Jack Vettriano would greatly appreciate if you could not waste your pity on him.
Four months ago, this request would have been easy. Borderline nonsensical.
Why would you pity Jack Vettriano? He is, after all, a man who, demographically speaking, was sure to spend his life down a coal mine, but defied that destiny to become an artist. He toiled to teach himself to paint, and did so in such a way that he found success in the thing that he loved.
Not moderate success, mind you. Not “I do what I love and that’s a victory in itself” success. Massive success. Celebrity success. Record-breaking sales success. Loved by some critics; hated by many critics success.
So why would you pity Jack Vettriano?
Because four months ago, at the end of May 2015, Jack Vettriano had an accident. The accident caused severe damage to the shoulder on his painting arm, leaving it virtually useless. He would not paint for the foreseeable future.
Four months ago, his daily routine of waking up at 5 a.m. and doing what he loves turned into his daily routine of questioning the point of getting up at all. Still making note of every creative idea despite the fear that he may never turn them into paintings.
And with that in mind, considering your capacity for pity and Jack Vettriano, why would you not?
Vettriano talks a lot about craftsmanship. He’s devoted his life to it. Practicing craft is the single most important criterion to earn his respect as an artist. Not practicing it is the easiest way to be dismissed.
“What I mean by craft is the ability to apply oil paint onto canvas. That’s what craft is. Now, Tracey Emin doesn’t do craft. Tracey Emin works on ideas. An unmade bed isn’t craftsmanship. That’s an idea.”
This is an important distinction. The effort, Vettriano explains, is not in the conception of an idea. It’s in the toil of using your hands— your own hands— to work that idea from conception to a physical manifestation.
“When I look at a painting, I want to know that the artist has stood there and he has sweated and labored over his craft. He’s labored to get that right.” He cites Norman Rockwell and Lucian Freud as two of the top practitioners of craft in the art world. Gil Elvgren, a pinup artist, Vettriano says has “the ability to paint a nylon stocking on a woman that I am in awe of.”
But is there a place for these idea-based art pieces in the craft world? Vettriano doesn’t seem to think so. “[Craft] is not a f—— blue ball that Jeff Koons does. That’s an idea. That’s not craftsmanship. He’s just a good business man.”
And Vettriano has no interest in business. Yes, his work is highly commoditized. Prints of his works, most notably his 2004 piece “The Singing Butler,” are sold around the world, but Vettriano lets a business manager handle this, and sees it as a point of access more than making a buck. “What would Van Gogh have done if someone had said, ‘See that image you’ve just done? See that sunflower? That could be on sale in Australia tomorrow if you just let me have it.’ I’m sure that he would go, just as I did, ‘Why should the common man not have access to my work?’”
Vettriano’s devotion to craft dates back to his childhood. His earliest memory of being moved by art occurred when Vettriano was ten years old and his father took the family to the Edinburgh Museum. “There was a painting there called “The Thin Red Line” [by Robert Gibb]. I remember looking at it and thinking how beautiful it was. I couldn’t believe it was a painting because it’s just so well done.”
Gibb’s painting depicts a British victory in the Crimean War as well as craft literally as far as the eye can see, with a line of intricately detailed bayonet-toting, kilt-adorned Scotsman fading into the horizon.
Though this painting stayed with Vettriano until now, this isn’t a story about how his ten-year-old-self begged for a paint set all the way home and hasn’t put the brush down since.
Rather, thirteen years later, standing in front of another painting, Vettriano was struck again. “I went to see a Van Gogh called “Van Gogh’s Chair”, which he painted when he was in France with Gauguin, and when I stood in front of that painting, I swear to god, I couldn’t believe that I was standing in the same place as the master stood. It punched me in a beautiful way that I think I could have predicted then that I was going to be hooked by art, that this was something that really meant something to me.”
And it did. Vettriano’s art career origin story, which has been written about in multitude, points to a watercolor set Vettriano was given as a gift for his twenty-first birthday, but he shrugs off the idea of any sort of ah-ha moment.
“I would be lying if I said to you, ‘Yes, I was excited to get those paints. I gratefully accepted it from her, but I didn’t immediately start to work. I put it aside amongst other birthday presents I got, and eventually, I opened it up, and I thought, ‘Let’s see what this is about.’ And much to my surprise, I really enjoyed it.”
Enjoyment. This is another important facet of the artistry of Jack Vettriano. Another piece of the oft-repeated Vettriano mythos is that he taught himself by reproducing the works of the greats.
“Let me correct you there. I didn’t set out to teach myself. I set out to please myself. And the way that an amateur artist can please himself is by copying. I took the view that anything or everything in art had already been done, and that there was nothing new that I could add to it. The best I could do would be to copy, but unknown to me, by copying, I was actually teaching myself.”
