He was turned down by a string of galleries, but after going it alone, Alister Colley tells Sarah Freeman how he became the official artist for the Tour de France.
Alister Colley is man enough to admit that not everyone is happy with his painting celebrating the Tour de France in Yorkshire. It’s a typical Dales scene, all rolling hills and winding roads, with the Grand Départ peloton making its way past a few Yorkshire landmarks like the Ribblehead Viaduct, Sheffield’s Crucible theatre and the Brontë parsonage, but there have been a number of omissions.
“There are a few people who are offended that we haven’t included their favourite part of Yorkshire, but where do you stop?” says Alister, who works out of a studio in Pateley Bridge.
“We knew there were some iconic buildings that we had to include. Yes, I know the Tour isn’t going to the coast, but you can’t have a typical Yorkshire scene and not give Whitby a nod, so the abbey is there along with the whalebones. Initially we were going to feature 15 buildings, but it was impossible to whittle it down to so few and we ended up with almost double that.”
The Grand Départ print, which is now available to buy as a part of a limited edition series, is typical of Alister’s trademark illustrative style. It’s one which has seen him short-listed for the fifth consecutive year in the Fine Art Trade Guild Awards for the UK’s best-selling published artist. Not everyone in the art world approves of awards that reflect commercial success rather than pure creative endeavour, but since launching his own company Zeitgeist Fine Arts with his wife Claire Alister has always been unapologetic about the busines side of his art.
It’s not hard to see why. After studying art and design at Leeds Metropolitan University, Alister struggled for years to find an outlet for his talents. He applied for countless illustration jobs, but was told he didn’t have enough experience and he knew that he was unlikely to get any at the cleaning company where he worked to pay the bills.
So he literally went back to the drawing board. Trawling through magazines, when he saw an article accompanied by an illustration he would ring the editor and ask how much the artist had been paid and how long they’d had to turn it around. Armed with his imaginary brief, he would then see if he could do better and so a small portfolio began to build.
He had a number of false starts, but having given up his job with the cleaning company a chance conversation with an art dealer gave him the break that he needed.
“I’d been commissioned to do illustrations for a children’s book which had never seen the light of the day. One of the drawings was of York Minster as seen through a child’s eyes. It was inspired by my visits there as a kid. It’s a vast, imposing place and it made you feel impossibly small and that’s the feeling I’d tried to capture. When this particular dealer saw the book and that image in particular he told me that it was exactly the sort of style I should be developing for commercial galleries.”
Willing to try anything, Alister began work on a brand new collection and it worked. Taking typical Yorkshire scenes and recasting them in a bright colour palette and almost cartoonish style his work seemed to strike a chord.
“It had been a long hard road, but when everything began to fall into place, all the hard work and disappointments along the way were forgotten.”
It’s been eight years since that first collection and life has been pretty good to Alister. Having outgrown the dining room table, he now rents a studio in a hub of other creative businesses and being selected as the Grand Départ’s official artist should further raise his profile.
“We knew we wanted to be involved in the Tour de France and quite early on went to one of the roadshows organised by Welcome to Yorkshire to encourage businesses to engage with the event. Claire and I didn’t know what to expect, but to find out I had been chosen as the official artist was an incredible moment.
“There’s always a lot of scepticism around these big events particularly in the early days when the only question is how much it’s going to cost. It’s a bit like the London Olympics, but then as the event gets closer and momentum starts to build everyone gets on board. I think that’s just the British way.”
While Alister might have used a little artistic licence over the route the Grand Départ will take through the county today and tomorrow he was more faithful when it came to the cyclists themselves. Each team colour is represented and their position in the painting reflects their world ranking order.
“I’m not a big cyclist myself, but I learnt early on that those who are take it seriously, very seriously. So I knew that when it came to the teams it would have to be accurate and a lot of hours were spent making sure the order was right.”
The painting took a couple of months to complete and the project has been a reminder of Alister’s first brush with the Tour while on honeymoon in the south of France in 2007.
“It was two weeks before the region was due to host their stage of the Tour de France and it was completely crazy. You couldn’t cross the road for amateur cyclists arriving well in advance of the Tour. Hotels, restaurants and cafes were packed with tourists and fans arriving early, the enthusiasm was contagious. Unfortunately our holiday came to an end before the race started and it felt we were about to miss out on an amazing party.
“Unless you’re into cycling I think a lot of people have no idea just how big this is going to be for Yorkshire.”
When we speak, there is still two weeks to go until the Grand Départ, but even in his quiet corner of Pateley Bridge Alister says he can sense something big is about to happen. Yellow bikes have sprung up on street corners, bunting has been hung and nearby campsites are looking forward to one of the busiest weekends ever. “All we need now is for the sun to shine. The Tour de France is going to be huge for Yorkshire and it would be nice to think that the entire county can get behind it.”
While Alister’s print will be a permanent reminder of the weekend the Grand Départ came to Yorkshire it’s also sign of just how far he’s come in just eight years. However, he hasn’t forgotten his early struggles and he is now planning to use his hard-won experience in the commercial art world to give emerging talent a leg up.
“When we first founded the business it was about looking after myself as an artist and having control over my career. We made it through the recession and now I feel pretty established I’m really keen to help others get their career started. I haven’t forgotten how intimidating it is approaching galleries as a young artist and if you keep getting knocked back it’s hard to find the resolve to keep going. I never thought of myself as a businessman, but I’ve learned a lot in the last eight years and I really want to share some of that knowledge, which is why we decided to look at taking on a couple of new artists.
“Over the last couple of years Claire and I have spent a lot of time going to end of year shows and exhibitions of emerging talent to find the right artist. There was no real criteria, the only thing we said to ourselves was that we would only sign them if we honestly thought that we would be gutted if we walked away and then found they had gone with someone else.”
While the couple extended their search across the country, their first two signings have come from close to home. Kate Hunt, who they first spotted while she was in the sixth form at St Aiden’s School in Harrogate, and Izzy Hodge, who also hails from Pateley Bridge, will both now see their collections promoted under the Zeitgeist Fine Art banner.
“Kate specialises in portraits and has an artistic maturity way beyond her years,” says Alister. “Izzy was another real find. She’d just come back from travelling in Australia and popped into the studios just to ask for some advice. She’s an illustrator and when she showed us her work we were just blown away. At first glance her work is reminiscent of Edwardian book plates, but when you look closely you can see that it combines quite modern techniques.”
Promoting other artists will be a new chapter in Alister’s career, but first there’s the small matter of his own Grand Départ exhibition.
“I’ll be at Harlow Carr exhibiting the print today and tomorrow. It’s only a stone’s throw from the finishing line in Harrogate, so I may be able to dash out and get a glimpse of the cyclists. However, if my experience in France all those years ago is anything to go by, what’s normally a five-minute amble can take hours. Somehow though I plan to share in the party atmosphere.”