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Sunday 17 November 2019

I knew I made it as an artist when I got my car fixed in exchange for a painting the artist robert shaw

Painter Robert Shaw, in his Donabate studio
Painter Robert Shaw, in his Donabate studio
Robert's work studio
A close-up of some of Robert's tools of the trade

Robert Shaw

When you work on your own, you have no 'water cooler' moments. You have your own team of directors in your head. My wife works three days a week, so on a school day I'll get our three kids to school. I'm up in the studio for half six – it's when I'm at my most creative – and then the kids kick off at half seven so that's full on. I get some painting done during the morning while the youngest is strapped to the sofa watching 'Fireman Sam'.

It's great when you find what I call 'the sweet spot', when you get more done in an hour than in a whole day of fiddling around. I work until midday, and then the afternoon can be a death spot for me, but if I'm on a roll I won't stop. I guess you become a bit like Rain Man; always reflecting, considering, looking, absorbing.

The tools of the trade
The tools of the trade

All the kids (Bonnie, 8, William, 6 and Alfie, 2) are little painters. I did a commission of a family portrait recently and one day we realised that Alfie had somehow gotten himself into the studio. He'd found paint and a brush and painted all over it. Luckily he didn't hit the figures on the painting itself.

I'd been working in Cadburys for 15 years, had already gone to art college and dabbled in theatre. While I visited the Edinburgh Fringe, I went to the art galleries and had an epiphany there: 'I'm going to paint'. For my first show, held in the Apollo Gallery in Dublin, I'd made more money in one week than in two years of theatre work.

Thirteen or 14 years ago, the extent of Irish people buying art was buying Dutch prints in Arnotts. Back then, the line was, 'I know nothing about art'. Now it's more 'I don't know much about art, but I know what I like'. That said, the recession has hit the art world hugely. The Apollo Gallery {site} is now a yoghurt shop. Like anything, the very successful {artists} were making a huge amount of money, though I was always very steady. I never got used to huge values for paintings, but I knew I was in it for the long haul, and it was about letting the work find its own level.

You'd have thought that PR might have ruined art, but it's created a new sector in the nation's perception of what art is. There's the 'celebrity art' category now, but if it gets people talking about art, that's fine.

I've been working on my signature style, but when you do private commissions the breadth of material is staggering. I used to think 'I'd sell out if I had to paint someone's dog', but it means upskilling. My techniques have broadened but the essence of me is still there. I'm selling work by word of mouth and social media, and thankfully it's sustained me. I went to an Imelda May gig this week, where I got two commissions. Things can be tight, but you never know where the next commission will come from.

Artist's block happens, but the way around it is to just keep going. Just get some marks down on a canvas and it'll kick a painting off. I get big sheets of paper and attack with charcoal to get something down, and that'll bounce me off.

I do have some celebrity buyers ... Graham Knuttel is a good supporter, as is Ryan Tubridy. But my bread and butter clients are nurses, coalmen, real people. I got dental work done after I did a swap with a dentist.

I knew I'd made it as an artist when I got my car fixed in exchange for a painting.


In conversation with Tanya Sweeney

Irish Independent

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