Words by Lowenna Merritt
Rich in detail and bursting with character, Andy Bibbings’ watercolours are a study of the unique world of animals, from domestic pets to Cornish sea life.
The most striking thing about Andy’s watercolour portraits is how they tell a story. Through his emphasis on detailed eyes, unique markings and unusual features, the paintings give insight into the life and personality of the animal. Looking out of his window on a sunny day in Newlyn, Penzance, Andy tells me another story, of his lifelong love for art. Growing up in a small town between Bristol and Bath, Andy was creative from a young age: “When I was a little boy, I would sit in front of the TV, just painting.” It has always been animals that have captured his attention, he says, as he describes his “lifelong love” for creatures both wild and domestic, and this has always shone through in his work, even from an early age.
Andy has had no formal training beyond school art lessons, and throughout his career with British Rail and the police force his passion for art remained a side hobby. A night shift at work, in which his sergeant noticed him sketching at his desk and asked if he could keep the picture, requesting it be signed by Andy himself, is what kickstarted his art career. The sergeant later commissioned a painting and had it framed on his desk, spurring more and more people to begin requesting Andy’s work. From here, Andy’s artistic career blossomed – selling his art at fayres, carnivals and school fêtes, he slowly but surely built his small hobby for painting into a growing business.
Having moved to Cornwall six years ago, Andy felt inspired by the colourful array of wildlife which lives on the Cornish coast. Gazing from his window towards the fishing boats going in and out of the harbour walls made him consider how he could incorporate the essence of Cornwall into his work. “I decided I needed to start painting sea life,” he says, “so I started speaking to the fishmongers and the fishermen, and I began photographing what they were bringing in, the lobsters and the crabs, and painted those.” From then on, Andy’s range of work expanded all the more. “Next thing I knew, I had started my own line of fine bone china. I started producing tea towels, place mats, coasters…. I started going to the Royal Cornwall Show, I started going to Sennen Market. I suddenly realised I need to flip this and formalise it, so I turned it into a business three and a half years ago.”
Andy’s work for Rick Stein was a clear turning point in his artistic career. After his wife sent his sea life artwork to the company, Andy was invited to create several pieces of artwork which were then put on all of the Rick Stein merchandise – from fridge magnets and oven gloves, aprons and chopping boards right up to fine bone china. “Because my artwork was on packaging, I started getting enquiries from abroad,” Andy details. “You forget he has a restaurant and retail premises in Australia.
I had four commissions for huge pieces of sea-life paintings to send to Australia, America and Canada. I started going global, and it’s just blossomed and blossomed and blossomed from there.”
Despite achieving success around the globe, Andy likes to keep all of the production elements of his work local, and values personal connections with his customers above a high volume of sales. “My printer is a guy in St Just, a one-man band just like me, and I won’t go anywhere else,” Andy says. “He produces my prints on the same paper I paint on, it’s like having an original. The tea towels I get are made in Lostwithiel, my bone china is made further afield in Stafford with clay from St Austell, with the artwork applied in Stoke on Trent. My framing is done by a girl in Penryn, she hand paints and distresses them for me.” Supporting small local businesses is incredibly important to Andy and is a means of giving back to the community. “It’s all about helping to look after each other, in this day and age that’s a really important thing to do. It’s not about mass production or hitting major department stores, it’s about individual, high quality, bespoke pieces.”
A personal connection with his customers is equally a priority for Andy. “None of my artwork is in any galleries or shops and that’s by design,” he explains. “I want to have that conversation with people. I like how people aren’t necessarily looking for the kind of thing I do, but upon stumbling across it, they like it.” Creating something special which people love and treasure is key for Andy, and the social connection he gains from selling his work is something he has particularly missed during the recent lockdowns. “I very much prefer face-to-face contact with people. I sell through my website, but I’d much rather go to a show or a big event and tell people my story. And people buy into my story, they buy into everything about me as well as the artwork, which is very humbling and rewarding.” In normal times, Andy can always be found at the likes of the Royal Cornwall Show and Sennen Market and is looking forward to a return to such events. “I’m just waiting for the doors to open so I can begin trading again.”
Andy’s talents lie in producing a product which feels personal and special to the customer. This begins with the buying process. Andy’s connection with his customers means they are not simply investing in a product, but in him as an artist, his story and his passions. The subject matter of his work similarly ties into this idea of the personal. “We are a nation of animal lovers, our dogs and horses and cats mean the world to us,” Andy says. “I’ve got people who have their favourite photographs [of their pets] and they want me to do a painting from the photograph. I’m like, you’ve got this beautiful photograph, why do you want a painting of it? But people value the depth and the character in a painting, and the work that has gone into it. So that’s very rewarding for me.”
Working carefully with watercolours allows Andy to create detailed and rich paintings. “I’ve developed my own style,” Andy says. “When you say watercolour to people they think of a big wash, but I go for a lot more detail and accuracy of colour. I like watercolours because I can build layers up.” This layering of paintwork is what gives depth to the pieces, bringing them to life in a way that cannot be achieved from a photograph alone. “I focus on the head and shoulders, unless the character has an unusual marking, or it stands in an unusual way. This way, you can capture the light in the eye, the shape of the ears – one might flop down, while the other one sticks up all the time. I even did a painting last year of a cat who had no eyes. A lot of character in animals is in their eyes and how they look at you, but I managed to capture it and the owner absolutely loved it... she had a little cry about it.” Bringing out an emotional reaction in people is one of the things Andy values in his work. “When people are telling me about the reaction they’ve had or sending me photographs of the recipient with the painting, they’ve gone through the effort to do that. They will send a photo of their lounge with the painting on the wall because they love it and they’re proud of it, and that’s incredible.”
Andy’s work isn’t about mass production and sales, and equally it isn’t about being high-brow and exclusive. It is humble, personally crafted work, driven by a genuine passion and care for the craft. It is designed to connect with the customer, the community and our universal love of animals. Currently available for commissions, Andy hopes to continue sharing his skill and giving people the gift of art, with the ultimate aim of putting a smile on their faces.