Words: Jeff Williams with Mike Kennedy
Jeff Williams has been a professional artist for over 40 years, painting many of today’s iconic stars, from the world of entertainment and sport, raising thousands of pounds for charity in the process.
We recently caught up with him at his home in Porthcawl to find out when it began.
“Like many others, my early years were very simple but filled with the most amazing memories: Dad cut my hair at 4 years of age, sent me to school with a skinhead and henceforth I became known as ‘Skin’!
“At Christmas and on birthdays I would get new pencils, pens, crayons and colouring books, and my earliest memories are about discovering bright colours and scribbling away to my heart’s content.
“My mum would nurture me and gently guide me to stay between the lines and even now I smile because I feel the warmth and the discovery of colour landing on paper in those moments. But it was watching cartoons that brought animation to life and made it all exciting.
“I remember clearly drawing and practicing for hours on end, convinced that one day in the future, alongside Richard and Antony my drawing buddies, we would one day launch our own comic strip, we must have been six, maybe seven.”
“At school, the art teacher, Mrs. Davies would teach about the fundamentals of primary colours and how mixing them could offer us a rainbow pallet, but it was my sister’s influence that I remember ignited a passion in me like nothing else. She was nine years older than me so she had refined her skills.
“I remember gazing at her, completely transfixed, she would draw with such flair and finesse, her skill with a pencil was and still is something to behold. One day she drew a fallow deer which I thought was going to walk off the page and by comparison my marks were laboured and nowhere near as precise as her so there and then I was hooked.
“One day, maybe one day, I would be able to lay an image on paper or canvas that forced people to stop, stare, reach out and touch the surface. Locally I started to do portraits of dogs, cats and pigeons, and was excited to learn that people were happy to pay me, but all the time knowing they were rubbish by comparison to what my sister could create.
“Without knowing this was the perfect driver, I had no idea that age and practice would help me improve, for now she was just simply better than me, and my fragile young ego did not like it. Slowly that competitive edge diffused as I started to appreciate all forms of art and came to the realisation that art, true art, allows all of us to represent things just as we see them, without any need for external validation, we all see things differently and that’s okay.
“I believe, Jeff AKA ‘Skin’ to be a remarkable talent producing spectacular works of art that is quintessential candy for the eyes.” Stephen Morris, CEO, MADCAP Global Entertainment
“At comprehensive school I stuck lucky once again. The art department run by Elaine Paisley and Pam Griffiths had some extremely gifted young students, and I had the opportunity to hang out with them and paint alongside them every day. If I had really known what a blessing this was, I am sure I would have paid even more attention.
“Johnathon Llewellyn, Arfon Davies, William Toye, Roy Kenyon, were all creating fantastic work. All with different styles and different ideas but all trying to create that perfect piece that told its own story, a piece that was just admired for what it was and required nobody to judge it.
“Just like all endeavours we cannot underestimate the impact of those around us and the influence they have upon us. Although art was my passion and little else interested me in school, in the short term it was not going to be my career.
“To pursue art, gain a place in the sixth form and then go onto university, I was required to study. I had already discovered rugby, snooker, and girls in that order, so this was not going to happen.”
“NOT BAD…just kidding, I love it!” – Rod Stewart
“My dad secured me a position as an apprentice electrician for Crown House Engineering in the steel works, and at the tender age of 16 I walked into the gigantic Port Talbot Steel Works. Although grateful for the job, I would spend many breaks and lunchtimes, looking around at the bleak and dangerous conditions, wondering could I ever make it as a full-time artist.
“Despite the dark reference above, the truth is they were also fantastic times where I met so many wonderful characters, all of which wanted me to draw them at work, so it wasn’t all bad.
“Without realising it I was being paid to do life studies and refine my skills, that’s of course as long as my dad who was the general foreman did not catch me with a pencil instead of a screwdriver in my hand.
“Teenage years predictably were filled with music, rugby and the discovery of alcohol. My heart was broken on a few occasions, I am not quite sure if it was the match result or the girls that refused my offer to be painted but my mind was stretching all the time”
“These were just fun wild times of discovery, beating the living daylights out of ourselves on the rugby field, washing away the pain with a few beers and telling great tales of heroic moments both lived and witnessed. During all of these experiences, wherever I was, I always used to catch myself having a freeze frame “Matrix” moment, as life continued around me, I would envisage everything in front of me as it would sit on a canvas.
“All the gentle half tones on people’s faces in a dimly lit, smoky pub, a bright red knitted bobble hat on a young child as she skipped down a charcoal grey street, the rain-soaked lanes reflecting the street lights on the late night walk home from one more doorstep goodbye. Each moment stored as a romantic catalogue of paintings I promised myself I would one day paint.
“I have always loved people, the amazing array of personalities in my town made that easy and to this day completely fascinates me. Young or old I am just drawn in by the human spirit. I love how it pours out of some of the more effervescent characters, how some gently let their warmth slowly penetrate you as they tentatively get to know you, and then, how some can chill you to the bone with just a glance that says don’t come near me, it all adds to the wonderful tapestry of the human race.
