Art of being a bestseller

Artist Alistair Cowley pictured in his studio at Pateley Bridge, and some of his work, below.
Artist Alistair Cowley pictured in his studio at Pateley Bridge, and some of his work, below.
Have your say

After years of being turned down by galleries, Alister Colley tells
Sarah Freeman how he transformed himself into Yorkshire’s best-selling published artist.

In the art world it doesn’t really do to talk about money.

While every so often a Damien Hirst or a Tracey Emin will come along, their work commanding millions at auction, for the most part commercial success is seen as inversely proportionate to artistic integrity. Just look at Van Gogh. Each year, millions queue patiently to glimpse his famous Sunflowers in the National Gallery, but like all the very best artists he had the good grace to die poor and unknown.

All of which is why the sign hanging outside Alister Colley’s Pateley Bridge gallery and workshop is enough to set some leading art figures into a spin. Just next to the opening hours, there’s a poster which proudly proclaims Alister as Yorkshire’s best-selling published artist.

Last year he came second in the overall rankings to Rolf Harris and this year he narrowly missed out to Welsh artist Kerry Darlington in the awards run by the Fine Art Guild. Given that former children’s presenter Timmy Mallett was named best upcoming artist in the same awards, they don’t come with the kudos of a Turner Prize nomination. However, Alister never set out to be a Grayson Perry or a Sarah Lucas.

“Not everyone likes the idea of art being judged on commercial success, they see the artist’s role as struggling against adversity. It’s that age-old image of being misunderstood, of living in a garret and of only having your talent recognised posthumously. I don’t buy into that.”

Alister now has a two-year waiting list for private commissions and original paintings, which six years ago were selling for £175, have soared to between £3,500 and £4,000. As one dealer told him, choose right, and art appreciates faster than gold.

Colley certainly seems to have discovered his Midas touch, but it wasn’t always this way. Born in Harrogate, he studied art and design at Leeds Metropolitan University, but after graduation he ended up taking a full-time position with a cleaning company.

“When I started my degree I had every intention of going into film, but while I was producing storyboards for various movie pitches, I just fell back in love with illustration. I knew that was where my heart lay, but I was also realistic. It’s a really competitive field to get into, hence the cleaning job. I had to have some way to pay the bills and that seemed as good as any.”

Alister sent off dozens of applications, but at interviews he found himself victim of that age-old conundrum – without experience he couldn’t get work, but without employment he couldn’t gain the vital experience he needed to become a full-time illustrator.

“The straw that broke the camel’s back came when I turned up for one interview and three of the eight others in the reception area had been on the same course as me at Leeds. The job we’d all gone for turned out to be little more than copying and Photoshopping images. I went through the motions, but it was just soul-destroying. There and then I decided that was it, I wasn’t willing to compromise any more.”

Instead, Alister continued working for the cleaning company during the day and on evenings and weekends began to establish himself as a freelance illustrator. However, with no actual commissions and only the thinnest of portfolios, he began setting himself imaginary briefs.

“Basically I would look through magazines for articles which had used illustrations, ring the publishers and ask how much they paid and how long they had given the artist to turn it around.

“Keeping to the budget and the timescale was good practice, but obviously I wasn’t getting paid.”

A minor breakthrough came when Alister was asked to provide illustrations for a children’s book. However, the celebrations were short lived – while he completed the brief, the book never saw the light day and Alister again had to notch the project up to experience.

“It seemed the harder I tried, the more I failed,” he says. “Then 10pm one Sunday evening I got a call from the cleaning company saying I had to be in Hull at 6am the next morning. I didn’t have a car, so I was using public transport – I put the phone down and had what you might call a moment of clarity.

“The cleaning job was supposed to have been a convenient stop gap, but 18 months on I was still there. I knew something had to change.”

Adopting a now or never mantra, Alister who had previously specialised in photorealist oil paintings, instead sought inspiration from the Impressionist movement and the art of Japanese woodcuts and began work on a brand- new portfolio which thought might just persuade gallery owners to take a chance on him.

“I went to see one art dealer and he came across the unpublished children’s book which I’d shoved in the back of the portfolio. The brief had been ‘a view of the world through a child’s eye’ and one of the images was of York Minster. I remember going there as a child and it seemed so imposing. Every time I leant back to take it all in, it seemed to loom even further forward and that was the feeling I’d tried to capture in the illustrations.

“The dealer turned to me and said, ‘That’s the kind of work you should be developing for galleries’. I wasn’t sure I believed him, but I was at the point where I was willing to give anything a go.”

That was in September 2006 and by the following February Alister had completely overhauled his portfolio and perfected his now trademark style, which combines the simplicity and bright palette of cartoon illustration with a complex perspective of a world viewed through a fisheye lens.

His first collection, entitled The Yorkshire Dales, showed a village, part fictional, part real, at different times during the year.

“Some of the characters are based on real people, although they would probably never know it was them,” he says. “One was a woman I knew growing-up. Every village needs an eccentric and she was it. She knew everything about everyone.

“The aim of the collection was to tell the story of a village throughout the course of a year. It was not unlike the storyboards I’d being doing at university, it felt like everything had come full circle.”

The collection proved a hit and with repeat orders from galleries coming in, Alister persuaded his wife Claire to leave her job working for an interior design company. Together they set up Zeitgeist Publishing and after outgrowing their own home 18 months ago the decided to rent gallery and workshop space in Pateley Bridge.

“Given how tough some businesses are finding it at the moment, it was either an incredibly brave or stupid thing to do,” says Alister, whose gallery sits next to a handmade decorative glass business and opposite a jeweller and ceramic sculptor. “However, it seems to have paid off. Having my own gallery is great, but customers can also come to the shop and see me at work. I guess it works both ways.”

The accolade from the Fine Art Guild is based on a number of criteria from volume to speed of sales and whether traditionalists like it or not, it has helped to raise Alister’s profile.

“It’s all good publicity,” he says. “Investing in a piece of art can be expensive and being able to say that I have this award acts as a reassurance, it’s a badge of quality.”

Alister has various commissions in the pipeline and he hopes to start work soon on a new gallery collection, provisionally entitled Farming in the Dales.

However, this year his workshop has twice been hit by floods and just a few days after his father suffered a major heart attack, his wife contracted viral meningitis.

“Let’s just say it’s been a year of highs and lows,” he says. “Fortunately the doctors caught Claire’s meningitis in time and against all the odds, Dad is making a really good recovery. Life is unpredictable, but I do feel very lucky.

“I pretty much do everything you shouldn’t,” he adds, picking up one of his brushes which has been left overnight in a pot of dirty water. “But you know what? It finally seems to be working.

“I had my fair share of working in ice cold winds and the pouring rain with little or no acknowledgement of the hard work I was doing. I am very privileged but while I will never take that for granted I also don’t feel like I should apologise for being successful.”

To view Alister’s work, go to