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Joe Scarborough A long career in oil

Everywhere you look in Joe Scarborough's work, little gatherings are occurring, discrete scenes of everyday life that capture a more meaningful whole.

One of Joe Scarborough's early artistic inspirations was coming out of the pit at Thorpe Hesley Colliery after work and being hit by the vivid colours of the Earl of Wentworth's estate.

These days the Sheffield artist talks about the people in his work as actors, directed by thick strokes of oil paint. Everywhere you look in Joe's work, little gatherings are occurring, discrete scenes of everyday life that capture a more meaningful whole.

Due to happy coincidence, when we approached Joe about featuring in Now Then he was finishing off a commissioned painting of Portland Works, where our company office is. With stars aligned, we sat down with Joe to get more of an insight into his artistic career so far - and what's still to come.

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I understand you had a 'fairy godmother' called Cyril Caplin when you were young, who offered you £35 a week for two years to paint. Tell us about that.

You had to turn a piece of work out each week and you would go about this in a very logical way: what can I do in a week? 20 by 24 [inches]. What does 20 by 24 do? It fits any council house chimney breast. So with that mantra you have in front of you, you knock off a 20 by 24 per week. Because at the end of the day bills have to be paid on time. My wife, Audrey, and I were terrified of debt, so we had to literally turn [them] out.

You work on that principle, which is 90% commerce, 9% art, 1% ego. And if you haven't got that 1%, it's bloody hard work. It really, really is. So you must sell the work, but at the same time of course you must sell yourself.

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What were your early subjects?

Obviously you take lessons from your father, who was a very, very strong socialist, so you bring those ideologies to the work; I am going to be the presenter of working class culture, because we are downtrodden, and I am going to make people proud of themselves. It's an arrogance born out of a desire to be somebody. Because when you're 21 you're a nobody.

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When did your style start to cement itself?

I discovered Norman Wilkinson, who's the greatest maritime painter of posters in the world. Slowly but surely, I was thinking, 'I could do a sky like his', and then, 'I could do figures like his'.

Living in Pitsmoor, you can forget the street names - if you went past a poster, you knew you'd only two corners to go round and you were home. You know, 'Bovril Prevents That Sinking Feeling', and all that. People love reading paintings and you'll find in my work a lot of letters.

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What were your first impressions of Portland Works, in terms of how you would capture it in your commission?

The first impressions on walking down there is there are far too many windows; I'm going to have to cut those down. There's far too much brick; I'm going to have to be very clever how I use red. Then you have a walk round and of course it's dirty, it's industrial, which is meat and drink to a painter.

The work itself has an encompassing sort of a feel about it. Portland Works wraps its arms around you, because of its size and structure.

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Why do you work on a larger scale these days?

The size is because you can get a good play in there. You can get acts, you can get different plays, you can suggest something is going to happen. You don't always see everything and you mustn't see everything. If you paint 30 by 40, your imagination should take it to 80 by 60.

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After many years doing it you still seem really excited by painting, and what the next piece will look like.

The next one is always going to be stunning. Which actually is followed by the next one, which is going to be stunning. The ultimate one will be when I fall off my chair. Get that one - that'll be a good one.

Learn more

Joe's commission will be unveiled at the next Portland Works open day, Saturday 11 May 2019, 11am to 4pm, alongside a limited edition of 200 signed prints for sale on the day and via portlandworks.co.uk.

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