lot of characters there and it is good to see those guys now. They are really pleased that my work has taken off.’

In 2000, money pressures became too much for the artist and he decided on a new career, enrolling on a Higher National Diploma course in advertising and illustration at Newcastle College. During his studies, he was recognised with an award from the North East Print Association, but his hoped-for job never materialised. ‘Getting the award was tremendous and I thought that would ensure I got straight into advertising work, but when I came out of college I just couldn’t get a job,’ he said. ‘I thought I would give art one more try, just to give it one more shot. I knew in my heart it was what I really wanted to do.’ This time, the determination paid off and Rowland secured the patronage of Tallantyre Gallery, in Morpeth. His work proved popular with customers and Tallantyre took it on to shows in London, Edinburgh and Dublin. In each city, it sold out in a day.

‘I have a lot to be grateful to Tallantyre Gallery for. It really put me on track,’ said Rowland. ‘The staff told me I would probably be picked up by a publisher. I never thought it would happen, but everything just took off from there.’ After joining artist network Aurora, he established a firm friendship with acclaimed painter Alexander Miller, who recommended his work to Washington Green. The publishers turned up at Rowland’s studio to view his work and returned with a contract. ‘It was like all my Christmases wrapped up in one – it really was,’ he said.

However, the moment was touched with sadness as the painter’s greatest supporter, his father Arthur, had died of cancer just four months before he signed the deal. ‘My Dad was my main guy; he always helped me. He was everything. He was my mentor, he was my best friend; he was just always there. ‘He even bought paints for me when times were tough and he never once said “just give up and get a job”. He was always supportive,’ said the artist.

The death of his father was a terrible blow, but Rowland was determined not to waste his big chance and now, two years on, he is ready to show off his new collection, “A Brief Encounter”, in a national tour, including venues such as Harrods. The series is made up of seven limited edition prints, heavily influenced by the artist’s love of cinematography. His work aims to capture romance, reminiscent of a bygone era, but Rowland’s inspiration came from a somewhat unlikely source – Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. ‘It’s a million miles from the images I do now, but it was a favourite film of mine for years. The cinematography is just amazing and I was always influenced by that. I always wanted to do something that captured that,’ he said.

Other influences, particularly the artist’s use of rain, come from films such as Road To Perdition and The Bridges of Madison County, but Rowland’s title piece is straight from the school of David Lean. ‘Brief Encounter is a bit of a dated film because it is very plummy English, which is rather funny, but the cinematography is fantastic. The director’s eye is just something else; it is really timeless. I just wanted to try to put that across in a painting and see if I could get it right,’ he said. However, the task was not easy and Rowland tried all ways to capture realistic rain until he finally settled on DIY brushes. ‘I tried over and over again to get the image of the rain falling,’ he said. ‘I have seen lots of artists do “after the rain” pieces, but not when it actually falls.

I was stuck as to how to achieve it, but I came across these DIY brushes and gave them a try. It just works fantastically.’ Rowland looked to cities such as Paris and New York for his recent collection, but he says the streets of Tyneside make equally good settings and he remains committed to the North East, living in Monkseaton, near Whitley Bay. He also maintains strong links with local charities and good causes, most notably designing Christmas cards for St Oswald’s Hospice in Gosforth, which cared for his father. And while his tour is taking him away from the region, he loves nothing more than returning to his Newcastle studio. ‘I’m in a really fortunate position of loving going into work and getting the work done in the studio,’ he said. ‘This is the best job in the world.’
Jeff Rowland at workOil Painter Jeff Rowland

This article published by North East Life

PUBLISHED: 11:02 11 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:37 20 February 2013