Most of all, he enjoyed painting the impressionists. They had what he describes as a looser, breezy style that was well-suited to the amateur painter who didn’t have the technique for precision. Monet’s “Poppy Fields”, a painting he can reproduce in his sleep, taught Vettriano, “a lot more than reading a book about art ever could because you’ve got to work out how he manages to make it just look so beautiful.” The key to unlocking that beauty is trial and error, and simply seeing what works.
And technique by technique, beauty by beauty, this is how Jack Vettriano learned to paint over eighteen years. He never set out to be self-taught, early in his career applying to the Edinburgh College of Art. His portfolio was rejected, and his impassioned request for an explanation of his rejection went unanswered. That being said, he’s alright with the way things turned out. Firstly, because of the success he found regardless of, and because of, his self-education.
But mostly because he knows now more than he did then. “I know that Edinburgh College of Art is no more than a masonic lodge for artists who don’t exhibit, and frankly, they don’t teach anyone to paint anymore. They don’t teach craft.”
Whatever they did teach, Vettriano didn’t need. He entered pieces into a local art competition, winning three years in a row. The validation was nice, but there was a problem: “I’m winning these competitions, but what I’m doing is actually copying. And I thought to myself, ‘I have to stop this.’”
The very reason that Vettriano began his art affair by copying was his belief that all of the original ideas were taken, so it drove him crazy to turn that ideology on its head and ask himself, “What can I do that’s not been done?” He visited various galleries looking for inspiration that wasn’t there. Instead, he found it cosmically tied to the work he’d been doing since he began to paint.
“I wish I could tell you that I said, “Eureka!” But one day, I thought, “Why don’t you paint the thing that you love most of all? Women.’” It was obvious enough. That first set of watercolors? Given to him by a woman. His first paintings? He gave them to women. It was only natural that he would tap into his wealth of knowledge and experience to finally speak with his own artistic voice.
After doing so well in the local competition, Vettriano created two originals and entered both into The Royal Scottish Academy’s Annual Exhibition. After a few years of rejection, both were accepted. And both sold on the first night.
Almost immediately, he received letters from three different galleries with approximately the same sentiment: “Who are you? We like your work. We haven’t heard of you.” Luckily, Vettriano was ready to get to work. “Christ, I had plenty of material! By this time, I was 39. I’d been sexually active since I was 14. I had been in a lot of difficult situations and I had had a lot of pleasure.”
Success in the group exhibitions led Vettriano to align himself solely with The Edinburgh Gallery, where he was asked to put on his first solo show, which was just as much of a hit. “I cannot describe the feeling of the opening night when every painting sold,” Vettriano reminisces. “You had to scrape me off the ceiling.”
Accolades aside, Vettriano is sure that context played a large part in his celebrity. “I wasn’t breaking any new ground, but this story was ‘This guy was an ex-miner who taught himself to paint.’ If I’d gone to art college, it would have been expected. But because I’d left school, gone down the pits, and hadn’t discovered painting until I was in my 20s, that was big news.”
But it wasn’t just the favorable critics who gave Vettriano’s star power a boost. “One critic told me, ‘This is nothing but soft porn.’ And I can tell you Central Edinburgh was gridlocked. Why? Because everybody wants to look at soft porn. Rather than make me go away, he made me more interesting.”
“I’ve seen more specialists than you’ve had hot dinners.”
There he is, the interesting man who won’t go away, 23 years later. Only now he’s posted up in a hospital bed, looking toward the future through the lens of a thousand specialists.
“I think that the only thing that’s really going to help is intensive physical therapy, spending at least two hours a day with a physical therapist because certain movements I can do okay, but there are certain movements that I cannot do.” Those movements, unfortunately for Vettriano and his fans, are the ones he uses to paint.
But he’s not without a plan: “I think that I’ll give myself until the end of this year [for] physical therapy, and I think I may hire a studio assistant because I won’t be the first artist that has done the tricky bits and has left the background to his assistants. I think it would also be beneficial for me to have company because I live alone and it’s not easy to cope with this kind of injury.”
And there it is. It’s not easy to cope. It’s terrifying, in fact. “I’m frightened to sit at my easel and try because, if it doesn’t work, I can tell you that I will sit there and cry because this is my life that we’re talking about.” Jack Vettriano admits all this, but he relents that any sappy compassion is unwanted and unneeded.
And you should listen to him. Why? Because this is his life we’re talking about. The life of a man who found a thing he loved, toiled to do it his way, and even now, in the face of his most formidable obstacle yet, is fighting to continue to do it.
So if you do have pity to spare, that’s good and well, but there are far more deserving recipients out there than Jack Vettriano. Perhaps someone who hasn’t yet found what Vettriano describes as “the very reason you feel you exist.”
Failing that, find someone who hasn’t spent nearly the entirety of their adult life living that reason, doing the thing they love, depicting the people they love even more.
And if you still have pity to spare, find someone who didn’t do it all themselves, working through external rejection and internal doubt to do what’s not been done. Because to paraphrase the man himself, if you don’t sweat and work and toil for it, it’s not f—— craft.