Picture this: The Wirral artist making a living from travertine stone

Wirral artist Neal Dawson

It’s a bold decision to try and make a living as a professional artist or start from scratch in a creative industry.

The figures for the creative economy in the UK, though, make for pleasant reading. According to the Telegraph our creative economy is growing faster than North America’s at 4.7 per cent each year, but we could take some lessons from across the pond when commercialising our creative output according to innovation agency Nesta.

“As the world becomes richer, people want to be entertained,” says Stian Westlake, policy director at Nesta. Things are also looking rosy closer to home; Liverpool’s Baltic Triangle is expanding and is soon set to become a £1 billion creative industry on Merseyside.

Still, it takes some guts to actually give it a go and put your work in the public eye where stinging criticism hits closer to home than ever thanks to social media. 37-year-old Neal Dawson is one such artist making his mark, with a burgeoning creative service that combines original photography and travertine stone.

“I’d been mixing images online on Photoshop for a while. The cladding on a lot of buildings is travertine. I was trying to make work in a format that I could market and sell in an easier way and came across travertine,” Neal tells us.

“I saw it in tile form and saw it could lend itself to what I wanted to do. It wasn’t buildings I wanted to work on, though. I had the stone and then I had the image, and then I had the problem of getting the actual image onto the stone instead of just putting a paper image on top of it.”

Stoned in love

Neal admits his own creative process has been sporadic over the yearsNeal blends his photographs of the Liverpool area with a personal production service that manages to get his stills on the natural stone, which is formed in hot springs and limestone caves. An unusual medium but one that’s grabbing a lot of attention with Neal’s growing customer base.

He passes us a pair of stones. They have a smooth texture and have some weight to them. Neal tells us they can be used as coasters due to the varnishing process he uses; more than anything they show his true nature as an artist that likes to document the places he sees and visits.

“I’ve got the process down now, and do it in quite a robotic way. Travertine’s a tricky material to work with and sometimes anomalies appear during the process. I’ve got it to work now though, and sometimes have to slightly adjust the process to get it perfect,” Neal says.

“There was approximately three months of trial and error, but initially the work I wanted to do wasn’t this. The first one I did, I just happened to have a print of the Albert Dock and a stone square by chance, produced it, and put all my other work to one side to concentrate on doing this.

“I’ve got a lot of documentary images of Liverpool and surrounding areas. Once I did the first stone, I had a home for all these images that I didn’t know what to do with. Suddenly it opened up a whole new way of working.”

Neal’s also producing stones based on his images from across the Wirral, and is currently looking to capture and create pieces featuring Wirral’s landmarks and natural areas.

“The stones have tapped into something, especially the pub series. They’ve got a lot of attention. Daughters buy them for their dads, friends will be buying them out of interest; because of the historical nature of the pubs in Liverpool, the theme has really caught on.

“Liverpool’s got so many in the city centre. I’ve just started doing Wirral’s pubs; they’re spread out, it’s different. We’ve got some good ones in Birkenhead, and New Brighton has a lot, too.”

Fair game

Neal blends his photographs of the Liverpool area with a personal production service that manages to get his stills on the natural stoneWe immediately think of Gallaghers on Chester Street, Birkenhead, with its connected barbershop. We were there last week and saw someone having a pint before getting a Grade 1 all over.

That Neal’s expanding his artistic vision and offering more creative ways to provide his travertine pieces (such as sets in box frames) is testament to the long road he’s travelled, and how happy he is that his journey is finally starting to reap rewards.

“I’m more Liverpool-based at the moment but the plan is to do a series featuring places I visit; I travel a lot. I mostly do documentary projects and document wherever I go.

“There’s the need to work and make money, and I had to think ‘is there a way I can be more flexible slightly and do something I can sell at fairs, and make my work more sellable and marketable?’. Most of my images were on cards, but once I did this I knew I was onto something. It all exploded in late 2014 and I can’t make them fast enough now.

“I’m based in New Brighton. I first started taking pictures in 1997 when I was 17 on an old SLR camera. It was sitting there for a long time; I was a painter, and when I saw the camera I taught myself how to use it.

“When I went to college in ’98 and started using the darkroom that’s when my passion came out. I’ve always done alternative photography, never anything commercial. I’ve always worked full-time and did the artwork in my spare time and sold it at fairs and exhibitions.”

Crafting a future

Neal exhibits his stone at local fairsNeal admits that his creative process has been quite sporadic over the years and that ideas can take time to come to fruition. To that end he felt he needed to focus more recently after taking a break, and finished a self-published photography book called Return to Casablanca. He’s also working on one commemorating 100 years of Scotland’s Routenburn Farm.

“Return to Casablanca was self-published and was more of a personal project I needed to finish. [Art’s] never been a living but I’ve always kept going.

“I had a brief hiatus a few years back and got married, and had a break from exhibiting. It was always in my head though, and I left full-time employment. I’ve been a stay-at-home dad and the urge to get out there and show my work publicly again returned.

“The stones have helped me make a living as a professional artist, and have helped me get back to being an artist. I want to be an artist that works with photography, not the other way around.”

Neal’s a perfect example that with dedication to your craft, a little bit of luck, and having the confidence to get out there to exhibit and find a market, your chances of making it as a full-time creative are enhanced significantly. So what do the next few years hold, and is it a scalable process?

“I have a few ideas on how to adapt my work, not necessarily on the stone. It’s hard to get stone that big. I want to create prints so I can get around restrictions on weight and scale, and spread out into different mediums.

“I’ll be able to devote more time to it and manage it better when the kids start school. Obviously there’s a finite amount of work I can do on my own, so we’ll wait and see what the future holds.”

Neal Dawson’s website

N.A.D Photography on Facebook

John Meadowcroft

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