First Person: 'I painted Arabian leopards and cheetahs in the desert'
Julian Friers: The 57-year-old wildlife and portrait artist from Bangor is married to Jill and has three children, Rory (30), Ciara (28) and Ewen (24). He will run acrylic painting workshops and talk about his work in March as part of Creativity Month
I come from a very arty family – my father Ian, a wood sculptor, and my uncle, Rowel Friers, a political cartoonist for the Belfast Telegraph, were both members of the Royal Ulster Academy (RUA). There was always a link with the art world and I was never discouraged from it.
Something that has been important and career-defining is the work I've done in the Middle East. I've done some conservation painting, particularly in Morocco and Saudi Arabia. I got a phone call out of the blue on Boxing Day about 16 or 17 years ago from a conservation group in Morocco, funded by the Saudi Arabian Royal family. They asked me to do a few paintings of wild animals – birds particularly – so I had to go out there for a period of time, which was interesting. One thing led to another and eventually, I did a book – a big, lavish limited edition affair, which weighed about 11 kilos, I think!
I painted everything, particularly endangered species, like the Arabian leopard and cheetah. This was all north Saharan and out to the Arabian Peninsula, and also, in a wildlife reserve in Taif. It was a fantastic place. I suppose it was this visit which changed my mind about what a desert is. You could see for miles and there was nothing but shrubs. I'm still doing a bit of work out there.
Wildlife art has traditionally been seen as not really an art form, more like an illustration. One of the main things to me then at this point, with regards painting, is having been accepted as a member of the RUA, because that's an art organisation.
I'm interested in music as well. I've always played a bit – flute, mandolin and lately, a bit of fiddle. I'm actually in a little band with Rory and Ewen and a few friends called The Sons of Burlap – we play sort of traditional Irish/Eastern European music.
The whole music thing with the boys (Rory is in the band And So I Watch You From Afar and Ewen is a member of Axis Of) has really been great for Jill and me. There have been lots of proud moments over the years with that. Maybe one of the stand-out moments was the Solidarity Weekend in Belfast. It got all the local bands together to show the solidarity between musicians – something that had never really been done before. It was And So I Watch You From Afar who instigated the whole thing and there was just such a fantastic vibe to it. Most people think my music portraits came out of nowhere, but they've been going for a long time. I enjoy it – it's very different to wildlife because of the social side.
One of the things I always think about when I paint, is the smell of linseed oil and turpentine. It still takes me back to my very first set of oil paints, which my mum and dad bought me when I was 10 or 11 years old. It was this wee wooden box and when you flipped open the lid, there were a couple of wee brushes and a few tubes of paint and turpentine. I can't tell you how magical that was. The paints I'd had before were just poster paints at school and this was, to me, a professional set.
What that made me do was think that I have to paint a proper picture. I think that's where all the excitement of creating an image in paint started. Those smells are associated with it. Even now, though I use them every day, it's still so evocative. That was a pivotal moment for me early on.
I think if everybody could have that wee moment, they would be more interested in painting. I always assumed I was going to be an artist and it's only by very good luck and absolute naivety I've managed to pull it off."
e Julian Friers is Ireland's foremost wildlife artist, particularly of birds, but is now becoming known for his portraiture work
e His music portrait exhibition, Rhythm and Hues, launched at the London Street Gallery last autumn
e He was RUA president from 2009-2012
e He left art college during his first term and is subsequently a self-taught artist
e He designed the first Irish Duck stamp for an American conservation project
e Details of his upcoming workshops and talks in Limavady Library and Ormeau Road Library are at www.librariesni.org.uk/creativity-month