Exploring a bigger picture

Back in the fledgling days of mobile phone technology, then-journalist Christopher Ware came up with an effective way of escaping the intense demands of his job with the BBC – heading out into the countryside to work on his hobby of painting.

“We had one of the first mobile phones, which was about the size of a wheelbarrow. The BBC could only afford one in Sussex. I realised if I went out painting without it, you couldn’t be disturbed,” Ware, the latest focus of this newspaper’s Yorkshire’s Favourite Artist series, says. “I just loved drawing and even at work, most of my BBC documents were covered in doodles.”

It was a hobby which eventually developed into a highly-successful career that saw Ware move to Yorkshire and leave journalism behind. Since taking the leap 15 years ago, Ware has become well-known as the resident artist for the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, as well as for his successful project to complete an unfinished JMW Turner painting of Helmsley Castle.

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But admirers of the watercolourist, who specialises in landscapes and seascapes in addition to his railway pictures, may not be aware quite how much his work is informed by his previous career in news through his focus on specific details to tell a wider story.

Chris Ware watercolour artist at Levisham station on the North York Moors railway with his dog Rumba.

“If I’m doing a painting, I want a reason for doing it, they are trying to convey something,” Ware explains. “It is going back to this idea of reporting. You tell the truth with what you see and let people draw their own conclusions.”

After becoming a full-time artist at the age of 45 in 2004 and moving to Yorkshire to set up a studio at the old stationmaster’s house at Levisham Station, Ware was soon confronted by the impact of the credit crunch and the global financial crisis as he was establishing himself while supporting a young family. “It was a really bad time to be an artist because art is the last thing you buy if you don’t have any spare 
money,” he says. “At the start of the recession, I knew more about the economy than the Chancellor did. At the beginning, people would pay hundreds of pounds in cash for a painting, then it was on debit cards, then credit cards and then people stopped buying altogether. You could just tell what was happening.”

But rather than give up on his dream, Ware used the situation as an inspiration. He went to live in the Outer Hebrides for two winter months, painting the stormiest place in Britain, which eventually resulted in an exhibition called Facing the Storm.

“When the recession started in 2007, 2008, I started to think about how you would represent this as paintings,” he says. “I heard someone on the radio talking about how the Outer Hebrides was the stormiest place in Britain in January and February. The work I created was looking at and always asking is this getting better or worse, is the light getting further away or closer, do you feel invigorated or threatened?

“At the same time, I did a video blog of me going out in the storms and people were thinking, ‘This bloke is mad’. But that was good marketing!”

Ware always loved drawing and painting from a young age and says even as a toddler, he was inspired by trains thanks to his father’s job as a railway designer. “I can remember being three and drawing steam engines quite carefully and adding the fog by scribbling all over the page,” he says.

While his passion led to him take life-drawing classes at art college as a teenager while studying for his A-levels in the 1970s, Ware says he “made a bit of a mess” of the exams and ended up working for his local paper, the Hertfordshire Mercury. He went on to the Crawley Observer and then eventually on to the Evening Argus in Brighton. “I started in the week of the Brighton bomb in 1984 but I was stuck in the district office covering everything else that wasn’t the bomb 
as I was the new guy.”

As his career progressed, Ware got a job for BBC Radio Sussex before moving into regional television at BBC South Today, the local equivalent of Look North. But despite the round-the-clock nature of his job, Ware kept up his love of painting and sold his first picture in 1992 after a friend commissioned him to paint a picture of her house for £30.

He started selling prints from his village shop and in 1998 went part-time with the BBC to allow more time for painting. For several years his intense schedule involved working punishing hours for three days a week for the BBC, having one day of rest and spending three days a week painting.

As his art career began to gather pace, Ware’s parents purchased the then-derelict Levisham Station House to begin what turned into a two-year restoration project. Ware helped with the work, with his trips to the station and the nearby North Yorkshire countryside also providing him with considerable artistic inspiration.

After successfully managing to sell pictures of the Sir Nigel Gresley locomotive that used the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, Ware worked his way up and down the line, painting the stations along the route. Circumstances combined to offer 
Ware the chance to move into art full-time – setting up an open studio at the restored Levisham Station allowed him and his wife to fulfil their long-held ambition to move to Yorkshire.

In addition to becoming the railway line’s resident artist, in 2009, Ware spent time behind the scenes at Tate Britain, being allowed to handle and study the watercolours of JMW Turner, one of his artistic idols. He then spent a year turning an unfinished Turner sketch of Helmsley Castle into a watercolour, going to the extent of getting a paint-making chemist to recreate the same colour palette Turner would have used. “When I paint, I’m constantly trying to stretch myself and learn more about art,” he says.

In keeping with his desire to use his art to reflect the world around us, the print provided by Ware to The Yorkshire Post today is of the tidal island Spurn Point – somewhere he has been deeply familiar with since being a child as his father was from Hull. Ware says he sees the location and its shifting sands as ideal for exploring the theme of detachment as Britain’s impending departure from the European Union approaches. “I’m working on the theme of Brexit at the moment and Spurn Point is detaching itself from the mainland,” he says.

Ware says his work elicits many different reactions. “If people look at a picture of Helmsley Castle and just think ‘that’s is nice’, then that is fine. “But about once a month, you’ll get someone coming in with a real ability to reads the pictures. It is an absolute joy to make that connection with someone.

“But painting should be beyond words. I do a lot of art talks but ironically I always say ‘If you really want to know, look at the picture’.”

WareHouseArt, Station House, Levisham, near Pickering. YO18 7NN. For opening times call 01751 470 112.