“As the years passed, I played more and more rugby but in my spare time through lots of trial and error I eventually became a reasonably competent artist. At work the writing was on the wall, redundancies were coming, so I even started to study. And although I was a terrible electrician, I went on to gain distinctions in many exams and ended up working in a great job in Birmingham as a fully qualified lighting design engineer.
“And then a bombshell landed – on a rugby tour to Jersey with my hometown side of Taibach Rugby Club, for some godforsaken reason I decided to open the emergency exit and tap dance on the wing of the plane… while it was taxiing down the runway. The incident did not go unnoticed, and I was arrested by the police and thrown in jail.”
“After a short spell in a jail that resembled the dungeons in ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’, I got bailed, and emerged to see myself on every TV channel on the island. When we all eventually made it home, by boat, my new pet name ‘Wing Walker’ was born. To this day I hide little images of planes in my paintings as homage to that life defining moment. Whilst the wing walking is fun and for some an amazing story, the journey that it sent me on was truly life changing.
“At home I had made every newspaper and was banned for life from playing for any clubs under the Welsh Rugby Union. Fortunately for me, Pontrhydyfen, another fantastic local club, were licensed under the Junior Union, so I was able to play for them, and it was here I made a great friend, Gareth Jenkins, who suggested I could go play and coach in Canada.
“It was 1985, these were the Thatcher years and employment was hard to come by locally, I was living in Birmingham five days a week, so I only had a life at the weekends. Although I had met Deb who went on to be the love of my life, these were early days in our relationship, so I decided to quit my job and go for it.
“Over the next few years, I played and painted commissions in Canada, USA, Hawaii, Fiji, Australia, and New Zealand. In Canada, Todd, one of the guys in the team, worked for the government and landed me a huge commission to paint the superstar of the time, ice hockey player Wayne Gretzky.
“The commission was 55 foot long and 6 foot high, to this day it’s the biggest I have ever done but probably the reason I am happiest when working on large paintings. That one summer working as a rugby coach and full-time artist was all it took to start on a new path.
“The Gretzky commission led to many more others culminating in a series of five paintings of Greg Norman for golf courses in Australia. Rugby league, tennis, golf all provided me with some amazing subjects.
“Debbie and I had a long-distance relationship that summer, just like the movie ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’, which eventually led to her catching up with me in Australia and we have been together ever since. We have travelled through and lived in Bali, Sumatra, Malaysia, Thailand, China, Russia, Eastern and Southern Europe but ultimately came home to Wales.
“The turning point. While visiting New Zealand, Debbie and I were involved in a fatal bus accident. The bus we were travelling in rolled off the side of the mountain and somersaulted six times to the bottom of a river valley. There were 36 in the bus at the top and 6 in the bus at the bottom. My friend was killed. I spent the next two weeks in intensive care and the next month learning to walk again. I made myself a quiet promise… If I live, I am gonna make sure it’s a great life with no stone unturned.
“Fast forward 40 years and today, we live in Porthcawl by the beach, our children are both fantastic artists, speak multiple languages and I am very grateful to have collectors in every single corner of the world.
“It’s fair to say I have studied art from many corners of the world where traditional techniques and colours are happily thrown out the window. Bright vibrant colours, coupled with constantly changing styles from my travels make every studio day interesting and there is no finer feeling than making the very first mark on a canvas and taking your first few steps into the unknown.
“Will this be a disaster, or will this be the best painting you have ever created? I have no idea. The excitement I feel each time is hard to convey, but I assure you, if it drives me back into the studio day after day…it keeps me off the aeroplane wings.
“The subjects come from all sorts of random conversations, moments, feelings, experiences, there is nothing structured about it, I just go with what feels right at that moment. I am currently painting rap stars from the NWA movement in America and loving it. Six months ago I had no idea about the whole ‘Straight Out Of Compton’ story but now I love it.
“Yesterday we watched the ‘Perfect Planet’ movie and Debbie sat there crying completely moved by the experience, as she wiped her tears she told me I have to paint David Attenborough and make a difference to his charities, that’s how randomly an idea can arrive, and with respect to the various people and charities I support it’s pretty simple; as an artist it’s the most natural feeling in the world to produce paintings for causes you believe in.
“I am very grateful my art raises funds for all sorts of people which allows me to truly leave a legacy of making a difference, and that helps drive me to create more and more. In just the last twelve months I have delivered work to Tiger Woods, Lord Botham, Sir Rod Stewart, Gareth Bale, Kelly Jones and many more celebrities who all help me raise significant amounts of money for a wide variety of charities.
“The truth is I have spent my life doing commissions and selling paintings for money, which I needed at the time. Thankfully, those days are now long gone, so it’s nice to be able to hold onto a number of paintings in preparation for future exhibitions, but due to the lockdown, we have had to postpone many exhibitions and auctions,
“But I am sure that will change soon, and most recently Banksy mania has arrived in Taibach with his fantastic painting called ‘Seasons Greetings’. This has taken me on a fascinating new path of discovery so watch his space because in the next few months I have some exciting new pieces in production.”
Visit the SKINS Art website for more of Jeff’s incredible work.