Artist Darren Reid - the contemporary realist painter and his amazing works of art

Before the Storm

Before the Storm - Credit: none

Derbyshire Life meets local artist Darren Reid whose recently discovered talent has taken the art world by storm

A detail of Darrens paintwork on Before the Storm

A detail of Darrens paintwork on Before the Storm - Credit: none

As a photographer, I spend a lot of spare time in my Milford study working in imaging software. I produce what I like to call photo art, especially as some people often think my images are paintings. I have sold a few, too, at prices that keep me in the proverbial beer and cigarettes.

However, my success is small beer compared to my former neighbour Darren Reid whose amazing art is telling me I’m doing things the wrong way round. Four years ago, in his spare time in his Milford sitting room Darren began, essentially, making paintings look like photographs. Whereas I’ve been lucky to see my work on restaurant walls sell for three-figure sums, Darren was told by a local gallery owner from the outset that his pictures were worth four figures. Earlier this year, he sold his 14th painting. It was also his first at a five-figure sum – £10,000 – and that was before it was even finished. And with Darren’s work now being represented by a top London gallery, his reputation is set to soar even higher.

What makes Darren’s work so appealing to art collectors is the finesse, fine detail and application of paint to his pictures, which furthermore possess a remarkable realism. The fact that on closer inspection his ‘photographic’ image reveals layers of acrylic makes them all the more extraordinary.

Also, his subject matter is refreshingly unconventional. Rather than focus on sunny pictorial scenes, Darren is drawn to stark urban or industrial landscapes under louring skies. Although his work has been labelled ‘photorealism’, Darren embellishes each photograph he works from to produce a finished artwork that should be more properly labelled ‘hyper-realistic.’

Darren in his former Milford home with his painting Before the Storm

Darren in his former Milford home with his painting Before the Storm - Credit: none

What is even more remarkable about Darren is that when he began painting his canvases in 2011, he was a raw beginner. As a Bemrose schoolboy, he found he was ‘always drawing something or other’ but that ended almost as soon as he left school. Only when he was given some acrylic paints for his 41st birthday – ‘I often told people I had an itch to try painting’ – did he pick up a brush for the first time and had it not been for his dog falling ill, those paints might have lain unopened.

As Darren explains: ‘My rescue collie-cross Misty – affectionately known as Tubs – was diagnosed with diabetes and Cushing’s disease so I was given the choice of putting her to sleep or injecting her with insulin every eight hours for the rest of her life. I decided to embark on the injecting marathon, which lasted for over two years. Six months later, my social life had been extinguished as I had to be at home at 7am, 3pm and 10pm every day. So, I needed a hobby to occupy my time at home. There is only so much TV you can take and reading wasn’t sufficient stimulation after a while so I got the paintbox out, bought myself a canvas and sat down to paint. My feeling was that if I produced something half decent, I could replace the Ikea prints on my wall!’

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Sadly, Tubs died last year but Darren has a lot to be grateful to her for, as he found painting the perfect pursuit, and one which came to him intuitively: ‘It’s still hard to explain but painting just came naturally. Yes, there was a bit of head scratching as I tried to work with the paint but to be honest I could pretty much do it straightaway.’

Darren’s first painting came out of his workplace: he is co-owner of Indigo Design & Display at Darley Abbey Mills, designing, manufacturing and installing signage. He decided to paint the mill wall containing the fire escape, working from a photo he snapped of it. So why photorealism?

North Mill

North Mill - Credit: none

‘Although I hadn’t painted before this, I had always sought out art galleries and found myself drawn to realism,’ says Darren. ‘The skill required to render something so perfectly in paint always fascinated me. The term photorealism refers to the realistic painting “post photography” but actually the old masters like Caravaggio, Canaletto or Holbein were the best at reproducing reality. They would be considered photorealists even though, as today, there’s much more to it than simply reproducing a photograph.’

When Darren finished ‘North Mill,’ he showed it to his business partner Steve who said it was ‘fantastic.’ A ‘surprised’ Darren was then encouraged by his parents to enter the painting into the 2012 Derbyshire Open. Surprise then turned into ‘shock’ when he saw it win a Commend award. A further shock awaited Darren when he showed his first five paintings to James Preston, owner of Duffield Gallery.

‘James framed my North Mill picture and said he liked it and wanted to see some more,’ explains Darren. ‘When he saw those five, he said he wanted them all; and when he suggested asking prices from £1,200 to £2,400 for each painting, I nearly fell over. It took eight months for the first painting to sell but when that happened, it didn’t stop. Some of the people who bought the early paintings said they were buying me while I was cheap! It sounded crazy at the time but what has happened subsequently has borne them out.’

Exhibitions and more awards have followed. Winning the Visitors’ Choice award at a second Derbyshire Open for ‘A New View – Holiday Inn, Derby’, Buxton Fringe Chairman Stephanie Billen remarked that Darren’s work was ‘a superbly executed painting which redefines our notions of beauty.’

