Phil Ashley - artist finds his true calling after a number of career changes

Artist, Phil Ashley in front of a selection of various artists work at Cheshire Art Gallery, Bramhal

Artist, Phil Ashley in front of a selection of various artists work at Cheshire Art Gallery, Bramhall - Credit: Archant

Bramhall-based artist Phil Ashley is now on his third career and he has never been happier. Kate Houghton reports

Artist, Phil Ashley at Cheshire Art Gallery, Bramhall

Artist, Phil Ashley at Cheshire Art Gallery, Bramhall - Credit: Archant

Phil Ashley has been painting for four years now and, having never picked up an artist’s paintbrush before, his ascent into the role of artist has been swift and satisfying.

I confess, I am a little taken aback when Phil tells me he’d never attempted painting anything, ever, before he decided to establish himself as an artist; surely he must have done the whole ‘struggling artist, living in a garret, eating nothing but fish finger sandwiches’ bit for at least a while before selling his first painting? But no, he sold his first, his second and indeed pretty much every one ever since day one.

‘I actually hadn’t ever painted anything before!’ he laughs. ‘I studied graphic design and photography at college in Tameside and then went on to study for an HND in Lens Based Media, with the dream of becoming a cameraman. I actually went to work for the BBC for a while, as a runner, with the hope of moving into a cameraman position, but the advent of digital filming put paid to that – the skill set is entirely different, so I decided that wasn’t for me.’

While at the BBC Phil worked on a gardening programme series in London, which, he realises, fed a passion that was already within.

The Wharf, Manchester

The Wharf, Manchester - Credit: Archant

‘I loved gardening and garden design, so I headed back north and set up as a landscape gardener and garden designer. I really enjoyed it, but eventually the rain drove me indoors, that and an injury to my foot – I just thought: “I’m getting too old for this”.

‘Before this point I’d never picked up a paintbrush. All I’d ever done was some pencil sketches of my nieces and nephews for my mum and, of course, garden designs for my clients. I found myself a job as a school site manager where there was a split shift format, which gave me three hours off in the middle of each day and I would use these hours for painting.

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‘At first I would worry about finding my ‘style’. Every well known and successful painter, it seemed, had a recognisable style. I painted what I knew and loved: I have always been fascinated by water and do a lot of scuba diving, so my first paintings were of marine animals, from sharks to seals, mostly those native to these shores that I, or fellow divers, had seen and photographed.

Facebook is a wonderful resource for artists, it opens up a huge audience to put your work in front of, for feedback and for sales. I put pictures of my paintings up on scuba pages and got lots of likes and comments – and sold every one! I also made a few comments myself about seeking my style, until it was pointed out to me that my style was already there – and it’s all about the reflections of light on water, from below or above.’

Ducks at the Marina

Ducks at the Marina - Credit: Archant

Looking at this work, Phil’s love of the water is clear and his representation of what he sees is quite dazzling. He loves to work in bright colours, blocking them together to create an almost impressionist style – you see something very different when you stand close than when you step back. Interestingly, his approach to painting water is quite different to the way he paints the architecture and wildlife he sees around, on and in the water, which is much more precise.

Phil can be found working at the new Cheshire Art Gallery, in Bramhall, which was opened in April this year by Phil’s long term friend Matt Leech. The very existence of this place is down to Phil’s decision to start his third career, as Matt contacted his old friend via Facebook, after seeing his work.

‘I first met Matt at college and then of course we both followed our own paths. He set up in business for himself and then started collecting art. He saw my work, liked it and contacted me to ask me to bring over some examples to show him. When I arrived I saw that he had quite a collection of canvasses stacked against a wall, I asked him if he thought opening a gallery of his own might be a good idea – and he agreed.’

Matt spent some time searching for the ideal location, before choosing Bramhall, then Phil helped him (along with Matt’s father) re-shape the space into the ideal gallery format. It is a bright and cleverly laid out series of rooms, with new and fabulous artwork from a varied range of (mostly) living artists round every corner. Phil took the role of gallery manager and suggested that he paint there too, in between helping buyers make their selections.

Cheshire Art Gallery, Bramhall

Cheshire Art Gallery, Bramhall - Credit: Archant

‘He thought it was a really interesting idea, so we went for it. At first he was a little unsure that my very bright and colourful work fitted well among the work of artists he’d collected himself, but customer feedback soon showed that it did.’

That’s the glory of art though, isn’t it? What one viewer may love will leave the next man cold. It’s an endlessly fascinating subject and Phil is now ideally placed to see the impact of his work on customers as it happens.

‘People get really drawn into my work as it progresses,’ he says. ‘Many will keep popping back in to see how it’s going. We get to talk about art and our artists to all sorts of people, some perhaps that wouldn’t otherwise have come in.

‘I have the best job ever now,’ Phil smiles. ‘I get to talk to people about art all day and paint when the gallery is empty.’