A New View  Holiday Inn, Derby

A New View Holiday Inn, Derby - Credit: none

That was a statement dear to Darren’s heart as he feels it justifies his choice of subject matter: ‘I simply paint what interests me, and that includes industrial sites and scenes of human endeavour, the day to day of real working life. Take my latest work of Brixham ‘Before the Storm’; it’s a working harbour. There is a far more popular tourist harbour a few hundred metres away which has probably been painted thousands of times. However, I like the idea of painting places that people don’t really look at, yet if they did they would see the beauty in them.’

I met Darren when he had just finished the Brixham painting. Looking also at the initial drawings revealed to me Darren’s gift for fine pencil work, which is an essential part of the process in producing a finished painting. Having taken photographs, he then spends two to three weeks working out the composition and drawing it in pencil directly on to the canvas. As Darren paints, the finished work will go beyond his original photograph, as he explains: ‘First of all, my paintings are not simply reproductions of single photographs. My photo informs the drawing and then the painting. I will use some elements from the photo and remove others I don’t want or even move elements around. Also, I am forcing perspectives, curving linear planes and introducing recession where it wouldn’t be. In the Brixham painting, for example, I have curved the dock to turn the viewer’s eye into the painting and keep the eye within the frame. Also, the angle of the mast on the main trawler is echoed in the figure I have placed in the foreground, helping to lead your eye down.’

All of this takes Darren a prodigious amount of time. One painting can take anything from 250 to 350 hours to complete. ‘That’s partly down to the fact that I’m still trying to teach myself as I go along,’ explains Darren, ‘but there is also a high level of detail in each painting and with each new work I am trying to produce a bigger and more complex painting.’

Darren also finds that when painting in his spare time ‘it’s a struggle to get a head of steam up’, which is why he has recently changed to a four-day working week so he can paint for the other three. This decision came hot on the heels of a major breakthrough for Darren: encouragement and support from a top photorealist painter which also led to his work being handled by a leading London gallery.

There Must Be More Than This

There Must Be More Than This - Credit: none

Darren takes up the story: ‘Once I had painted three canvases I emailed the British photorealist painter Nathan Walsh asking for tips and advice as I was a great admirer of his work. He called me on his mobile, which was a shock, and he was very complimentary about my work. Eventually, I took the Brixham painting to his home and he was insistent that I should get the painting in front of a serious gallery.

‘I decided to email Plus One Gallery in Belgravia as they are one of the biggest photorealism galleries in the world. Nathan warned me that it could be a long-winded process but as it turned out the gallery emailed me the next day, and the day after that I was standing in their gallery showing them my work. They have taken me on, which is daunting but also an unbelievable opportunity as my paintings will be exposed internationally. I now have to push myself and keep improving.’

So what did Nathan Walsh see in Darren’s work? ‘His work is skilful and sensitive,’ says Nathan. ‘How far he can progress in the art world will depend on his ability to develop an original and significant painting language. So far, the signs are very positive.’

To further his career, Darren has moved to bigger premises in Belper. ‘I loved Milford,’ he states. ‘I only planned to stay a year but I stayed for ten; it’s the only place I’ve lived where I’ve become friends with so many neighbours. However, my studio was in the small sitting room and I needed more space as I intend working on bigger canvases. In Milford, I couldn’t even get a large canvas through the door!’

Low Winter Sun, St Peters St, Derby  one of 23 paintings out of 2,000 submitted, shortlisted for the John Ruskin Prize 2014

Low Winter Sun, St Peters St, Derby one of 23 paintings out of 2,000 submitted, shortlisted for the John Ruskin Prize 2014 - Credit: none

Four years on from his initial dabbling in paint, can Darren still believe his good fortune?

‘Here I am being represented by one of the biggest photorealism galleries in the world, just three and a half years after picking up a brush with no idea that I could paint,’ says Darren. ‘I’m shocked but also proud. What’s happened is already more than I ever dared dream about so even if I don’t sell another canvas, painting has become my passion and I’ll be happy with that.’

Darren’s First Sale

Darren’s first canvas, showing a section of the North Mill at Darley Abbey Mills, was bought by Carl Bridges of Birchover Residences Ltd, also situated in North Mill, for his wife Lisa, who tells of her love for Darren’s work:

‘When Carl and I moved our group head office to the North Mill in 2013, we became good friends with Darren and his business partner Steve. When Darren told us he had taken up painting, he was amusingly self-deprecating about it. When he showed us his work, we were instantly impressed. We own paintings by established artists such as Doug Hyde and Alexander Millar, but we had never seen such realistic interpretations of scenes before. Carl and I had already fallen in love with the Mills and, likewise, with Darren’s painting of the building. As it turned out, Carl secretly bought the picture as a Christmas present for me.

‘We are thrilled at the success and acclaim Darren has had in these last couple of years – it’s a real buzz watching each new canvas being filled and the progression in skill and style he is making – and he has remained completely grounded and humble throughout. The combination of the quality of that North Mill painting, having our head office in that very building, and the fact that we have continued our great friendship with Darren means that the picture will always hold a special place in our hearts.’